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In urgent need of a reset 

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis (center, front) and members of Parliament head to the House of Assembly in May 2019. FILE

In a recent Facebook post, one Bahamian opined, “Arrogance and ignorance will be the downfall of this administration.”

We begin there because it is a simple yet profound statement, which the current administration — if they could humble themselves but for a brief moment — should ponder, and use as motivation to change course before the victory train, which the prime minister recently declared has left the station, ends up being an unfortunate train wreck.

They had better move fast; it is already a runaway train on a rickety railway track that could be derailed in a political wilderness.

The engaged citizen who made the post did so after a clip from an interview Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis gave upon his recent return from a CARICOM meeting in Barbados made the rounds on social media.

When he was on the opposite side of the tracks, Minnis set the tone by condemning the Christie administration for “extravagant travel”.

But on Thursday, he got defensive and snappy when a reporter asked him about controversial increases for travel perks for ministers and their spouses which were first reported on by Perspective in The Nassau Guardian on January 20.

“That was a matter that was discussed over a year ago,” Minnis said.

“But, you would note that even though that was done a year ago, you check the records and you’ll find that I don’t think one Cabinet minister’s spouse has taken advantage of that and you’ll find, in most instances, Cabinet ministers travel by themselves.

“Not only that, but what you don’t know is that on many occasions, Cabinet ministers, including myself, travel with insufficient funds.

“I used my own credit card to pay the government’s bills. That happens regularly. So, we always have to travel with our own cash and our own credit card.

“In fact, I was placed in an embarrassing situation as prime minister of the country when I traveled to Brussels only to discover that they did not accept cash. They did not accept swipe card.

“You needed a chip. I had to borrow a card from someone else to pay a bill.

“We had an ambassador caught in the same situation, could not pay a bill, and it was to a point where the ambassador was in a compromised position. I was about to call Jamaica for assistance to pay our bill.

“And you worrying about $100? Next question.”

The response was not the prime minister’s finest. He employed a non sequitur for classic deflection.

There are several observations on this matter.

Firstly, it was clearly not Cabinet’s intention for the new policy on increased travel perks to be made public.

That policy increases the number of annual trips for ministers’ spouses and affords them a $100 per diem.

The $100 per diem for spouses is equivalent to the per diem paid to technical officers in the public service.

The policy also increases ministers’ per diem for domestic travel from $80 to $100 and increases per diem for international travel from $150 to $250.

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.

Additionally, a special pre-paid debit card will be issued to ministers for use on all official trips.

It really is irrelevant whether any ministers’ spouse has yet taken advantage of the extra perks.

In any event, making the point that the perks were instituted a year ago only highlights the government’s intentions to keep the policy position secret.

In his statement, the prime minister revealed how poorly organized his team was for his Brussels trip. That no one ensured the prime minister knew how to pay for goods and services in Europe is an indictment on the organizers. We hope his annoyance was directed toward the right people and not just reserved for the media.

His having to almost go to Jamaica to bail the ambassador out has nothing to do with the price of tea in China.

And no one we know is suggesting that the nation’s leader travels like a pauper or beneath the standards befitting someone in the office he holds.

The decision to raise the perks for ministers has gotten the kind of strong public reaction it received because that decision came at a time when the government was telling citizens to tighten their belts, to cut back and to stomach higher taxes because the cupboard is bare.

Bahamians have seen their purchasing power diminish with no relief in sight.

When respondents of Central Bank’s Financial Literacy Survey 2018 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.

It’s easy to see why many would get perturbed by the prime minister’s defensive attitude.

And again, it was Opposition Leader Minnis who made expenditure on travel a big issue. It was PM Minnis who promised to make public reports on expenditure for ministers’ travel but has yet to do so.

The $100 comment

To be so dismissive of $100 was the part of the prime minister’s response that most showed him to be arrogant and out of touch with average Bahamians.

That same Facebook user we referenced — Ann Marie — again said it best on this point:

“One hundred dollars could mean the difference between life or death for those in need of medicine. It could mean the difference between starving or feeding your family for a week. One hundred dollars a day for a week-long trip for you could mean two weeks’ salary for many,” she wrote in an open statement to Minnis that was shared over 500 times from her page, and then re-shared countless other times.

“You were embarrassed because your card didn’t work in Brussels; think about how embarrassed that pensioner or single mother is every week at the grocery store when they have to put things back because they can’t afford it.

“We have been told to catch water in a tin tub and let the sun heat it to bathe, to not travel or wear expensive clothes in order to pay bills. We have been asked to cut back, to conserve, to do without because we are on the brink of fiscal collapse, but to suck it up and not question your choices with our money. That is all well and good, but remember it when your $100 comment means the difference between a second term or watching from the sidelines.”

After clawing himself out of the mess that ensnared the Free National Movement (FNM) in opposition and rising to a spectacular victory, Minnis clearly saw the win as the strongest sign of the Bahamian people’s admiration and love for him and his ability.

It was not.

The near obliteration of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in 2017 translated into a significant amount of goodwill for Minnis and his team.

We do not doubt that the intentions of many in government today are well meaning — including our prime minister — but they continue to struggle to patch together a good week.

Voters have repeatedly demonstrated their disapproval of arrogant politicians who talk down to the people, are rude to the media and presumptuous enough to think the dislike for or deficiencies of their opponents give them the edge moving toward another election.

Minnis and his ministers repeatedly demonstrate that they are out of touch with the people.

An anti-FNM sentiment appears to be building.

Another Facebook user captured it in a recent post: “I somewhat see why people are saying they are not voting in the next election.

“You really don’t want to vote for the other guys, but then you don’t wanna vote for these guys either! What a (expletive) conundrum! I’m swiftly losing my patriotism. All we get [are] high taxes, bad roads, disrespectful law enforcement, selfish and non transparent politicians, high crime, dirty streets, dumb schools, (expletive) healthcare, overflowing illegal immigrants, illegal poachers!”

We made the point to the author of this post that we must keep fighting for our country, and that the people must take personal responsibility in addressing these issues, but we get his point and we feel his frustration.

Many Bahamians are tired of spinning wheels every five years, but many are anxious to punish those who become tone deaf, who fail to keep promises, who abuse power and who become so high and mighty that they stray from a demonstrated commitment to the principles they espoused in opposition.

This constant reset keeps us from more meaningful progress, but without a reset of its own, the Minnis administration could be nearing a wind down.

In our years following Bahamian politics, we have never seen another administration so rapidly deplete its political capital.

While the alternative does not now appear palatable, the FNM’s declining stock could ultimately tip the scales in the PLP’s favor.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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