Turnquest: U.S. fiscal transparency report misleading and unfortunate

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest yesterday defended The Bahamas against a recent listing by the United States Department of State on fiscal transparency.

The 2020 Fiscal Transparency Report notes that The Bahamas has made no significant progress in meeting the minimum requirements for fiscal transparency, along with countries like China, Burma, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Pakistan and many others.

Calling fiscal transparency a critical element of effective public financial management and the underpinning of economic sustainability, the U.S. state department report – which is released annually – requires that key budget documents are publicly available, substantially complete and generally reliable.

The report includes an assessment of the transparency of processes for awarding government contracts and licenses for natural resource extraction.

Labeling the assessment unfair, Turnquest said the title of the report is “misleading and unfortunate”, given that it explains that The Bahamas is only listed because of the timeliness of its audit reports being presented to Parliament.

“I want to recognize a release from our neighbors in the United States with respect to transparency in government financial reporting matters… I take issue with the assessment because it is based solely upon the pace at which the auditor general’s department presents its audited financial statements to this Parliament. I would have laid today the 2017 reports. We all know the challenges of the auditor general’s department in terms of resources. We also know the scope and extent of the government if you take it as an organization, the largest organization operating in this country,” he said in the House of Assembly yesterday.

“It does take some time for the auditor general’s department with all of its responsibilities for the current audit to complete the audit process. And I think it is highly unfair for an assessment and a statement to have been made in the way it was, even though the report does state the basis on which it has made that statement. As we all know, most of us do not bother to read the details, but we see the headline and we say the government is not transparent.

“That is absolutely not the facts. The assessors make that point clear in the details of the report and it is strictly about the infrequency and timeliness of those audit reports being presented to Parliament. I just wanted to make that point because I know there are a lot of mischief makers, but I wanted to put it on the record because it is, in my humble view, misleading and unfortunate in the way that it is presented.”

The U.S. state department noted in the report that The Bahamas’ fiscal transparency would be improved by ensuring the supreme audit institution audits the government’s executed budget and makes audit reports publicly available within a reasonable period of time. It further noted, “During the review period, the government made its executive budget proposal, enacted budget and end-of-year report widely and easily accessible to the general public, including online. Information on debt obligations was publicly available. Budget documents provided a substantially complete picture of the government’s planned expenditures and revenue streams. Information in budget documents was generally considered reliable.

“The Bahamas’ supreme audit institution did not publish an audit report of the government’s executed budget within a reasonable period of time. The criteria and procedures by which the national government awards contracts or licenses for natural resource extraction were outlined in law and appeared to be followed in practice. Basic information on natural resource extraction awards was public.”

Turnquest argued yesterday that the Minnis administration has been one of the most transparent governments with respect to its fiscal affairs.

“We introduced quarterly financial reporting, which gives an update of the government’s operations over the last quarter and over the past period of the fiscal year. We established a website where citizens can go online and see for themselves the budget, as well as these fiscal reports so they can chart for themselves and measure for themselves how the government is performing in respect to its budget,” he said.

“These are unprecedented tools that are being made available to the general citizen. We have just come off the 2020/2021 budget where we made a deliberate effort to be available and to make public presentations as to the state of the government’s finances and the economic developments as we see them.”

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