National Review

Shaky ground

Four years in, another win appears a long shot for FNM

On the night of May 10, 2017, an understandably jubilant leader of the Free National Movement (FNM), Dr. Hubert Minnis, mounted the stage to the cheers and screams of thousands who had gathered to celebrate a victory of epic proportions. Minnis declared: “Never, ever allow the politicians to be in charge again. This is your victory and you will always remain in charge.”

But four years on, many are feeling like “the people’s time” slogan of the FNM in the weeks leading to the resounding defeat of Perry Christie’s Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was merely a phrase to dupe them into believing that they would get better.

For so many Bahamians, their economic conditions, and their hopes, have substantially deteriorated since that fateful election day.

While it is true that unimaginable
crises are partially to blame for many of these circumstances, it is the lived and felt experiences of people that will ultimately factor into whether they decide to give Minnis and the FNM another term in which to fulfill their ambitious agenda.

With a year to go before an election must be held, Minnis and the FNM have long started a campaign – in the middle of a pandemic – focusing their message on what they describe as competent and compassionate leadership in the face of unprecedented challenges.

On Monday, the fourth anniversary of his party’s election to office, Minnis told reporters that his administration “lost three years” of its term to hurricanes Irma and Dorian, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In other words, we had three challenges. So, we had to decide whether you just stop and deal with the catastrophic problems or are you a true government and run two parallel tracks – one track to deal with the catastrophic problems that we faced and another track to still move the country forward,” the prime minister said.

“We kept on course with moving the country forward.”

Hurricane Irma, which mainly impacted tiny Ragged Island, took place in September 2017, but it took the Minnis administration three years to take any meaningful action on Ragged Island.

Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane, happened two and a half years into the Minnis administration.

At that point, the government had already squandered its mandate, failing to maximize the first half of the term. 

Key campaign promises like local government for New Providence, a term limit for prime minister, a recall system for MPs, a fixed election date, a campaign finance law, the immediate full enactment of Freedom of Information legislation and the establishment of an Integrity Commission are all achievements the Minnis administration might have made prior to the mentioned crises had there been a genuine commitment to prioritize them.

The beginning 

Before examining further whether the Minnis administration has moved the country forward, as Minnis claims, let’s start at the beginning.

The euphoria that had characterized the election victory quickly fizzled as the freedom of opposition politics – when politicians can say and promise all manner of things – quickly gave way to the realities and responsibilities of governance.

In his very first budget communication, three weeks after the election, Peter Turnquest, at the time deputy prime minister and minister of finance, declared that the cupboard was bare and the government will have to resort to borrowing $722 million to cover outstanding bills and stay afloat.

Making a statement that was similar to that made by Christie and his ministers upon coming to office in 2012, Turnquest said, “The situation is far bleaker than we could have ever imagined”.

The tone of the ensuing budget debate was a takeoff on that statement with minister after minister revealing what they characterized as gross mismanagement of the people’s money by the Christie administration with some suggesting misfeasance and even misappropriation.

In the opening months of its administration, the government also sought to fulfill its pledge to deal with former members of the previous administration it claimed were corrupt.

Corruption had been a major theme of the election campaign and the PLP’s post election review confirmed that many voters rejected the party because they perceived it to be corrupt.

On the night of the election, Minnis asked the Lord to protect his administration from “the sins of arrogance and greed”.

Early in the FNM’s term, three former PLP parliamentarians, Shane Gibson, Frank Smith and Kenred Dorsett, were taken to court on corruption related charges.

In decisions that proved tremendously embarrassing and which dealt a major blow to the Minnis administration, two of those cases failed, with two Cabinet ministers being roundly criticized by a magistrate in the Frank Smith case.

Incredibly, nearly four years after he was charged, Dorsett has still not yet been tried.

The government, meanwhile, has refused to inform the Bahamian people how much money it has paid to foreign queen’s counsel in its failed bid to defend the first two cases.

In a move that appeared to represent an early fulfillment of its campaign pledge to bring anti-corruption legislation, the Minnis administration introduced the Integrity Commission Bill in the House of Assembly in October 2017, but it remains shelved.

Promised reform of the Immigration Act and the Bahamas Nationality Act has also not yet been achieved. The prime minister declared in Parliament that all children born to Bahamian women will have automatic right to citizenship.

In the last four years in office, the hypocrisy of Minnis and many on his team has constantly been exposed.

In May 2018, Parliament passed the “Spy Bill” though the FNM had condemned the PLP in its efforts to introduce similar legislation.

The early months of the Minnis administration, and indeed the many months that followed, were characterized by various blunders, but it was the controversial signing, in February 2018, of the Oban deal for an oil refinery and storage facility in East Grand Bahama that dealt another early blow to the FNM government.

More than three years later, the deal is dead in the water.

Oban turned out to be an omen.

The tremendous goodwill with which the Minnis administration came to office with has rapidly dried up.

State of affairs

Most significantly, the decision in 2018 to increase value-added tax from the 7.5 percent introduced by the Christie administration in 2015 to 12 percent created widespread angst among the electorate, especially since Minnis and the FNM had accused the former government of not caring for the poor in introducing the regressive tax.

In his second budget communication and subsequent contribution to the budget debate, Turnquest continued the theme of blaming the former government for the nation’s fiscal and other woes.

“They did introduce the VAT but failed to utilize the almost $1.5 billion collected during the first two and a half years of the tax to reduce the deficit and debt,” he said.

Visitor arrivals in 2017 had contracted by 2.1 percent due to reductions in both air and sea arrivals.

