Government debt is hovering around 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and while glimmers of hope on the fiscal and economic fronts are emerging, the country’s sovereign debt rating remains at junk status.
Though it is yet unknown whether the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 is more lethal or transmissible than the still-dominant delta variant, omicron fears are already threatening growth prospects for the global economy and global tourism.
Last week, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) lowered its growth forecast for 2021, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Kristalina Georgieva, pointing to the problem of inflation for governments, indicated that even before the emergence of omicron, global economic recovery was losing momentum.
The country’s murder count is in excess of 100 this year, with murders in New Providence on a sharp increase over last year, while an uncharacteristic recent spike in murders on Grand Bahama has occurred.
Gender based violence and violence against children remains an unacceptably prevalent facet of Bahamian society, one that will take more than legislative amendments and episodic outrage to eradicate.
Though plans are in place to return to in-person learning in the public school system via a hybrid model in January, the crisis of thousands of youngsters whose educational process has markedly suffered during the pandemic, threatens the country’s mid to long term prospects for advancement and sustainability.
The country’s second and third largest economies – Grand Bahama and Abaco, respectively – are continuing their fight to rebound from hundreds of millions in GDP losses in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
Displacement and joblessness stubbornly persist for many storm survivors of both islands who either cannot afford to rebuild, or who are living in homes with substantially unfinished repairs.
The Bahamas has lost at least 705 men and women to COVID-19, and outcomes for pregnant women and their babies, as well as those suffering with chronic illnesses have come under heightened threat due to longstanding healthcare system constraints worsened by the pandemic.
At the same time, the country is in the process of settling in to a new administration, and to changes on the political front being met with both optimism and scrutiny.
We are without question a nation under stress, traumatized by a historic natural disaster, a global pandemic whose end appears nowhere in sight, and financial insecurity that has plunged households into chaos, making the vulnerable more susceptible to neglect, abuse and exploitation.
These are indeed serious times.
It is the gravity of the challenges we face as a nation that makes displays of infantilism, egoism and incivility in the new session of the House of Assembly especially disconcerting.
So frustrating has been the disrespectful and cantankerous behavior of MPs during recent sittings, that House Speaker Patricia Deveaux appeared at one point last week to have had her absolute fill of it.
Those who watch parliamentary proceedings in countries throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in Britain, know that speakers of the House being stern and at times irate in response to rowdy or ornery MPs, is hardly unique.
Nevertheless, it will be incumbent upon Deveaux not to take the proverbial bait of MPs who show themselves to be given to immaturity over industriousness, regardless of which side of the isle they occupy.
Rather than risk stepping out of character due to unruliness or impertinence by MPs, the speaker’s buttress is to be her considered and measured execution of the rules, since the rules empower her to have a member leave the chamber if he or she persists in behavior the speaker deems disruptive.
The complexity of the nation’s needs and the sworn duty of all House members, ought to assume preeminence over unnecessary battles that seek to prove ego cases the Bahamian people are, by and large, not interested in seeing fought.
FOCUS ON THE TASK AT HAND
The opposition Free National Movement (FNM) now has a new leader in Marco City MP Michael Pintard, who the party hopes will galvanize members and inspire new supporters.
Being a caucus in leadership transition has its own share of intricacies, which together with the mere make up of personalities therein, appears to be contributing factors to what has been unseemly behavior by some opposition members in the lower House.
Notwithstanding his words that pledge support for the party’s new leader, the actions of its former leader Dr. Hubert Minnis in snubbing Pintard at both the announcement of his leadership victory and his appointment as leader of the opposition, speak louder than his words.
For his part, Pintard has been outwardly magnanimous, but it is no secret that Minnis is less than happy about his new station in life, under a party leader with whom he had cool relations while in government.
And it undoubtedly gives Minnis no pleasure that he has lost the post of leader of opposition twice in his parliamentary career – a record in politics to be envied by no one.
Be that as it may, the legislature ought to be able to look to a former prime minister in the Parliament for statesmanship, maturity and guidance.
Some who tuned in to live proceedings of Parliament last week were likely surprised to see and hear Minnis take a bizarrely confrontational stance with Tall Pines MP Dr. Michael Darville, challenging him to cross the floor and repeat to his face an innocuous comment made from Darville’s seat.
The back and forth between Minnis and Darville, was the beginning of mounting tensity and indecorous behavior by MPs, which the speaker classified as childish and shame worthy.
When Central Grand Bahama MP Iram Lewis acted disrespectfully toward the Speaker several weeks ago, his antics happened to have coincided with Pintard’s impending leadership bid launch, though whether the pressure of the same played a role in his choleric behavior in Parliament, only Lewis can say.
His trend of hollering at the Speaker from his seat continued post-convention however, and in last week’s case, ratcheted up to disparagingly shouting at the Speaker about his being ashamed to have voted in favor of her election to post of Parliament’s presiding officer.
Parliamentarians know what can be the consequence of such behavior toward the chair.
