One year on
Assessing the PLP’s first year in office
From a political standpoint, the most significant achievement of Prime Minister Philip “Brave” Davis and his administration has been to preserve much of the goodwill they secured from the electorate in the September 16, 2021 general election.
This is an important accomplishment given that the party came to office with the support of just 34 percent of registered voters, as voter turnout was only at 65 percent.
Davis and the PLP were elected due to the strong desire of so many voters to see the back of Dr. Hubert Minnis, the now former prime minister.
This was in keeping with the trend witnessed over multiple election cycles of voters acting on their strong disapproval of the incumbent, moreso than any approval of the alternative.
Davis and the PLP have made it to one year with the anti-Minnis mood still prevailing. If there is an anti-Davis or anti-PLP mood creeping in, it has not yet revealed itself.
It is, of course, still very early in the term to make any calls on what voters will do in the future, but the preservation of goodwill up to this point is not insignificant.
At the nine-month mark of the term of the recent Minnis administration, there was already substantial erosion of trust; many were questioning the prime minister’s leadership, and an anti-Minnis sentiment was growing.
The then-government had suffered significant embarrassing moments, the prime minister’s incompetence was widely on display, and the arrogance and disregard shown toward the electorate and the media in multiple instances was leading to fissures that portended doom for the FNM administration.
In February 2018, just nine months in, came the monumental screw-up that came to be known as the Oban fiasco, when the government signed a highly questionable deal for an oil refinery and storage facility in east Grand Bahama. The controversy smeared the FNM, significantly damaging its brand and energizing the opposition PLP, which had already reorganized and mobilized for victory in the post-Christie era.
In the first eight months of the Christie administration, which commenced in 2012 and ended in 2017, Perry Christie and his administration had also already suffered significant damage and depleted political capital. They held the gambling referendum, and the then-prime minister shamelessly ignored the will of the people, sealing his administration’s calamitous fate early in the term.
But early reputational damage has not been the case for the Davis administration.
While there have been missteps, questionable decisions, concerns about ‘Gussie Mae’ sized travel delegations, and few accomplishments of any monumental significance in the first year, there have been no major scandals to anger the public.
Davis has successfully kept the ship of state steady and his Cabinet – the largest in modern Bahamian history – has for the most part remained in line, avoiding the kinds of controversies and scandals that had ensnared the last PLP administration.
How members of the electorate feel about an administration has largely to do with the way they feel about its leadership.
Davis is not a dynamic leader.
But he is good-natured, respectful of various groupings, and has had a lot of experience in politics and governance.
This is in stark contrast to Minnis, who was bad-mannered, particularly toward the media who amplified his boorish behavior when they broadcasted and published it.
Minnis was also far from ready for prime time.
Davis, on the other hand, has had a gentler approach. He listens and he engages. Though many of his picks for key posts were clearly about rewarding party loyalists than they were about meritocracy, he has been smart enough to place certain seasoned and competent individuals in important positions.
He also has an effective public relations machinery, which keeps the public informed on what the government is doing, though it is, in some cases, masterful at spin.
His open door policy with media is refreshing.
Indicators are that many in the electorate feel good about who is in the chair of leadership. Many who might not feel good about it, at least do not have a strong disapproval of or concern about the current leadership.
Seventy percent of people recently polled by Public Domain Research and Strategy approved of the job Davis is doing; 64 percent of respondents approved of the job being done by the current administration.
Davis’ popularity is maintained in part because he has not yet had any major events to test his leadership.
We pray that that major test does not come, though we hope he is properly prepared to deal with significant crises.
In the first year, there has been no 9/11. There has been no global financial maelstrom. There has been no monster hurricane.
And while Davis and the PLP did meet the COVID-19 pandemic in place, it was already at a point where the worst was behind us and vaccines were widely available.
Apart from keeping the ship of state afloat and preserving capital in the goodwill bank, what has the PLP done in its first year in office?
Let’s take a look.
The Davis administration likes to say it reopened the economy, but this is propaganda and does not tell the full story.
When the PLP assumed office in September 2021, the national economy had already reopened, though a nightly curfew still remained. The country’s borders were open, resorts were open, businesses were open, cruise ships had returned and lockdowns were a thing of the past.
The Central Bank reported that for August 2021, the domestic economy had continued a slow pace of recovery, despite the pandemic, and there was strengthening in the high value-added air segment and the modest uptick in sea traffic, reflective of widespread vaccination efforts both locally and internationally.
When the PLP was elected, the state of emergency was still in place, though the Minnis administration had announced the last extension was to be the final one and that the emergency orders would come to an end on November 13, 2021.
In his first move after taking office, Prime Minister Davis imposed a new curfew of 11:59 to 5 a.m. Curfews for various islands had been between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The existing curfews had prevented the full opening of the economy.
The Davis administration followed through on the plan for the November expiration of the state of emergency.
