Much has been said already about the recent public event that was advertised by the government as a town hall meeting — using the coat of arms — but which turned out to be a Free National Movement (FNM) rally.
Nevertheless, we thought it important to explore another angle now that we are officially in campaign season.
At that event, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis declared that the “victory train” has left the gate.
“FNMs, will you join the victory train?” Minnis asked.
“Will you board the victory train? The victory train will not stop until 2022 when we disembark to be sworn in at Government House.”
The Minnis administration is barely beyond the mid-term.
By making that declaration now, the prime minister has essentially shot himself and his government in the foot as they will find it increasingly difficult to govern and to get buy-in for their programs and policies in the bitterly partisan atmosphere they are now promoting.
It is a bad political strategy, not one taken by a leader who understands the need to encourage unity over division.
By drawing his political sword so early in the game, Minnis might end up doing more harm than good to his party.
The country is already in an anti-FNM mood, even if many people still cannot stomach the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).
It is suffering from bad public relations and bad decision making.
Recent revelations about the decision on increased travel perks for ministers and their spouses have portrayed the Cabinet as out of touch with the public.
Minnis, meanwhile, has sent a signal to the opposing party to get more aggressive and to become battle ready for the next election.
It is too soon, we say, for such talk.
Less than five months ago, the prime minister was appealing for national unity after the worst national disaster in living memory resulted in at least 71 deaths and shook the nation to its core.
Although politics unsurprisingly crept into the post-storm discourse, many people were careful not to turn the Dorian response into a political circus and were willing to support the government in its relief efforts.
Minnis in fact scolded the official opposition for “playing politics” at a time when national focus was needed to tackle the disaster.
Campaign mode does not benefit the government and it does not benefit the people the government serves.
While the initial shock of the hurricane has worn thin, little progress has been made to restore the devastated communities.
Today, hundreds of people on Abaco and Grand Bahama remain in dire need. Some of them have relocated to New Providence, other islands and elsewhere, still trying to find some semblance of normalcy.
Many lost family members; many are still reported as missing.
The storm was an unprecedented event. The government cannot achieve such a mammoth task of restoring devastated communities alone.
If the country is divided, that task becomes even more difficult.
Minnis in the past has spoken of the value of bipartisanship and of governing for all Bahamians.
It was a message he had in his first speech as FNM leader in May 2012.
“We have the unique ability to view governance from both sides of the aisle,” Minnis said. “We will be bipartisan in our goal to improve life for all Bahamians no matter one’s political persuasion. But we will also be single-minded in opposing the government whenever it seeks to divide this country for its own narrow ends.”
Five years later, in May 2017 after the FNM was voted into office, the new prime minister discouraged division.
“I promise you, we promise you, that we will govern for all Bahamians: those who voted for us, those who did not vote for us and especially those who were unable to vote. I speak of the thousands of young Bahamians who are still in school or still at home,” he said.
“I want to assure those Bahamians who supported a party other than the FNM that they will have nothing to fear from us. Our founding fathers did not believe in political victimization and neither do we. Victimization is unconstitutional; it is immoral; it is simply wrong.”
In his first national address as prime minister, Minnis said, “Now you will understand more clearly why you will hear me speak about ‘we’ and ‘us’. No government can succeed without the people. No society can progress without all of the people moving collectively in a positive direction.
“The election is over. But you may now better appreciate why we campaigned under the banner: ‘It’s the People’s Time’.”
The prime minister set a positive and hopeful tone at the start of his term, but as the months progressed, many Bahamians questioned the sincerity of the FNM with its “people’s time” slogan.
Many now ask, “Which people?”
Minnis is the prime minister for all Bahamians, even those who did not support the FNM. But that group will feel less represented in an environment of political warfare.
It is impossible for politicians not to engage in politics, but leaders are called to a high standard. They must steer their countries toward economic and social stability, putting in place programs and policies aimed at improving the economy, education, health and general living standards for all.
Everything Minnis and his administration do from this point out will be viewed through a political lens.
The official opposition will likely become even more aggressive in attacking the government’s agenda; it will feel time running out. It will question in its internal circles whether the prime minister is preparing his party for an early election. It will respond accordingly.
Members of the public, meanwhile, might become even more suspicious of government’s actions.
Notwithstanding the arrogant approach Minnis and some of his ministers have taken, they will likely become more frustrated in their attempts to get the public’s support for their agenda.
It’s why the stunt the FNM pulled the other night was so silly.
When the government calls a town hall meeting now, more people will question whether they should believe. Some will, no doubt, expect a rally. They might opt out as a result.
Upon coming to office, Minnis promised regular meetings to engage the public. That concept appears out the window now.
Meanwhile, there is still a whole lot that the government has left to do.
Key pieces of legislation promised by the FNM have not yet been introduced, including legislation to strengthen the electoral process, legislation to improve government accountability and transparency and anti-corruption legislation.
Last November, Perspective, a section by Sharon Turner printed every Monday in The Nassau Guardian, reported that of the 76 legislative and policy pledges made by the Minnis administration in its Speech from the Throne delivered in May 2017, 14 had been carried out.
Turner opined that the pace at which these pledges were being fulfilled was “not merely a matter of statistics, but raises legitimate questions about [the Minnis administration’s] capacity, drive and level of coordinated focus in furthering pledges to improve the quality of life for all Bahamians”.
Upon coming to office, Minnis also expressed his administration’s commitment to National Health Insurance for all, which he said will be implemented in an orderly manner; and he promised an ambitious program for solar energy.
While the prime minister reported that nearly $1 million in benefits have flowed into Over-the-Hill as a result of the government’s initiative geared at the economic and social development of those communities, the kind of transformation he promised has not yet started.
Minnis also promised to expand that program to other areas of Over-the-Hill, which has not yet happened.
Other big ticket items were removing value-added tax (VAT) from breadbasket items and bills for certain services and utilities.
The government eliminated VAT on breadbasket items. It placed an exemption ceiling of $300 on light bills.
The promised removal of VAT on healthcare and insurance did not happen.
The hike in VAT from 7.5 percent to 12 percent resulted in an even higher cost of living, offsetting the VAT eliminations and exemptions introduced.
The poor feel it most.
This has been the most startling violation of the people’s trust by the Minnis administration.
When the Christie administration was introducing VAT, Minnis, while in opposition, accused the PLP of being “heartless” and “cruel” and said the new tax would decrease the spending power of families.
He called on the Christie administration to focus on collecting outstanding taxes owed, not on imposing more taxes.
The Minnis administration has a lot to do to improve conditions for average Bahamians burdened by the higher taxes.
It is not the time for the government to be patting itself on the back.
Sure, it has had some accomplishments: the transfer of management of the New Providence Landfill; the government’s selection of the Global Port Holdings Group (GPHG) as redevelopers and managers of Prince George Dock; drastically improving efficiency at the Passport Office.
It has seen improvements in tourism, notwithstanding the fact that Abaco, one of the biggest tourism earners, was devastated by Dorian.
The Bahamas hit a record 7.2 million visitors in 2019. This included the highest ever number of stopover visitors at 1.78 million, the tourism minister reported last week.
Despite this bit of good news being prominently featured, it did not resonate with Bahamians — not in the manner that the town meeting that developed into a rally did.
The rally was an ill-advised move on the prime minister’s part.
If he and his ministers were to take an honest look at the work they have done and line that up against what they have promised, they would determine they are nowhere near the mark in meeting the expectations they set in opposition.
The Minnis administration should guard against running the so-called victory train off the tracks so soon after it has left the station.