How do we know what to believe?
Upon coming to office in 2012, the Christie administration immediately borrowed $504 million, blaming the Free National Movement (FNM) government for mismanagement of public funds and pointing to the over-budget New Providence Road Improvement Project (NPRIP) for the country’s “fiscal deterioration” during the previous five years.
Its borrowing binge continued over its entire term.
It also collected $1.14 billion in value-added tax (VAT) in the first two years of the new tax, but struggled to adequately account for how it was used. This led to widespread corruption claims and rapid erosion of trust.
The PLP left office with many pledges unfulfilled, claiming it had to reorder priorities given the dire fiscal situation it met upon assuming office.
In 2017, the Minnis administration came to power with a familiar refrain: We did not know things were as bad as they are.
The government declared that the Christie administration had left the cupboard bare. It immediately borrowed more than $722 million and the borrowing has not stopped since.
As the crew in office before them did, the current ministers have blamed unforeseen debts they met in office and uncontrolled circumstances like hurricanes for a derailment of key pledges made while campaigning.
When the electorate is fed up with the government of the day, it could easily be swayed by pie-in-the-sky commitments made by politicians in opposition who would say just about anything to get elected.
But can we hold them to their pledges?
How much leeway should they be allowed in abandoning commitments because the administration before them left whopping and unexpected debts?
These are questions we put recently to Jeff Lloyd, the minister of education, who while in opposition was pretty confident that a Minnis administration would immediately upon coming to office move to put in place certain electoral reforms and other measures designed to make government more transparent, efficient and decentralized.
In the lead up to the election, Lloyd the candidate, declared in a Facebook post: “Let me be as clear as the day is bright. There are six COMMITMENTS that the next Free National Movement government will enact or cause to be as soon as it assumes power in a few weeks.”
He then listed them:
1. Fixed election dates;
2. Constitutional referendum on a two-term limit for the prime minister;
3. Constitutional referendum to enshrine an independent Boundaries Commission;
4. Introduction of meaningful, authoritative local government on New Providence, and an expansion and strengthening of local government on the Family Islands;
5. Creation of tax-free zones for micro to medium-sized businesses in the inner city;
6. The establishment of an Anti-Corruption Commission, headed by a corruption tsar with independent legal authority to pursue and prosecute violators wherever and however necessary.
Lloyd was not making those pledges on his own.
It was a repeat of what the FNM promised and what it was stating repeatedly while trying to convince voters to turn their backs on the PLP.
After Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis declared in January 2020 that the Free National Movement’s reelection campaign has started, Lloyd’s post made the rounds again on social media as it is a strong example of the Minnis administration’s failure to date to fulfill certain hallmark pledges.
Nearly three years after Lloyd made his declaration about what would be done as a matter of priority by an FNM administration, only one of those commitments has thus far been fulfilled, and it is perhaps only partially fulfilled as only one tax-free zone has been created so far.
In a recent progress report, the Office of the Prime Minister said $1 million in concessions has been provided in the economic empowerment zone in the Over-the-Hill area of New Providence.
As part of the Over-the-Hill rejuvenation, the report also stated 14,000 tons of waste and 312 derelict vehicles were removed.
The prime minister has pledged to expand the zone to other inner-city areas.
The other commitments on Lloyd’s list are not priority items for the Minnis administration, though they were repeated ad nauseam in the lead up to the 2017 general election.
Speaking to National Review, Lloyd said the government has had to shift priorities based on what is most urgent for the country.
“If you refer to the commitments of the Free National Movement in its manifesto, these are still fundamentally the intentions of the government,” he said.
“However, upon coming to office, and realizing the depth of the financial disaster that we were confronted with, a country that was teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the only attention that we could give to the national affairs of this land was to rescue firstly our country from this impending doom and seek to restore its financial condition to a state of acceptable health which occupied every conceivable moment, attention and energy of the new government and it was so disastrous that — as the minister of finance has recently stated in his statements in the House of Assembly — even to this day after coming to office, we are still met with revelations of financial commitments that we did not know about,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd said that as recently as last week, a contractor came to his office seeking payment to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars for work done by his company in a Ministry of Education school in 2015 which no one in the ministry knows anything about.
