National Review

Mid-term lag

The Minnis administration is exactly two and a half years into its term in office with key items on its agenda — legislatively and otherwise — still outstanding.

The halfway mark meets the government embroiled in the crisis triggered by Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful storm to hit The Bahamas in recorded history.

While there might be a temptation to blame the failure to fulfill commitments on the storm, and while no administration does every single thing it says it will do in a five-year term, the government must still account for its failings when the Free National Movement (FNM) returns to the people to seek another mandate.

Reasonable-minded Bahamians would understand that this natural disaster requires a reordering of priorities. The government will have to put off certain projects as it seeks to rebuild the devastated economies of Abaco and Grand Bahama and replace infrastructure.

Roads, schools, healthcare facilities and other government buildings all need to be rebuilt.

Dorian caused almost $100 million in damage to the Ministry of Health’s facilities on Abaco and Grand Bahama, according to Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands.

Tourism and Aviation Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said yesterday the government is considering acquiring Grand Bahama International Airport.

The airport — a joint venture between Hutchison Whampoa and the Grand Bahama Port Authority — was destroyed in the storm with no indication made public on when reconstruction is expected to commence.

D’Aguilar said repairing the airport could cost up to $40 million. He, however, gave no indication of what a purchase price would be and we do not know whether the owners even want to sell.

Last month, Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said the government expects to overshoot its fiscal deficit target for 2019/2020 by $436 million because of the devastation caused by the storm.

He said the Ministry of Finance has projected a revenue shortfall of almost $215 million or eight percent of the total projected revenue for this fiscal year.

The government was looking at shaving 10 percent off each ministry’s budget, Turnquest also reported.

On Monday, Central Bank Governor John Rolle reported that losses from the storm could surpass 20 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) – or more than $2.5 billion, although he said these were mostly private sector assets.

Economic activity came to a halt on Abaco and Grand Bahama in September, the governor noted, adding that the setback from the hurricane is projected to be more noticeable in 2020 with an overall contraction in the economy or a flat outcome possible.

Rolle noted too that while the rebuilding is forecasted to stimulate construction activity, an adequate supply of skilled labor will be essential to maximize the speed of restoration.

There is nevertheless a financial resources gap, he noted, given significant uninsured or underinsured families who could face a lengthy recovery process as they either rely on public assistance or have to rebuild out of incomes.

The government’s social services resources are being strained as a result of the storm.

All of these circumstances present significant challenges for the Minnis administration.

In the second half of its term, the government will be saddled by the need to continue a multilayered response to this unprecedented storm. If another hurricane hits The Bahamas in the near-term, conditions would become more dire and prospects for the FNM’s reelection would likely diminish.

The Minnis administration will continue to find understanding and sympathy in a certain segment of the population, but as time wears on, the natural inclination many Bahamians have to understand the magnitude of this occurrence and the scope of this response will wear thin.

More people will likely be immune to the needs of victims as compassion fatigue sets in.

They will be less inclined to cut the government some slack.

The mid-term is already a time when politicians have to contend with an increasingly disillusioned electorate — hence the expression “mid-term blues”.

Way off the mark

This crisis places added pressure on the government to be more strategic, efficient and competent in the management of our affairs.

The FNM administration was already challenged in this regard.

Dorian met the government with a lackluster legislative agenda and unforced errors piled high.

To be sure, it is not totally lacking in important accomplishments.

We recently pointed out in our editorial that there were some “bright spots in the dark”.

These include the transfer of the management of the New Providence Landfill and the government’s selection of Global Ports Holding as developers and managers of Prince George Dock.

The national unemployment rate, though still a significant challenge, was at least going in the right direction. It dropped from 10 percent in May 2018 to 9.5 percent in May 2019, according to the latest numbers released in August.

But the Minnis administration was already facing growing criticisms in the slow pace in which certain things were

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being done.

If one were to examine the big themes of the FNM’s general election campaign, one would see that the government is way off the mark in achievement.

There is only a certain amount of blame that can be placed on the hurricane as it regards the failure of the Minnis administration to fulfill the legislative promises it made. When it is done passing storm-related legislation, it can no longer reasonably point to Dorian as a reason why its legislative pledges remain on the back burner.

