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The FNM two years in

Today marks 730 days since the Free National Movement (FNM) took office on May 10, 2017.

That election win was the culmination of a long campaign against the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

The FNM’s campaign touched on a number of issues, most notably battling corruption and expanding transparency and accountability in government.

While the Minnis administration has undoubtedly seen a number of successes, it has faltered at times.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis and his Cabinet have touted several major accomplishments since it took office, including a reduction in crime, an increase in tourist visitors via air arrivals, its focus on spurring growth in Grand Bahama and reducing the deficit.

Crime

Among the government’s most notable successes are visible improvements in the murder rate, as well as increased use of technology in law enforcement.

The 2018 murder count was the lowest The Bahamas has seen in nine years, with a 26 percent decrease compared to 2017.

Minnis has said that the reduction in crime is one of the government’s biggest achievements. 

Tourism growth

The Bahamas saw a historic number of tourist arrivals in 2018. The growth in the industry drove overall economic growth in the country.

The data presented showed that 6.6 million tourists visited the country last year, an increase of 7.9 percent compared to the 2017 numbers.

Air arrivals increased overall by 16.7 percent over 2017, a statistic that Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar was especially impressed by, given that stopover tourists generally spend significantly more than those who arrive on cruise ships.

While certainly an accomplishment, the FNM’s promises included reducing the economy’s dependence on tourism and finance, a goal that is called into question by continued reliance on the tourism industry to drive economic growth.

On Sunday, Minnis said the tourism growth is “phenomenal”.

“With new ports slated for New Providence and Grand Bahama, there will be even more jobs, both in construction and long-term after the completion of these mega projects,” he boasted.

“The transformation of the city of Nassau and downtown is gathering pace. Fort Charlotte and its environs will be turned into a central park and cultural area. For the first time in decades, the restoration and revitalization of Grand Bahama is on the way.”

Fiscal responsibility

The Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was passed last September in the House of Assembly, was a major election promise.

It seeks to drive down fiscal deficits to meet the government’s stated target of 50 percent debt-to-GDP over the long term.

It also provides for the creation of an independent five-member fiscal responsibility council of members of civil society and with specific areas of expertise in law, business, economics, accounting and finance, which would review a fiscal strategy report before it goes to Parliament.

Landfill

Minnis also pledged to address the longstanding issue of the New Providence Landfill.

Earlier this year, the government signed an agreement with the New Providence Ecology Park (NPEP) for the multi-phased redevelopment of the site.

NPEP took over operation of the landfill last month.

According to NPEP Chairman Kenwood Kerr, the landfill will be converted into “a purposefully engineered landfill and material recovery facility” featuring a park, he said.

Although beginning the process to redevelop the landfill is a big step and an accomplishment, it is yet to be seen for certain whether or not the deal will solve the numerous issues at the dump.

Deficit reduction

The “Nine Months Consolidated Fiscal Snapshot and Report on Budgetary Performance” released last week showed that the government reduced the deficit by more than $130 million in the first nine months of the fiscal year compared to the same fiscal period last year, a 51 percent improvement.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act set a target of a deficit of 1.8 percent for the 2018/2019 fiscal year.

Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said he believes the government will meet that target.

However, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report released in April predicted that the target will not be met.

The IMF said that the fiscal deficit is expected to narrow to 2.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and will miss the 1.8 percent target.

Shadow Minister of Finance Chester Cooper has also raised concerns over the government’s ability to meet its targets.

Whether the government meets or slightly misses its target, any notable deficit reduction would be a significant step towards the Minnis administration’s election promise of fiscal responsibility.

Promises on the back burner

The FNM isn’t halfway through its five-year-term and cannot be expected to have accomplished all of its goals and delivered on all its promises. However, its lack of transparent timelines for numerous key promises has raised concern among the public and watchdog organizations.

Having campaigned on a platform of transparency and anti-corruption, the full enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was among the administration’s more important promises to the public.

A revamped version of the FOIA was passed under the Christie administration in February 2017 and there have long been calls for it to be fully enacted.

The whistleblower provision of FOIA came into force on March 1.

Two years into governance, Attorney General Carl Bethel has indicated that an optimistic timeline for the full enactment would be by the summer of 2020.

The Integrity Commission Bill was also meant to be at the foundation of the FNM’s promise to fight corruption.

It is meant to provide a framework that would better regulate and deal strongly with corruption in public life.

