Perspective

Can it ever be ‘the people’s time’?

Of the 76 legislative and policy pledges made by the Minnis administration in its Speech from the Throne delivered in May 2017, 14 have been carried out thus far based on a review by Perspective, which also took a look at the agenda of Parliament’s current session.

That only 18 percent of the administration’s “reform and modernization” agenda has been completed having already served 50 percent of its term is not merely a matter of statistics, but raises legitimate questions about its capacity, drive and level of coordinated focus in furthering pledges to improve the quality of life for all Bahamians.

The concern is especially heightened now that current economic and fiscal projections stemming from the impact of Hurricane Dorian suggest that there will be little headroom with which to pursue capital-intensive initiatives outside of hurricane reconstruction in the second half of the government’s term.

When government spending on capital, developmental and social needs is constrained, it impacts growth and advancement prospects nationwide.

A review of Parliament’s agenda reveals that 90 bills have been passed by the House of Assembly this session with over 60 percent of those being budget compendium bills and bills to satisfy requirements of global finance regulators that financial services insiders bemoan as chasing ever-changing goal posts at the expense of the country’s second largest industry.

Of the handful of bills passed that are heralded as steps to lessen the financial burden of the masses, the outcomes have been mixed or have failed to live up to the public’s expectations.

There are 17 bills pending in the House of Assembly including those tied to the administration’s key election platforms such as the Ombudsman Bill, the Integrity Commission Bill and the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investment Incentives Bill.

Considering that campaign season will be here not long from now, it is plausible that some of these bills along with those proposing term limits and a recall system for MPs if they ever materialize, could go the way of the Freedom of Information Act — being passed near the end of the term where the citizenry will be unable to benefit from their effects but where trite electioneering about promises kept will be the order of the day.

When it comes to whether or not the Bahamian people feel their time has come, what politicians claim takes a lesser seat of consequence to what the average Bahamian feels about his or her present state and prospects for the future.

It can be argued that a lot can happen legislatively in the two and a half years remaining, but rational hope in that position must be informed by the pace and scope of legislative and policy accomplishments thus far and the reasons for it.

The youth

In its Speech from the Throne, the Minnis administration said it “will work assiduously to reduce the high level of youth unemployment to secure the future of this nation”.

Regrettably though, stubbornly high youth unemployment in The Bahamas persists, with those aged 15 to 24 making up the largest grouping of unemployed persons.

Youth unemployment for women was the highest recorded of all age groups, according to the Department of Statistics May 2019 Labour Force Survey, with total youth unemployment standing at 20 percent notwithstanding a decrease in the national jobless rate.

The social implications of high levels of youth unemployment cannot be overstated, given that hundreds of young female mothers cannot properly provide for their children or themselves without employment and jobless young males can be at higher risk of engaging in violent criminality to make money.

The administration also pledged to “implement a national skills register of Bahamians overseas to assist with their participation in national development and to provide them with opportunities for engagement in regional and international organizations”.

No indication has been given on when and if such an overseas register will be created.

The economy and public finances

The administration has been successful in arresting rates of growth in recurrent deficits it inherited, though the converse argument is that it has done so by cutting back too steeply on capital spending and that it has failed to put forward a plan for economic growth that is key to improving employment and economic opportunities for Bahamians.

The national debt, meantime, continues to increase.

A key pledge of the administration was the reduction of value-added tax (VAT) on breadbasket items which it made good on in 2018, but a concomitant increase in the VAT rate by 60 percent drove up the rate of inflation, according to the Central Bank, and triggered a record-breaking rise in the consumer price index that same year, according to the Department of Statistics.

When inflation increases, spending power decreases and when the cost of goods and services increases across the board, Bahamians have less money to spend even on VAT-free breadbasket items — many of which are unhealthy food options that diminish funds and quality of life through the sicknesses they contribute to.

As such, what was touted as a “people’s time” elimination of VAT on breadbasket items was ultimately swallowed up by the cost of living increases the government’s new 12 percent VAT rate triggered.

VAT was removed from medications, but not from health insurance or healthcare; and was later removed from residential electricity bills not exceeding $300, which was welcomed news for vulnerable segments the government sought to bring relief to.

With respect to public finances, the promised Fiscal Responsibility Act was enacted, but with a caveat that impacts the independence of the act’s Fiscal Responsibility Council, in that the act puts the council under the administrative authority of the executive though the council is mandated to hold the executive accountable in its adherence to the act’s fiscal rules and to its stated fiscal targets.

And though the establishment of a promised Credit Bureau is now closer to reality, many Bahamians are likely to be in for an unwelcomed shock when they discover that they may be subject to negative credit scores at the onset that will make it more difficult for them to receive loans and lines of credit.

A 2018 Central Bank survey revealed that most approved consumer loans in The Bahamas are for the payment of debts, and with low credit scores it will remain to be seen how Bahamians who have fallen into the pattern of borrowing to pay basic bills will be impacted in their every day lives in the short-term.

