Perspective

The first 30 days

Positive steps and some missteps mark the Davis administration's first month in office

It has been one month since appointments to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis commenced.

The new administration is settling in to the task of governance, and still has a ways to go to settle into what kind of government it intends to be, and how to effectively communicate the same to the Bahamian people.

Emerging victorious on the campaign slogan, “A new day”, the Davis administration is now tasked with moving from campaign mode into establishing a defined mission statement for governance that anchors policymaking and relations with the public, and keeps the Cabinet focused as the demands of stewardship and of supporters beckon.

Faced with what Davis has described as the country’s “dismal” state of fiscal affairs, the administration has taken to prioritizing what is referred to as low-hanging fruit – initiatives that do not require significant revenue, but are meaningful to those impacted and to the country by extension.

Some of those initiatives include changes to emergency orders that enabled businesses to re-open on Sundays; moving the curfew hour to 11:59 p.m. which enables businesses including restaurants to better capitalize on their most profitable hours of service; and the removal of the travel visa payment requirement for Bahamians.

Also meaningful is the decriminalization of emergency orders, and the process of expunging the record of those convicted of breaching COVID emergency orders – a remediation of what we previously condemned as the injustice of criminalizing emergency orders, particularly where those found guilty of breaching an order might not have either been COVID-positive or under a quarantine order and, therefore, posed no public health risk to the general population.

A purported memorandum to staff of the Bahamas Customs Department that appeared on social media last week stated, “The Ministry of Finance has advised that all vehicles imported conditionally duty free into Grand Bahama and Abaco under provisions of the Special Economic Recovery Zone order are now approved to be transferred anywhere in The Bahamas without prior approval and subsequent payment of customs duties.”

The document also indicated that all unused prior approvals for vehicle importation under the order can be utilized.

The ability to freely transfer one’s vehicle purchased under the order ought to have been the policy under the previous administration, which in opting not to grant this allowance for victims of Hurricane Dorian, forced cash-strapped survivors in need of relocation to have to come up with thousands in customs duties to take their vehicle to another island.

It is not known how many Abaco and Grand Bahama residents would stand to benefit from this apparent change in policy, but the difficulty is that government has not advised the public by way of a formal statement that a change in policy has in fact taken place.

The document making the rounds is among several social media postings of departmental communications that have occurred since the Davis administration took office, with key government appointments also taking place without being accompanied by an official statement announcing the same.

A release from Cabinet Office outlining the allocation of portfolios for ministers – which lists not only the portfolio of ministers but details the matters and groups of matters which fall under a minister’s portfolio – has also not yet been released.

Quality of communication with the public can make or break an administration, and to minimize runaway narratives that can further erode public confidence strained by years of disappointing stewardship, the administration must ensure it stays on top of its duty to provide timely information on its policies and decisions.

STATE OF THE ECONOMY 

Davis recently advised reporters that his administration’s promised bill to reduce the country’s value-added tax (VAT) rate to 10 percent, will likely be among the first pieces of legislation presented when the House reconvenes next week.

Some observers have expressed concern about the timing of a VAT rate reduction given the country’s debt crisis, and ongoing revenue constraints due to ongoing global uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the prime minister and Minister of Finance introduces his VAT bill, it ought to be accompanied by a comprehensive communication on the current state of government finances and liabilities, as well as the country’s economic outlook.

While tabling a bill to reduce the VAT rate across the board will garner emphatic table-banging in both houses of Parliament, if it is done without also making plain to the nation where we are, where we need to be, and how government will guide and facilitate the path to growth, the timing of the bill would invariably come across as a gratuitous attempt to satisfy voters at the expense of the administration’s credibility as managers of the country’s fiscal affairs.

When the Minnis administration belatedly published its pre-election economic and fiscal update mandated by the Fiscal Responsibility Act, we observed in our August 30 piece, “The people’s business”, that the former administration failed to satisfy its statutory requirement to report on the approval of new spending since the annual budget, including spending for contracts, service projects and policies.

Now that the Davis administration has the files and full view of the books, this information should be provided to the Bahamian people.

In the interest of transparency and accountability, the administration should also consider returning to the 2022/2023 budget the personal emoluments documents removed during the 2012 Christie administration, so that the Parliament and public can once again track hires and transfers in the public service, and what public service workers whether permanent or contractual, are being paid.

While in opposition, Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) MPs bemoaned a lack of transparency in the budget reporting process which was “streamlined” by the Minnis administration.

The Davis administration should work to address what it complained about while in opposition, so that the budget reporting process for the upcoming fiscal year is worthy of the Parliament constitutionally charged with holding government accountable for its stewardship.

STATE OF THE PANDEMIC

Controlling the country’s SARS-CoV-2 outbreak is inextricably tied to prospects for economic growth.

The Ministry of Health has not addressed the nation on the state of the country’s SARS-CoV-2 outbreak since July, an unacceptable state of affairs which the Davis administration has not yet corrected by way of a resumption of ministry press conferences.