Given that more than half the term is gone and there is no expectation that any referendum will happen in the final half of the term, we asked Lloyd whether he still expects the FNM administration to honor these commitments.
“I cannot speak to the agenda of the government except that which has been expressed in the public domain,” he said.
“You know, for instance, that we have immediately upon coming to office instituted a study of the possibility of and how local government could be established in New Providence and how it could be further strengthened in the Family Islands, but as has become quite apparent, it is an arduous undertaking which requires extensive and time-consuming consultation with all stakeholders, certainly the citizens of the respective jurisdictions, most particularly in New Providence and that is very time consuming and it certainly cannot be completed in the two-and-a-half, almost three years that we have in office.”
In recent weeks, we have written extensively in this space about the report of the committee on local government for New Providence that reported to Minister of Local Government Renward Wells nearly a year ago.
The report remains shelved and Wells has publicly stated that the proposal for local government presented by the committee would place too much power in the hands of mayors, who would oversee the various districts.
The plan now appears dead in the water.
Lloyd acknowledged in his chat with National Review that there will not likely be any referenda this term though nearly every rally speech of FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis contained the pledges of a term limit, a fixed election date, an independent boundaries commission and a system of recall for MPs.
“With respect to the constitutional referendum, again, as I said, while these remain objectives — they have been clearly stated in the manifesto of the FNM — it is the near exclusive focus of this government to bring forth the social and economic health this society demands and it deserves and which has been compounded by the now recent devastation visited upon us by Hurricane Dorian, which has significantly impacted and altered the trajectory of our economic revitalization implementation.”
He noted, “We suffered a bitch blow.”
So, should we take politicians literally when they, like Lloyd in opposition, commit to immediately doing certain things?
“Yes, of course we can, and you should,” Lloyd told National Review, “because any political organization has to bring an agenda to the Bahamian people, or to a population, as to its plans once elected. On what other basis besides if the party has been in office before and has demonstrated a certain level of proficiency and capability, would you be able to adjudge whether that organization is capable of providing the quality of governance that a society needs?”
Lloyd pointed to a promise the FNM did keep and that is introducing and passing the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, which is key in the Minnis administration’s efforts to rein in government spending it claims grew wildly out of control under the previous Christie administration.
“No longer will a government now ever, succeeding this government whenever it is, can come to the Bahamian people and claim that they do not know the financial affairs of this country, because the Fiscal Responsibility Act, a genius enactment, a transformational piece of legislation, a gutsy move by this administration, now lays before the Bahamian people and the Parliament of The Bahamas exactly the state of affairs as to where we are and has to make that revelation public,” he said.
“…We could never have known that on day one there were left over $300 million of unpaid bills, a deficit to the extent that we met, a declining economic performance to the degree that it was and yet even after that, still coming to have to confront more bills that were left unpaid, some going back years.”
Many voters found the FNM’s electoral reform commitments and the commitment to put in place a strong anti-corruption regime appealing, but the Integrity Commission Bill, which was tabled in Parliament in October 2017, received no attention.
We again pressed Lloyd on whether these pledges will be fulfilled this term.
“I can’t say. I cannot say,” he responded.
“I can only say that this administration has been working and is working ungodly hours…in order to provide the best possible governance for this country.
“It is incalculable the challenges that face this land and again, as I say, compounded by the visits of hurricanes when we came to office in 2017 devastating Ragged Island and now two years later the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco.
“…Yes, these objectives are quite noble and still intended, but I cannot tell you whether that will be possible over the next two years because this country [exists] in an environment that is globally competitive with challenges not of our own making, whether it’s climate change or now today the coronavirus, and the responses need to be not only efficient but proactive…[we] are enormously challenged.”
The minister said while some commitments are not yet met, many others were fulfilled. He pointed to universal preschool education and the government’s efforts to increase Bahamians’ access to tertiary education.
In its progress report, the Office of the Prime Minister also points to the New Providence landfill contract, among other achievements.