A major theme of the campaign was corruption. As highlighted in a Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) postmortem report completed by a Jamaican social development practitioner, the persistent corruption perception was one of the primary reasons for the PLP’s loss at the polls.

FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis and his team successfully promoted and played on this perception, thereby sailing to a landslide victory.

They promised anti-corruption legislation as a matter of priority.

In October 2017, then Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson introduced the Integrity Commission Bill (ICB) in Parliament to deal strongly with corruption in public life. But two years later, the bill is still shelved.

The government says it has had other priorities, like financial legislation aimed at fighting off threats to the important financial services sector. There is no evidence that the anti-corruption bill will see the light of day anytime soon.

With the excitement of the election victory still fresh, the FNM in its speech from the throne in May 2017 made a number of pledges it so far has not focused on.

It promised a referendum to “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”.

These commitments were made as well in the lead-up to the election. It excited many voters.

No one we know expects that the Minnis administration will bring a referendum in the second half of its term.

The Minnis administration also said the Office of Ombudsman will be created to provide a direct source or relief, where people have legitimate grievances due to the actions or inactions of government or any agency of the government.

Successive administrations have made such a promise. Successive administrations have failed to follow through on it.

The Minnis administration also pledged 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”.

Last December, the prime minister insisted such legislation will still come this term.

“I promised… You also promise me five years. My five years ain’t up yet and you will promise me another five years. So, I have five years to put in the campaign finance reform, and I have another five years for you to see it working properly,” Minnis said.

None of those pledges have yet been fulfilled. The odds of those initiatives being addressed in the second half of the term are waning.

The government did enact legislation to establish the office of an independent Director of Public Prosecutions.

But while it was highly critical of the PLP administration’s inaction on implementing a Freedom of Information Act, it too has failed to make appreciable progress in this area. We have been told repeatedly that an information commissioner would “soon” be appointed.

Generally, the government has betrayed its commitment to being completely transparent and completely accountable.

We understand that those were buzzwords on the campaign trail, but journalists and the wider public making demands for transparent and accountable governance have often hit a brick wall, even though some ministers have done a commendable job on the transparency front.

The promised transparency as it relates to the fiasco that erupted surrounding the firing of the Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) board more than a year ago never materialized, for instance. The report into multiple fires at BPL had to be leaked to the media for it to be made public.

The prime minister’s promised report on travel expenses also never came to light.

While it accused the Christie administration of wasting taxpayer dollars on the Baha Mar legal matter, the Minnis administration refuses to tell the public how much money it has paid a British queen’s counsel to pursue the failed corruption case against former PLP Senator Frank Smith.

Hard sell

The prime minister is presumptuous to think he has another seven and a half years to fulfill his agenda. The Bahamian electorate does not think that way and our political system does not work that way.

He will have to go back to the people based on his administration’s record in the current term.

That will likely be a hard sell for multiple reasons: unfulfilled promises and an impatient electorate whose expectations were set unrealistically high by politicians willing to promise just about anything to win power.

Bahamian voters have demonstrated in the last four elections that they have no issue voting you out and voting the other side in. Politics is not a love affair that lasts forever.

One prominent FNM, speaking with no expectation of attribution, observed yesterday, “We have not put together a good full week yet of competent governance that engenders confidence on behalf of the Bahamian people. They have some bright spots here and there. People have not been blown away by the execution of the executive. They have not really been impressed by the way a number of ministers have taken care of their ministries.”

Dorian was a catastrophic and unprecedented event, but a year ahead of an election, it will not likely fly as an excuse for not delivering.

While the Minnis administration will no doubt use the second half of its term to get some key things accomplished while dealing with its complicated and expensive post-Dorian challenges, the PLP will continue efforts to rebuild its image, restructure its ground game and present its leader, Philip Brave Davis, as a viable alternative for the prime ministership.

Davis is not now a palatable option, even to some PLPs. But voters have proven every lap that elections are less about the alternative choice and more about the unfavorable incumbent.

This will be the Minnis administration’s challenge in the second half of the term.

Because it was slow out the gate, it was already faced with a tremendously challenging second half and was seemingly maxed out in terms of ideas, capacity and competencies.

Dorian’s crippling economic blow and its pressures on government finances will make progress in this term even more difficult.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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