The clock ticks on the NPO bill

Dear Editor,

Civil society has pushed back on the government’s draft Non-Profit Organisations Bill, citing inadequate consultation, which Minister of Finance, K. Peter Turnquest, has found “somewhat surprising” to have gotten this feedback. But I have to say that I find his surprise to be the real surprise.

Where a bill is to usher in wide-sweeping changes to an industry, is it not a foregone conclusion that those most affected by the bill would wish for an opportunity to review said bill and understand its implications?

It is hard to believe that the government would not have been drafting the Non-Profit Organisations Bill for a few months and therefore had ample opportunity to circulate it. To add insult to injury, Civil Society Bahamas and other persons in the non-profit space have been focusing on the Civil Society Organizations Bill, 2015, only to now realize their time has been wasted.

While receiving a lot less fanfare, it would not surprise me if a similarly dismissive posture was taken as it relates to the Commercial Entities (Substance Requirements) Bill, 2018; Removal of Preferential Exemptions Bill, 2018; Register of Beneficial Ownership Bill, 2018; and the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 2018, all of which were approved by the Senate this week. 

Oddly enough, however, it would appear that international observers were made privy to the suite of bills in advance of their being tabled in the Senate and House. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) team visited The Bahamas December 3—7, 2018, and subsequently issued a press statement that praised the government for “the significant steps taken to increase compliance with international standards on anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT).”  In addition, Minister Turnquest indicated, as per a news article published on December 12, 2018, that the government has submitted legislation packages for the groups to review, presumably the OECD and FATF.

In my view, it is evident that the government has given primacy to satisfying these international bodies, rather than engaging with local persons and organizations.

Notwithstanding the hubris and blatant disregard for local persons and organizations, I do recognize the government’s rationale for bringing the non-profit sector into the fold as it relates to AML and CFT efforts. Some opponents of these legislative changes have focused on the fact that most non profit organizations (NPOs) are small associations whose entire annual budget do not reach the $50k threshold contemplated within the legislation. Be that as it may, the fact remains that non-profit organizations are legal entities that look very much like corporations where the only material difference being that they have no share capital and do not disburse profits. They can own assets and operate as a business. Case in point – the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation is the owner of Rolex. And as a result, theoretically, the same vulnerabilities to money laundering and terrorist financing still exists.

All of this being said, I urge opponents of the bill to negotiate a middle ground that allows the government to save face before those whose opinions they value most, i.e. — the IMF, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Financial Action Task Force, but which also give those who’ll be affected a reasonable chance at becoming compliant. For example, if the act takes effect January 1, 2019, civil society may seek to delay the effective date of those sections that the industry feels it is not yet ready to comply with, and may also seek to amend thresholds and exemptions contained within.

Note the need to move swiftly. According to new articles published on December 12, 2018, the minister of finance is quoted as saying that “At the end of the day, the provisions of the bill are going to have to go forward” and the Attorney General has indicated that it will be done before the end of the year.  If I may paraphrase on their behalf, “Tick-tock, tick-tock.”

— Leah Major

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