With outbreaks taking place on multiple islands, the Bahamian people have had to navigate the situation without the benefit of critical information the ministry is duty-bound to provide, having only at their disposal a daily COVID dashboard which physicians repeatedly decry as not being representative of realities on the ground.

While recent confirmed COVID case numbers have been lower – often coinciding with low testing days – the country’s staggering number of COVID deaths continues to mount.

The cause of outbreaks island to island has not been officially disclosed by health officials, and the public is in the dark on contact tracing efforts and what information about clusters or community spread is being gleaned therefrom.

Are travelers from relevant islands submitting to applicable COVID tests, and is contact tracing determining to what extent transmission is occurring due to either untested travelers, or travelers who may test negative prior to departure but may in fact be infected with SARS-CoV-2?

With nine new cases reported on Crooked Island and COVID deaths recorded for several Family Islands, the Ministry announced in a press release yesterday that it will begin distributing medical grade masks on islands experiencing clusters.

Since SARS-CoV-2 moves as people move, and surgical masks are not only more effective than often ill-fitting cloth masks but are now readily available for cents on the dollar, government should lift the restriction put in place by former Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis on the bulk importation of face masks.

This can facilitate nationwide access to more effective and affordable face masks, rather than access provided in response to an outbreak already in progress.

Minnis and former health minister Renward Wells made various announcements regarding the securing of additional healthcare workers, the implementation of a new quarantine monitoring system, and discussions on additional field hospital facilities.

A comprehensive update on these matters is required, and we call on the administration to effect an immediate return to national press conferences on the COVID-19 situation in-country, featuring comprehensive data that would make such events useful for the press and the general public.

THE LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

The administration’s Speech from the Throne is ambitious in its thrust, whose fulfillment will take focused and competent leadership, effective management of the economy and of government spending, a cohesive cabinet, and being upfront and honest with the Bahamian people about the state of the nation, and the role the citizenry must play in bringing about a necessary turnaround.

As we have previously asserted, the Minnis administration failed to accomplish most of its legislative agenda not primarily because of Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19, but because it approached its agenda in a laggard and disorganized manner.

Additionally, tensions, intrigue, and insular leadership made it virtually impossible for the Minnis cabinet to be effective in its stewardship – an occurrence the nation cannot afford to have repeated.

We note with interest the Davis administration’s pledge in its speech from the throne to introduce measures, “to amend the rules of the House of Assembly to enable fixed sessions of Parliament”, which foreshadows a plan to regularly prorogue the Parliament.

In Britain, Parliament is prorogued once a year, and if managed properly by the Davis administration, a regular prorogation of Parliament could be used to keep the administration focused on its agenda, giving itself fixed goalposts wherein it would aim to have designated legislative pledges accomplished.

The current rules and procedure of the House of Assembly make the leader of government business – who for this session is West End and Bimini MP Obie Wilchombe – chairman of the Rules Committee.

The rules committee under the previous session of Parliament failed to meet to do its work, and we encourage the Davis administration not to replicate this pattern of failure.

We reiterate our calls made during the last session for the rules committee to draft new rules that do away with the unconstitutional rules that currently exist, inclusive of those which enable the government through the speaker of the House, to silence the voice of the opposition.

And to demonstrate its stated commitment to zero tolerance for corruption, the Davis administration should introduce and pass very early in its term, its promised “effective anticorruption legislation”.

THE “WHY” AS WELL AS THE “WHAT” 

Revolutionary Nat Turner is credited with the statement, “Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.”

It can be easy for policymakers unskilled or unguided in the art of effective communication, to believe that the duty of communication to the public is done once a statement is made or a press release is issued.

But if government is either voluntarily forthcoming or forced to state what it has done, without explaining why it took a particular course of action and the anticipated impact thereof, it has failed to effectively communicate its stewardship to those it is elected to serve.

Over the past 30 days for example, various ministers have announced a stop and review of policies or decisions undertaken by the Minnis administration.

Reviews in and of themselves are to be expected for a new government, but without making unambiguously clear why a stop and review process is taking place — for example if concerns have arisen regarding the lawfulness or feasibility of a decision taken — the Davis administration runs the risk of being accused of engaging in the same kind of “stop, review and cancel” antics it accused the Minnis administration of engaging in.

Prime Minister Davis garnered criticism for selecting the largest executive branch in the country’s history, and while he argued that this was done to cause “all hands to be on deck”, big governments are hard to manage.

Big governments filled with big dreams, big egos and big ambitions – regardless of the party in power – can also be hard to control for the benefit of the Bahamian people and the administration’s stated objectives.

How Davis will captain and maneuver in this regard will be better seen as time progresses.

On balance, we see the Davis administration’s first 30 days as being a mixture of both positive steps and several flustering missteps, the latter of which will take dexterity, a recognition of what needs fixing and the will to fix the same, to cause the net overall effect to be in the country’s best interests.

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