Unemployment as of November 2017 stood at 10.1 percent.

In 2018, the number of total visitor arrivals grew by 7.9 percent to 6.6 million, a reversal of the 2017 decline, and the strongest growth since 2010.

Real GDP growth improved to 1.6 percent in 2018, from the revised 0.1 percent real growth recorded in 2017.

However, the national unemployment rate rose to 10.7 percent in November 2018.

While Minnis talks about inheriting a bad economy from the Christie administration, the opening of Baha Mar, which created 5,000 jobs, was a major catalyst for economic improvement. 

In opposition, Minnis had called the opening of Baha Mar’s Grand Hyatt in April 2017 a “fake opening”, but he shamelessly presided over the opening of the resort’s SLS and Rosewood hotels after he became prime minister.

While the economy benefited from that resort’s opening, grave challenges were ahead for the government and the country.

Dorian struck Abaco and Grand Bahama in September 2019. The estimated damage and losses from the storm amounted to US$3.4 billion (IDB).

By the time the 2020/2021 budget communication was delivered months later, the outlook for economic growth and the fiscal outlook were incredibly grim.

By then, COVID-19 had struck.

There was a 100 percent shutdown of the tourism industry, an estimated 12 percent shrink in real GDP, a $900 million decline in revenue was estimated, $232 million was slashed from revenue as a result of Hurricane Dorian and the government announced it was foregoing $120 million to support maintaining employment through tax deferrals and credits in 2020/2021.

The director of labor around that time estimated that unemployment had risen to 40 percent.

In its most recent fiscal snapshot – which provides a report on the first nine months of 2020/2021, the Ministry of Finance reported a continued widening of the fiscal deficit to $878.2 million, up from $251.3 million during the same period in the year prior.

Since July 2020, the government borrowed $2.3 billion, compared to the $936.6 million during the same period in the previous fiscal year.

Government debt at the end of March was $9.5 billion – 82.8 percent of GDP.

Such is the current state of our fiscal affairs.

With another budget communication scheduled for this month, there is no expectation that there is any appreciable improvement and no sense that the government – led by Minnis and Senator Kwasi Thompson at the Ministry of Finance – has a clue how to bail us out.

Many remain unemployed or underemployed.

Hearing that the government lost three years is not likely to appease them.

Black eyes and
achievements 

Minnis and his ministers repeatedly state that there is no playbook for the hand they were dealt and that no other administration has been faced with such overwhelming and significant crises.

But that does not mean you play badly the hand that you were dealt.

The post-storm management of Dorian, the coordination of what were overwhelming relief and rebuilding phases, and the handling of the missing and the dead have further eroded the government’s barely remaining goodwill.

The Minnis administration also suffered a black eye from the uneven application of COVID-19 measures put in place to control the spread of the coronavirus. 

Understandably, like many other leaders of many other countries, Minnis was struggling to figure out which measures would work best. Notwithstanding his statements to the contrary, he did not always demonstrate that he was making decisions based on the science.

A poorly thought out decision to allow Bahamians and residents on short trips back into the country without first testing for COVID-19 is a decision that unleashed horrors on the country and one for which we are still paying the price.

We fear that the recent decision to allow fully vaccinated individuals into the country without COVID testing could prove a bad decision down the road.

The FNM’s campaigning even as the prime minister keeps in place restrictions on funerals, weddings and social gathering has widely been viewed as shameless and insulting.

The resignation of Dr. Duane Sands as minister of health last May hurt our pandemic response. 

The resignations of three others from Cabinet – Brent Symonette, Lanisha Rolle and Peter Turnquest – all cast a pall over the administration, as did Minnis’ firing of Reece Chipman – without explanation – as chair of the Antiquities Monuments and Museums Corporation in 2018, and the decision of three MPs (Chipman, Vaughn Miller and House Speaker Halson Moultrie) to leave the FNM.

The worsening tensions between the prime minister and the speaker is a reflection of bad leadership all around.

With all these factors at play, with the prime minister making excuses for his administration’s poor record of achievement to date, and with so many still facing hard economic times, it is difficult for Minnis and the FNM to tout any achievements.

As they head further into the election season, they will point to the expenditure of large sums of money to support struggling families during the pandemic; the provision of free tertiary education; finally bringing the crisis at the New Providence city dump under control; a reduction in crime; pumping money into entrepreneurial efforts; acquiring Grand Bahama International Airport; finally starting work on Exuma’s long-awaited airport; unveiling plans to develop a housing community for a handful of young professionals; digitizing more areas of government; signing an agreement for The Bahamas to manage its sovereign airspace; establishing the freedom of information office; providing an independent director of public prosecutions; protecting the jurisdiction from blacklisting, and facilitating important projects in downtown Nassau, including the Nassau Cruise Port, the new US embassy and the new Central Bank as important achievements.

But will these and other accomplishments be enough to secure another term?

Doubtful.

Taking into account the disasters the Minnis administration has faced, and continues to face, its performance to date has been mediocre at best. Due to unfocused, incompetent, uninspiring, unaccountable and arrogant leadership, they have missed their mark in a major way.

This is why the country is in an anti-FNM mood, with many anxious for an opportunity to vote Minnis and the FNM out of office.

The FNM is banking on fears many still have over what the FNM still brands as a “corrupt” PLP, and the lack of excitement surrounding the PLP leader to seal another win for the incumbent party, but this might ultimately prove a long shot.

The Bahamian people will deliver their verdict soon enough.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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