Importantly, it provided free antigen testing. It says it distributed free medical grade masks.
It also continued the vaccination program it met in place, secured additional COVID-19 vaccines and encouraged those not vaccinated to do so, and those due for booster shots to get them.
The Davis administration, faced with the critical issue of learning loss as a result of protracted school closures due to the pandemic, is managing a difficult situation. With the pandemic largely under control, schools are fully open for face-to-face instruction and a Learning Recovery Task Force has been appointed to address the issue of learning loss.
The government also carried out an important pledge made on the campaign trail. In January 2022, it reduced value-added tax (VAT) from 12 percent to 10 percent. Though it had not foreshadowed putting VAT on previously VAT free breadbasket items, medicines and medical insurance, it did so, in a widely controversial move.
Last week, the Ministry of Finance reported that the government’s revenue collections increased by over $700 million in the 2021/2022 fiscal year when compared to the previous fiscal year.
This improvement was recorded despite a reduction in VAT, the ministry noted.
The finance ministry reported a deficit of $689.5 million, a $646.2 million decrease from the deficit of $1.3 billion in the prior fiscal year.
The recovery of revenue in and of itself was not surprising given the reopening of the economy, started under the Minnis administration and completed under the Davis administration with the end of curfews and the relaxation of testing requirements to travel to The Bahamas.
According to Davis, his government has brought in $1 billion in new investment across The Bahamas. It will take some time to assess whether all of that materializes on the ground.
The government, in May, announced an agreement to sell the troubled Grand Lucayan resort in Freeport to Electra America Hospitality Group, which agreed to purchase the property for $100 million from the government of The Bahamas. But that deal has not yet closed.
The state of Grand Bahama International Airport remains a major challenge. The government has committed to rebuilding and reopening a world-class facility by 2025 through a public-private partnership arrangement.
We were encouraged to hear that on San Salvador, Club Med Columbus Isle intends to reopen its doors on October 22, with more than 70 percent of its former staff returning two-and-a-half years after COVID-19 forced the resort to close.
In July, Central Bank Governor John Rolle said that despite a robust rebound in tourism, rising inflation could see the Bahamian economy grow by four to six percent in 2022.
The World Bank initially projected eight percent in economic growth for The Bahamas this year.
Though the government repeatedly said it was considering lowering taxes on fuel to help ease the burden of still high fuel costs, it has made no such move.
In a Facebook post touting first-year accomplishments, Prime Minister Davis said that in response to high inflation, “we’ve cut import duties for dozens of foods, hired new price control inspectors, and made an historic investment in agriculture and food security”.
In its first year, the Davis administration has done little to speed up the rebuilding on Abaco and Grand Bahama from Hurricane Dorian, which struck in September 2019.
At a memorial service on Abaco early this month, the prime minister pledged to “do our best” to help bring relief and comfort in rebuilding storm-impacted communities.
Though the impact of the Davis administration’s low-cost housing program has been negligible to date, the government has placed a focus on helping more families become homeowners.
According to the housing minister, the government has built 37 homes in Pinecrest in New Providence and four in Central Pines, Abaco.
On the healthcare front, the Davis administration hired more healthcare professionals to help address an ongoing staffing crisis in the public system.
Infrastructure capacity remains critically challenged, however. The health minister says improvements are being made.
He said on the weekend the government has secured three modular units to expand capacity at Princess Margaret Hospital and Rand Memorial Hospital.
Legislatively, the Davis administration brought a carbon credits bill to introduce the regulation of the trading of blue carbon credits.
Parliament also passed an amendment to the Evidence Act, which provides for the presumption of death for people who disappear “in circumstances of peril”.
Earlier this year, amendments to the Digital Assets and Registered Exchanges Act were brought to strengthen the country’s anti-money laundering framework and support the emerging digital assets industry.
While it pledged to pass anti-corruption legislation “without our first 100 days in office”, the Davis administration has failed to do so.
The PLP has also promised legislation for a cannabis industry, a citizenship bill, amendments to the Public Disclosure Act, and appears to be moving ahead with a controversial marital rape bill.
The party had also promised “within the first 100 days” to cause a review of Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) operations to reduce the cost of electricity.
The government continues to hold back on BPL raising its fuel surcharge, but how much longer will it be able to do so?
In the same vein, it has kicked the can down the road with respect to shoring up the National Insurance Fund, which is under threat.
The government has also been slow to set up infrastructure for the Freedom of Information Act to be fully enforced, and one year after coming to office, it continues to be in violation of the Public Procurement Act, claiming it intends to amend it to make the procurement regime more effective.
As the government gets deeper in its term, pressure will build for it to do more heavy lifting.
The PLP’s overall success will depend on its ability to avoid scandals, its handling of our fiscal affairs, how people feel about their pocket books, and the performance of the national economy.
It will also be judged on how efficiently Davis handles any major crises that come our way.
Affability and good PR will only get you so far.