‘Tis the season on the eve of a critical third year of governance where parliamentarians desirous of a second term are no doubt making their list (and checking it twice) of things they can say or do to turn the mounting tide of voter disaffection in the country.
In recent weeks, the bearer of gifts has, at least on the surface, appeared to be no less a parliamentarian than Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, whose pronouncements, while reminiscent of glad tidings, are worthy of critical examination.
Last week, Minnis told reporters that the government will increase the minimum wage it pays to government employees, even as Finance Minister Peter Turnquest subsequently advised that the government had not given any “detailed consideration” to increasing the country’s minimum wage.
The critical context missing from the prime minister’s pronouncement was that a proposed minimum wage increase for the public sector is not his administration’s idea, and is rather a union proposal as part of ongoing Bahamas Public Services Union negotiations that even union president Kimsley Ferguson shied away from discussing in detail when contacted for comment.
That Minnis chose to pre-empt the government’s ongoing union negotiations is concerning enough, but the ringing of the minimum wage bell, at a time when the private sector would least countenance the pressure of such a signal as it prepares for projected economic contraction post-Hurricane Dorian, is not a responsible move.
Late last month, Minnis announced his support for the expunging of criminal records for persons convicted of possession of “small amounts of marijuana”.
It is a hot-button issue that likely would have been music to the ears of some, but what the prime minister failed to tell the nation in the same breath was that he was not charting a new course on this subject, as the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act already provides for the expunging of criminal records for certain categories of offenses.
Under the act’s 2015 amendment, persons convicted of drug offenses excluding possession with the intent to supply, can apply after a five-year period to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Committee for expungement if it was a first-time conviction or the conviction occurred prior to the age of 21.
His announcement in that context was problematic because there already exists a statutory body charged with making decisions on the expunging of criminal records, and such bodies ought not be seen to be under pressure to act in a particular way based on a public pronouncement by the nation’s chief.
A similar case can be made for the Marijuana Commission, though not a statutory body, but a body convened nonetheless by Cabinet to advise the government on the national consensus regarding decriminalization and legalization of the substance.
Before allowing the commission to complete its work and report its findings, the prime minister made his position on the popular matter clear, calling into question the point of convening the commission in the first place.
On the heels of Dorian’s destructive onslaught on Abaco and Grand Bahama, Minnis pronounced that east Grand Bahama and Abaco and the cays would be designated as special economic recovery zones.
Immediate backlash from residents and business owners in Freeport led to the designation being extended to the entire island of Grand Bahama.
At that time, the prime minister said a broad range of tax breaks and incentives would be available to east Grand Bahama, Abaco and the cays for three years and to Freeport for one year.
Generally, it was a well-received announcement, but what some might have missed is that when enabling legislation for the same finally made its way to Parliament, the timeframe was not three years or one year for Freeport, but instead seven months for both islands.
We question whether the grand announcement of a three-year tax-free incentive by the nation’s chief was later determined in-house to be one that was not fiscally prudent.
Ministerial pronouncements have impacts and statements have consequences.
As stumping season harkens, the prime minister’s pronouncements are sending signals that this administration might be inclined to make politically-driven fiscal and policy decisions that give the appearance of great cheer but that can be misleading at best, and at worst be financially burdensome for years to come.
Christmas only comes once a year.