National Review

Credibility gap

FNM won’t rebuild trust without shift in strategy 

Weeks after Parliament was dissolved –eight months before a general election was constitutionally due – and with major legislative pledges unfulfilled, the Free National Movement (FNM) torched the Davis administration’s Speech from the Throne, and in the process, underscored for many Bahamian voters why their decision to rid The Bahamas of the Minnis administration was a sensible one.

That response by the FNM also demonstrated a continued level of arrogance and disconnect, which led to a humiliating and crushing election loss on September 16, and an obvious failure to re-examine and retool a strategy to start the process of rebuilding trust with the electorate.

The FNM, in its response to the speech, said the Davis administration “fails to address the seriousness of our fiscal situation”.

“It does not address the ongoing necessity for tax reform and for reform of the state-owned enterprises (SOE) that are critical to fiscal consolidation over time,” the opposition party said.

But the Minnis administration’s speech, delivered on May 24, 2017, by then-Governor General Dame Marguerite Pindling, also made no detailed mention of the state of public finances and made no reference to reforming SOEs, although our fiscal situation at the time was already critical and the ongoing strain of those SOEs already evident.

The FNM, in its recent response to the throne speech, added: “The PLP has again promised to reduce VAT (value-added tax) without providing any clear plans on how the reduced revenue will be replaced. It failed to provide a timeline on when this will be done.

“The PLP has promised to increase old age pension benefits but has not said how the same will be funded. Do they intend to increase NIB rates? Why didn’t they say so?

“The PLP has promised to introduce a catastrophic health insurance plan. Do they intend to have all Bahamians pay a monthly insurance premium to cover this insurance? Why didn’t they say so?”

While we, too, want answers to these questions, it was not our expectation that the Speech from the Throne would be used to elaborate on the legislative and other policy initiatives pledged by the Davis administration.

On the Guardian Radio program “Z-Live” on Thursday, former Minister of State for Finance Zhivargo Laing made a similar observation.

“The FNM’s response to the Speech from the Throne had some valid points for sure in it, raised some valid questions, for sure, but it already reflects a failure of the FNM to understand why it lost and where it is. It needs to have another tact,” Laing said.

“… The response was really not well thought through.”

Pledges

No Speech from the Throne –  not the one presented by the Minnis administration – or any previous administration – has provided that level of detail and explanation the FNM now says was absent in the speech last week.

Take for instance the 2017 speech. In it, the FNM administration affirmed “that the fundamental premise of National Health Insurance is that eligible residents have equitable access to quality healthcare”.

The Minnis-led government pledged to “extend the focus of NHI to secondary and tertiary healthcare”.

While it now scolds the Davis administration for failing to say how it will fund NHI, there was nothing in its own speech in 2017 that gave such detail. The FNM, in fact, has failed to move the needle in the promised expansion of NHI in the last four-plus years.

It also failed to deliver on many other commitments made in the 2017 Speech from the Throne.

Consider, as an example, the weighty electoral reform pledges made by the FNM in government.

While it still points to Hurricane Dorian in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as major reasons why it failed to fulfill many promises, it had already had two and a half years in office when Dorian caused widespread destruction.

In the 2017 speech, the FNM pledged: “My government will, 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.

“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.”

None of that happened.

The Minnis administration also pledged to pass specific anti-corruption legislation. That, too, never happened.

It also pledged to amend the Public Disclosure Act “to broaden the scope of application to include campaign finance reform”.

Those commitments did not materialize.

We note that the Davis administration in its Speech from the Throne said it “will seek to reform the electoral process in The Bahamas”. In its “Blueprint for Change”, it pledged an Electoral Reform Act.

The FNM has charged that the government appears to be making promises it cannot or has no intention of keeping.

“The speech makes it clear that there is a dramatic shift from the fiscally-responsible policies that are required for a robust recovery,” the FNM said.

“The Fiscal Responsibility Act was introduced to prevent against arbitrary shifts in economic policy. The reduction in VAT will result in an estimated $160 million annual revenue – or $800 million over five years – at a time when the country’s resources are strained.”

The Davis administration has pledged to slash VAT from 12 percent to 10 percent for 12 months, after which time it says it will review the decision.

On Monday, Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis indicated to reporters that this amendment to the VAT Act will be among the first bills brought during the new legislative session, which starts on October 27.

While we do find it risky for the new government to slash $160 million from government revenue, it must be given an opportunity to outline any plan to make up the shortfall. Those details must take place during parliamentary debate.

The government should also make public any studies or modeling conducted to show, as Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper claims, that it will be able to rake in an additional $200 million annually, even with a cut in VAT.

It would also be political suicide to cut the tax only to increase it after a year, and would make the move appear nothing more than a gimmick.

Again, we had no expectation that the Speech from the Throne would be used to outline specifics on this initiative.

We note that the prime minister, who is the minister of finance, also told reporters on Monday that as an early action, the government will need to “recast” the 2021/2022 budget as the spending plan passed by the previous administration was merely a “wish list” and not a realistic budget.

In its response to the Speech from the Throne, the FNM noted there was no commitment not to raise taxes.

“How will they enhance revenue and what programs will be cut to sustain the additional spending proposed?” the FNM questioned.

It is true that there was no commitment not to raise taxes in the Speech from the Throne, but, again, it is also not surprising as the speech was not a budget communication or any other related communication. Similarly, the Minnis administration made no such commitment in its 2017 speech.

The FNM said last week, “While we heard about tax concessions for small businesses, there was no mention on what these were and who would qualify and how they would be any different from the massive amount of concessions left in place by the FNM.

“It is noteworthy that we heard no mention of the Small Business Development Centre and the continued commitment to fund small businesses. The public is anxious to know: will grants and loans still be available?”

The FNM added, “While the government spoke broadly about caring for the vulnerable, what are the specific plans for the many thousands of Bahamians who were being assisted through the Food Task Force?”

Again, no reasonable person should have expected that level of detail in the Opening of Parliament forum.

But in its statement, the FNM, said, “Details are critical. This is especially true on the matters of tax reform and fiscal policy where the government must explain how it intends to both cut taxes sharply and introduce major new spending initiatives.”

STRATEGY

We do not know who crafted the party’s statement, but it does nothing to present the official opposition as serious or sincere.

Laing noted that a sizable portion of the 2017 Speech from the Throne commitments was not accomplished.

“A very substantial legislative agenda was just ignored,” Laing observed. “And I think when you look at the speeches from the throne, with some exceptions, I think you will find that this is what happens.”

He added, “When you have that kind of track record, if you’re the FNM, of non-fulfillment of your promises, you have to take a different tact when it comes to criticizing other people, especially if you retain the leader who was at the helm when you did, and you retain the leader who remains at your head after a massive electoral defeat.

“You’ve got to come with a different kind of voice if you are going to build confidence in yourself again. You’ve got to be sharper. You’ve got to be more thoughtful and you have to have some humility.”

Laing suggested there is a need for the opposition party to do things differently, so it comes across differently.

“If you think it’s about you, then look at what happened recently and think, ‘given that massive defeat, given the massive non-attendance of people to vote, if you think it’s about you, let it stay about you and see where it gets you’. Not helpful,” Laing said.

“Take your time, get some input, get some people who are capable of inputting sensibly into your statements because the country needs it. The country needs sensible, thoughtful commentary. This shallow, non-substantive approach to criticism is not good for the party and it’s not good for the country. We can do better. We must do better.”

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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