We hope there are no opposition members who have the idea that being put out of the House by the Speaker, might whip up quick political capital by posing as a martyr for freedom of the minority.
The same would serve no useful purpose for the Bahamian people.
Meantime, raising eyebrows on potential intrigue within the opposition’s caucus was St. Barnabas MP Shanendon Cartwright, who while seeking to offer a defense to revelations about contract expenditures by the Beaches and Parks Authority over which he served as chairman, said, “Let me state for the record, I will not be used by any intended or unintended attempt to put my integrity in the political crosshairs whether from without or within.”
If Cartwright – who is expected to launch a bid for deputy leader at the FNM’s national convention in February – did not believe or know there are members of his own caucus who could be working to discredit him politically, it is reasonable to believe he would not have made this statement.
His statement triggered new questions about what level of intrigue within the opposition’s caucus might exist, and how any existence thereof might impact essential cohesiveness.
We appreciate that it will take some time for Pintard – who must also set a good example in Parliament for his caucus – to work through the difficulties of leading his party, managing personalities and agendas, and encouraging temperance on the part of opposition members including his former leader.
Still, the role of the opposition is far too weighty in our democracy for debate on the national budget, or any other piece of proposed legislation for that matter, to be repeatedly sidetracked by sideshows of emotionalism.
There will be times when debates become impassioned, but today’s society has a short attention span, making the window of opportunity to effectively deliver one’s case to the Bahamian people in the people’s House shorter still.
Ultimately, more media and public attention was consumed with disputes in the House and with political intrigue therein, than with what ought to have been analysis of the details of the government’s 2021/2022 supplementary budget.
What the opposition must recognize is that when this happens, even if there are aspects of the budget that might not be in the Bahamian people’s best interests, much of the public would be none the wiser because they would have become perpetually distracted by who is losing their cool, and who the latest participants in a House shouting match happen to be.
The opposition controls Parliament’s most powerful standing committee – the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) – wherein Pintard serves as chairman.
The Bahamian people ought to hear what aspects of public finances and expenditure, even at this early stage of a new administration, the PAC intends to focus on.
Much of the opposition’s push during debate was on the reintroduction of value-added tax (VAT) to previously zero-rated categories of items, with the mantra that the same was an assault on the poor.
That mantra on the part of the FNM does not appear to have resonated widely, given that it was under the Minnis administration that a 60 percent increase in VAT to 12 percent occurred, triggering record price increases in a number of essential categories including food and beverages and clothing and footwear.
We recognize that a caucus should have a cohesive theme in debate, and VAT on breadbasket items appears to have been one of the opposition’s chosen themes.
However, we would have wanted to see the opposition take a deeper and more incisive dive into the supplementary budget, since adjustments therein have implications beyond the impact of eliminating some zero ratings in the VAT Act.
FOCUS ON ACCOUNTABILITY
The Davis administration is currently carrying out reviews of decisions within various ministries and departments, but there are some aspects of accountability and transparency that do not require a review in order to be immediately executed.
One example is the necessary tabling of heads of agreements signed by the Minnis administration, but not laid on the table of the House.
Most of the agreements signed in the Bahamian people’s name last term were not laid, including the agreement for the sale of the government-operated Grand Lucayan resort in Grand Bahama.
The administration should move with haste to table all such agreements signed by the government of The Bahamas last term, so that the right of the Bahamian people to know the content and particulars of deals undertaken in their name, is advanced.
The administration must also move to ensure that all government corporations and agencies comply with the law on the submission of annual audited accounts.
Auditor General Terrance Bastian reiterated in a report last month his concerns that “the work of the Auditor General’s Office continues to be impeded in some cases due to the lack of co-operation by officials of various ministries and departments.
“Some public officers are not being held accountable for their actions, which results in loss or wastage of government funds,” he said.
Given the “crisis” state of public finances Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis alluded to after assuming office, the administration ought to state definitively how it plans to address this very serious and recurrent observation on the part of the Auditor General.
When the administration tabled its promised legislative framework for handling the COVID pandemic outside of a state of emergency, the pretext was that it was time to do away with a competent authority and the lack of transparency the country witnessed therefrom.
But having new health rules does not in and of itself, equate to the public enjoying a higher degree of transparency in how health rules are issued.
The Health Services (COVID19)(General) Rules, 2021 call for the creation of an advisory committee to advise the minister on aspects of pandemic management including the implementation of response measures.
The names of those appointed to the committee have not been announced, and though the minister would indicate that COVID rules are determined on the advice of the health professionals – the same statement consistently made by Minnis last term – the recommendations of the committee are not made public.
In the interest of transparency, advice given by the committee to the minister ought to be published so the Bahamian people know to what extent rules, event approvals, exemptions for businesses or individuals, and the pursuit of requisite healthcare and testing resources, are being guided by recommendations put forward by the advisory committee.
This is a key way the Davis administration can distinguish with respect to transparency, its method of pandemic management from the method it castigated last term.