The wrong signals
In the belt-tightening environment we are currently in, the Cabinet’s decision to increase travel benefits for ministers and their spouses is yet another demonstration of a tone deaf government sending all the wrong signals.
The decision was quietly made by Cabinet last year, but was not made public until it was revealed by Perspective, a section published every Monday in The Nassau Guardian.
One would expect that ministers traveling to represent the people of The Bahamas are afforded certain benefits and are treated with the level of respect they deserve, but here’s why this is a bad look for the Minnis administration:
The government is digging deeper into the pockets of Bahamians, many of whom are buckling under the burden of a high cost of living. We are being told to hold our breaths and take it.
Lined up against the many declarations by the Free National Movement (FNM) about “extravagant” travel on the part of the Christie administration, the FNM’s lack of political savvy becomes deafening.
The new travel policy for ministers provides for $100 per day per diem for spouses; and an increase in ministerial per diem for domestic travel from $80 to $100 per day and from $150 to $250 for international travel.
If a minister travels on government business 40 days out of the year, his per diem goes from $6,000 to $10,000 for that period.
Additionally, ministers are to be afforded membership to the American Airlines (AA) Admiral’s Club, which enables access to its premium passenger lounges in airports around the world.
For airline travel, business class tickets are to be purchased for all trips less than 10 hours in duration per leg and first-class tickets are to be purchased for all trips 10 hours in duration per leg.
Additionally, a special pre-paid debit card will be issued to ministers to use on all official trips and paid spousal trips have been increased from once to twice per year.
What many Bahamians see when they look at this is a hypocritical group that is unwilling to make the kinds of sacrifices they demand of the public.
In 2017 when Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis gave notice in Parliament that MPs were set to get a raise in 2018, there was such outrage from the public that the government was forced to shelve the idea.
Could this be the reason why the decision on the increased benefits was not communicated to the public?
What other perks have been agreed to that the public does not know about?
There are numerous examples of the FNM in government changing its posture on various issues from its public statements when in opposition.
In America, there is a tweet for everything. In The Bahamas, there is a contradictory quote for everything.
This has many people feeling disappointed and disillusioned about the lack of sincerity on the part of political leaders.
A party that complained about extravagant spending on travel by those in government at the time, should not come to office and secretly grant its ministers and their spouses travel perks.
The FNM set and pushed the narrative that the former government was engaged in wasteful spending on luxurious travel.
In 2014, Dr. Hubert Minnis, at the time leader of the opposition, suggested that then Prime Minister Perry Christie and then Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Fred Mitchell were over spending on travel.
Minnis accused Christie of “extravagant” travel and said Christie had not kept his promise to release the details of his international travel expenses.
“The mid-year budget statement reveals that the Office of the Prime Minister has, in the first six months of this fiscal period, expended some 86 percent of its full 12-month allocation for travel after transferring an additional $170,000 into the item,” said Minnis during the mid-year budget debate in the House of Assembly.
Minnis said, “Mr. Speaker, I demand that the prime minister keeps his public pledge to provide an accounting for his extravagant international travel during which he treated an excessively large delegation to a tour of Rome and London. He promised to do so and to date he has neglected to do so. I call upon him to do so now. The people are waiting.”
The opposition leader also said days earlier: “This government has found it impossible to expend monies allocated and budgeted for the poor at a time when they are overspending on overseas travel and entertainment.”
Minnis continued that theme as the election neared.
He declared in April 2017 that the value-added tax (VAT) collected by the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) administration went toward “lavish travel through the world”.
Minnis said, “When the FNM comes in, you will know exactly where the money goes.”
He committed to fully reporting on his ministers’ travel expenses, noting that there would be nothing to hide.
Upon coming to office, the Minnis administration said only essential travel would be approved.
It also said it was looking into the travel expenses of government officials under the Christie administration with a view to providing a report on it.
“The administration now did not feel that there was enough accounting for the travels by the previous administration, or there was enough demonstration of the benefit of those travels,” said Anthony Newbold, who at the time was the prime minister’s press secretary.
“Prime Minister Minnis has mandated that anyone who travels on behalf of The Bahamas government, report on that travel.”
Newbold added, “I know that there are some people tallying up the cost of travel from the last administration and I’m sure Prime Minister Minnis will release that at the appropriate time.”
No such report ever came.
In May 2018, Newbold addressed the matter again, saying Minnis’ commitment to disclose ministers’ travel costs may not come before the end of the year (2018).
We now know it may not come before the end of the term either.
The Minnis administration, meanwhile, has increased its travel budget by $4 million.
Last month, the prime minister defended the move, calling it a “necessary increase”, nothing that the government needs to travel internationally in order to raise investment for the country following Hurricane Dorian.
Minnis and the FNM talked a good talk in opposition on this and other issues. In government, they see no problem in improving conditions for themselves while failing to follow through on important campaign pledges like eliminating VAT on medical care.
Instead, we are paying higher VAT — an early action of the Minnis administration — and we will have to pay higher power bills.
Many Bahamians are living to pay bills.
During debate on the government’s Rate Reduction Bond Bill in the House of Assembly in November, Minister of Financial Services, Trade and Industry and Immigration Elsworth Johnson said of Bahamians who owe the power company: “When you look at their passports, they’re traveling. When you look at the clothes that they wear, they are some of the most expensive. When you look at the way we arrange our finances, it leaves a lot to be desired.”
We are being constantly squeezed for more while some of our leaders suggest that we just need to figure out how to cut back to meet those demands.
And more demands are likely on the way.
The National Insurance Board (NIB) chairman has already spoken of the NIB Board’s expectation that the results of an actuarial review will recommend increased contribution rates to keep the fund viable.
In May 2018, the Central Bank of The Bahamas released the results of its Financial Literacy Survey.
When respondents were asked to reflect on the last 12 months and indicate whether their income was generally sufficient to make ends meet each month, 47 percent stated that their earnings were usually insufficient to cover their living expenses.
Things have gotten even worse for some.
It is against the backdrop of growing burdens — much of it placed on us by politicians who speak with forked tongues — that the travel perks ought to be viewed.
When we look at some of the decisions taken by the current administration, it is clear that they are out of touch with the mood of the population; they are so blinded by arrogance that they do not appreciate the damage they do to their already depleted goodwill.
It is as if they are fighting to lose.