Whatever the long-term benefits of a credit bureau might prove to be, in the short-term the impact could prove to be hardship for those who do not have the finances or the financial know-how to bring about rapid improvements to their credit positions.

The rule of law

The Minnis administration has made good on its pledge to enact legislation to establish the office of an independent Director of Public Prosecutions.

It has yet to follow through on its pledge to create a Bureau of Investigations to investigate matters referred by the auditor general, the ombudsman or the public.

It also has yet to make good on its pledge to put forward legislation to establish and strengthen the independence of the Office of the Auditor General, and to amend the Public Disclosure Act to broaden the scope of application to include campaign finance reform and to make provision for direct referral to an independent prosecutor.

Though additional funds have been allocated this budget year for the auditor general’s office which Auditor General Terrance Bastian recently told Perspective would aid in the office securing additional outside services to conduct audits, this does not meet the standard outlined in the speech’s pledge.

An example of laws that strengthen the powers of the country’s constitutional auditor can be found in South Africa, which last year passed legislation that enables the auditor general to report findings of corruption or fraud directly to law enforcement.

As for the country’s public disclosure regime, there is no evidence of improvement as just last week Public Disclosure Commission Chairman Myles Laroda told this newspaper that the commission is years behind in compiling the financial disclosures of public officials, a matter he attributed to limited staffing.

Grand Bahama

Of the country’s second largest economic center, the Minnis administration in its speech said, “My Government realizes that a healthy and strong Grand Bahamian economy is vital to the growth and development of the entire Bahamas. Consequently, my government will establish an Investment Promotion Board to promote Grand Bahama as a place for doing business and recreation.”

But no indication has been given as to when this will materialize.

As stated earlier, a promised repeal of the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investment Incentives Act 2016 has yet to take place.

The repeal of the act was a key pledge for Grand Bahama, as while in opposition the Free National Movement (FNM) said it would make business easier in Freeport by reducing bureaucracy for investors and ensuring that all licensees of the Grand Bahama Port Authority receive equal treatment under the law.

Beyond a repeal of the 2016 act, though, is the need for a government-articulated vision for the future of Freeport, which residents and observers insist is in need of re-evaluation.

The administration pledged to focus on the development of Freeport as an offshore technology hub and it has indicated such a focus, though the private firm it celebrated as evidence of its first major success in the creation of that hub ceased operations amid concerns over what its principal claimed was insufficient commitment on the part of government to bring its stated tech hub goals to fruition.

The administration also pledged to “create incentives to establish a financial services center in Grand Bahama”, though there has been no indication of specific incentives planned or instituted to do so.

Standards of living

The heavily-touted Over-the-Hill initiative has been launched as promised, but it is not publicly known how this initiative has thus far directly impacted poverty rates and the ability of residents to open or expand businesses or purchase land in designated concession zones.

A promised enactment of legislation to provide for a “rent-to-own” program to facilitate home ownership has not yet materialized.

The government did, however, pass its Affordable Homes Act; but announced shortly thereafter that approximately 85 percent of those in the uniformed branches who applied to purchase service-ready lots failed to qualify due to their financial constraints.

To this, Housing Minister Romauld Ferreira urged Bahamians to get their financial houses in order, which leads one to wonder what level of research was put into crafting the legislation’s rollout and how successful the same might prove to be.

Focused governance

In his contribution to debate on the Speech from the Throne, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced that he would be meeting with “each minister individually on a quarterly basis” to assess the work of his or her ministry and “to help improve the effectiveness of each ministry in carrying out the government’s policies”.

No indication has been given to the public that this has ever taken place.

Minnis further advised that “each government ministry will be asked to develop a multi-year plan, with clear annual metrics for that ministry, and in keeping with available finances and resources”.

These plans, he said, would be developed by senior staff and technical officers in each ministry “in accord with my government’s manifesto commitments and related objectives”, and the plans which he would hold his ministers accountable for would be developed with reference to the National Development Plan.

Again, no specific reference has been made to this pledge since it was first given by the prime minister, but both this and his pledge on meeting regularly with his ministers to assess their performance seem to speak to a planned focus in governance that two-and-a-half years in is not readily apparent.

Time is winding down

When the administration promised to usher in an era of

“the people’s time”, it raised public expectations that it has so far demonstrated an inability to satisfy.

Though some ministers have demonstrated a desire to bring about improvements in their areas of responsibility, the overall effort on the part of government has been disjointed and it seems that even among the group there is no agreed and clear vision of what they meant by saying it is the people’s time.

Consequently, voters now opine that when they heard the slogan “it’s the people’s time” they should have asked, “Which people do you mean?”

If the government is unable or unwilling to assess where it needs to improve and then make those improvements, it is likely that we are now watching the clock run out on the possibility of Bahamians realizing ‘a people’s time’ era in this term in office.

And for the thousands of Bahamians who marked their “X” in hopes of that reality, it would be a most unfortunate circumstance.

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