The proposed legislation comprehensively details acts of corruption, including the behavior of public officials with respect to the award of contracts and soliciting or accepting any personal benefit or providing an advantage for another person by doing an act or omitting to do an act in the performance of his or her functions as a public official.

In addition to establishing the Integrity Commission, the bill proposes to promote and enhance ethical conduct for MPs, senators and other public officials.

The bill was tabled in October 2017, and has not advanced since.

The inaction resulted in Transparency International’s decision to list The Bahamas as a country that remained “stagnant” in its anti-corruption efforts.

During his campaign, Minnis repeatedly promised to introduce legislation to limit the tenure of the prime minister to two terms, whether consecutive or not.

When asked about the matter in November, Minnis said that term limit and fixed election date bills would “definitely” come before the end of the year, which also did not happen.

It is still unclear when the government expects to table legislation paving the way for a referendum to address term limits and a fixed election date.

Bethel said in January the government was readying its draft campaign finance bill for public consultation, with detailed revisions expected to begin the following week.

On the 2017 election campaign trail, Minnis promised that, if elected, his government would bring legislation to regulate campaign financing.

The prime minister has said the legislation will be implemented before the end of this term.

However, there has been no movement on the matter since then, and a timeline for when the bill could be tabled remains uncertain.

Grand Bahama

The government has announced two major projects for Grand Bahama: the redevelopment of the Grand Lucayan property and the development of a Carnival Cruise Lines port.

The government has said it hopes to turn the island into a tech hub. However, things have been a bit slower on that front.

While positive, it is uncertain how these developments will play out, as major work has yet to begin on either.

Moreover, progress in Grand Bahama has been primarily in the tourism sector, again raising questions over the government’s commitment to diversifying the Bahamian economy.

Ragged Island

There has also been very little movement on the restoration of Ragged Island.

September will make two years since Hurricane Irma devastated Ragged Island. There is still no government school, post office, administrator’s office, police station or clinic on the island.

Last Friday, Minister of Works Desmond Bannister said Cabinet had approved the investment in renewable energy in Ragged Island and promised residents would soon see action on that matter.

It remains unclear how long that will take.

Energy reform

Though Minnis promised energy reform and a focus on renewables, the government’s actions have trended in the opposite direction, having increased investments in fossil fuels for power generation on New Providence, where the large majority of electricity consumers reside.

Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) is expected to introduce liquefied natural gas (LNG) to its fuel mixture by 2021, BPL Executive Chairman Patrick Rollins said last month. Until then, the corporation will use heavy fuel oil (HFO) to power its seven new Wartsila engines, which arrived this week, in order to keep fuel costs down until LNG can be implemented.

Though LNG is a cleaner fuel, it’s a far cry from promises of renewable energy, and has led many to question the reasons behind the decision, especially given the country’s year-round reliable supply of sunshine.

VAT collections

In July last year, the government announced an increase in the value-added tax (VAT) rate, from 7.5 percent to 12 percent. The move was met with outrage from the public and businesses, with many insisting that the tax increase would risk a decrease in consumer spending, and slow down the economy.

Nine months into the 2018-2019 budget year, the government revealed that it had collected only 55.6 percent of what it had budgeted for annual VAT collections, with $470 million of the projected collections still outstanding.

 Oban

Over a year after the government held a ceremonial signing for the $5.5 billion Oban Energies deal, it is unclear where the proposed project is headed following months of controversy.

The project is for an oil refinery and storage facility in East Grand Bahama.

One of the major points of contention was that the government signed the heads of agreement without an environmental impact assessment (EIA) in place.

The heads of agreement with Oban stated that the government does not have an option to kill the deal based on anything the EIA concludes, but must work with Oban to address any concerns raised by the study.

This led to outrage from environmentalists and the public.

Following weeks of being lambasted and a firestorm of headlines on the matter, Minnis admitted that the government made a series of missteps regarding the deal in its haste to boost the economy of Grand Bahama, and as a result ordered a subcommittee and technical advisory group to examine the agreement in hopes of renegotiation.

The government’s renegotiating team met with Oban’s principals in March, but it remains unclear what came of those negotiations.

Rachel Knowles

Staff Reporter at The Nassau Guardian
Rachel joined The Nassau Guardian in January 2019. Rachel covers national issues.
Education: Virginia in Charlottesville, BA in Foreign Affairs and Spanish
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