Running out of time
A number of key legislative initiatives pledged by the Minnis administration upon coming to office appear to be out the window.
Prior to the twin crises of Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19, the government was already off course in fulfilling many important legislative promises it repeatedly made while in opposition.
An analysis last November by The Nassau Guardian’s Perspective, published every Monday and authored by Sharon Turner, found that of the 76 legislative and policy pledges made by the Minnis administration in its Speech from the Throne delivered in May 2017, 14 had been carried out up to that point.
The focus had been on legislation to shore up the financial services sector in response to threats from powerful international agencies, government officials have repeatedly noted.
Its attention is now focused on dealing with the most significant economic crisis to face the nation in recent memory.
It will be for the Bahamian people at the end of a now waning term to judge the administration based on what it has delivered — and what it has not.
While he has hinted at certain legislative pledges being unrealistic in the less than two years remaining, Attorney General Carl Bethel told National Review there’s always hope that certain promises will still be delivered this lap, and he said important bills are in the pipeline.
“We’ve lost more than half of a year already on this crisis, which is unfortunate because there are many, many things that we could have achieved legislatively, and I think that the case would have been stronger. Right now, we’re trying to get back on our feet legislatively,” he said.
The government’s legislative pledges included measures to put in place electoral reform.
It its Speech from the Throne, the Minnis administration committed to “with the consent of the electorate in a referendum, constitute an Independent Electoral Commission and Boundaries Commission, introduce term limits for prime ministers and introduce a system of recall for non-performing members of Parliament”.
It said, “The Office of Ombudsman will be created to provide a direct source of relief, where people have legitimate grievances due to the actions or inactions of government or any agency of the government.”
Asked whether it is realistic to expect such measures to become reality before 2022, the attorney general said, “The difficulty that you face is it would require in the significant ones a referendum and there’s no question that any referendum, no matter how positive, would be a source of political agitation.
“This is the problem, so you would not have the purity of people actually looking at the constitution and agreeing. Those who agree one day would disagree violently the next day, and so this is the problem.
“There’s a window for constitutional reform that is not open a year or more before an election.”
Why promise it, then?
Bethel said, “We had every intention of moving on these matters earlier in the term. I’m not saying we’re not going to do it. I’m just saying from experience, it has not been a rational process when you get to an election [period].
“The government might still decide to go ahead. The government hasn’t said ‘no’. It just means that the government hasn’t determined to go forward yet, but that doesn’t mean that it will not at some point decide to go forward.”
The attorney general said he still expects Parliament to pass a campaign finance bill ahead of the next election.
“I am working on that,” he noted.
“I had taken a copy of the version of the bill that was knocking around. The former government had done a draft and what I had sought to do was rationalize it. Certainly the issue of campaign finance reform is something that I have looked very carefully at and sent certain instructions to the drafts people.”
While he said it is still realistic to expect this bill this term, the attorney general added, “At the end of the day, campaign finance reform is not going to be too popular with the voters because if you want to have sensible campaign finance reform, you may have to limit the giveaways that people have grown accustomed to.
“When you’re bringing in campaign finance reform, the limitations on sources of funding is going to greatly make it impossible for parties to do a lot of freebies and the disclosure requirements are also going to be an inhibition.”
A law to put in place a system to recall MPs may have been a hot item in campaign speeches delivered by Free National Movement (FNM) Leader and now Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, but it has not had any focused attention in government.
Still, the attorney general was careful not to write it off.
He told us, “It is being reviewed and we’re looking to see what’s the best model for adaptation in The Bahamas because in some countries, I think it’s in Britain, their recall [system] is quite toothless, whereas in Canada, it’s a little more robust, so we have to determine which is the best model, but we have looked at it.”
Major legislative promises included anti-corruption legislation.
In October 2017, then Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson introduced a bill to establish an integrity commission to investigate parliamentarians suspected of corruption and a bill to establish the Office of the Ombudsman, which would be charged with investigating maladministration.
Those bills remain shelved.
But Bethel insisted the measures are not dead.
“Once a bill is tabled it’s always active because it can always be called up at a moment’s notice,” he said.
“There are some amendments drafted to make [the Integrity Commission Bill] less onerous; so for example — this is only a suggested amendment; it hasn’t been brought to Cabinet yet — but the bill as laid requires people not only to list companies that they have an interest in or that their family has… I’ve had an amendment drafted to make that less onerous.”
Speaking of the Integrity Commission Bill, the attorney general added, “We have plenty time to tweak that bill and I anticipate it to be among the measures that the government will pass… You must bear in mind that we are struggling to save this year as a legislative year because of the events that have happened.
“Think about the whole issue of dealing with this health emergency and the whole requirements to social distance; the limit on public gatherings to the extent possible, has basically gutted parliamentary activity.
“We are seeing a lot of Parliament now because we are mandated by law and the constitution to get a budget passed. Even so, as we begin to open up now, my colleagues are throwing their bills at me because they really want to get some positive, reformative bills passed into law in their respective ministries.”
But Bethel could make no commitments on the full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or the promised marital rape bill.
He said the government had faced a snag as it relates to office space for the information commissioner mandated under the FOIA.
“We spent several hundred thousand dollars getting a building ready for a commissioner. The building is too small to accommodate,” Bethel advised.
He also acknowledged that there has been no real movement on the marital rape issue.
The attorney general stressed, however, that significant pieces of legislation will soon be dealt with.
“The first draft that was circulated of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill has now as a result of consultation been reviewed by the law reform commissioner, Dame Anita Allen, and she has produced a reviewed version of the bill to capture the essence of the results of her public consultations.”
The detailed legislation would transform the immigration landscape and addresses significant citizenship-related matters.
“We are going to very shortly, once the matter is brought forward, table the revised bill,” the attorney general advised.
In the weeks and months after the budget debate underway in Parliament, Bethel said there are several important pieces of legislation that will be dealt with in addition to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill: the Emergent Technologies Bill; Virtual Assets Innovation Authority Bill; Digital Assets and Registered Exchanges Bill; Central Bank of The Bahamas Bill; Banks and Trust Companies Bill; Protection of Depositors (Amendment) Bill and the Fisheries Bill.
“We’re trying to get as much of the heavy lifting done between now and the end of the year,” Bethel said.
“We have thoroughly reformed the laws governing fisheries to better ensure that only Bahamians and 100 percent Bahamian-owned companies or partnerships are able to engage in commercial fishing within the economic zone of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
“[We will soon be dealing with] the Public Procurement Act which will radically change the ways in which the government procures goods and services and ensure greater transparency and also greater procedural fairness in the award of government procurement contracts.”
The attorney general suggested that at the end of the term, the FNM administration will have a legislative record it is proud of, despite the fact that it has had to shift priorities.
“Circumstances change,” he said, “and you have to adapt and there have been a lot of challenges, but notwithstanding that I think that we have responded to them in a way that the Bahamian people would appreciate and at the same time, I am aware of how short [the term] is but I know that a lot of my colleagues have their legislative agendas for their ministries. They all have bills lined up and they are pressuring us to finalize them.”