Oswald Brown Writes
By OSWALD T. BROWN
FREEPORT, Grand Bahama — The ineptness of the team responsible for collecting and managing the finances of The Bahamas government was quite evident in Minister of State for Finance Zhivargo Laing’s feeble attempt to “clarify” a notice published in The PUNCH newspaper on Monday, March 28.
Clearly, this was an effort by Laing to control the potential damage that an article published by Bahamas Press (BP) could have on the FNM’s re-election efforts if the notice was interpreted as Bahamas Press suggested. In its article, BP noted: “If you fail to renew your business licence on time, the FNM government is going to slap a $5,000 late fee fine on you. Now that’s what we call murdering the businesses in The Bahamas…”
Apparently, a flood of business persons rushed to the Business Licensing Unit of the Ministry of Finance to beat the March 31 deadline as stipulated in the notice, and it was this that alerted Laing that they had made a huge mistake that could cost the FNM dearly in the next election.
Here’s how BP described the government’s reaction: “The FNM, after getting word that the notice they published in the Gazette was backfiring on them, quickly ran to the … media to state that the news of the notice they published was absolutely an untruth and the $5,000 penalty applied only to persons dragged before the courts…”
This was in reference to what Laing said in a report broadcast on television. Laing also noted that the government had no immediate plans to prosecute anyone.
What kind of double talk is this? This clearly is not what the notice implied. For the benefit of those who did not see it, under the heading “Ministry of Finance Public Notice,” here’s what the notice stated: “The Ministry of Finance reminds the general public that under the new Business Licence Act, 2010 which came into effect on 1st January, 2011 every person licenced under the old Act has until 31st March, 2011 to be licenced under the new Act and pay applicable tax. Persons are encouraged to submit an application and pay the tax as prescribed for a business licence for the current year. The penalty for not complying with this Act is a fine of five thousand dollars ($5,000) and one hundred dollars ($100) for each day the offence continues.” It was signed by Ehud Cunningham, Financial Secretary (Actg.)
There is absolutely nothing ambiguous about what this notice says. Its diabolical intention is quite clear: It is meant to scare the daylights out of business owners.
To be sure, if it weren’t for BP’s vigilance in pointing out the Finance Ministry’s bullying tactics, this Mafia-style approach to collecting money owed to the ministry would not have been brought to the attention of the general public and Laing would not have been forced to make a disingenuous statement in defense of the government’s actions.
Of course, there is a more serious underlying reason as to why government found itself in such an embarrassing position. How many Bahamians have stopped for a moment and really analysed whether or not the management of this country’s economy is in competent hands? Our Minister of Finance is Prime Minister Hubert “THE DICTATOR” Ingraham, who is not known to be a financial expert by any stretch of the imagination, and his principal advisor, at least officially, is the Minister of State for Finance, who happens to be Zhivargo Laing.
Here’s a question that begs an answer: Do you think that any big business worth millions and millions of dollars would hire Laing as its chief financial advisor? This is not to suggest that Laing’s degree in whatever financial discipline he completed his studies in at an institution of higher learning does not qualify him to hold down such a position, but in all likelihood that big business would want a more experienced individual with a track record of performing well when dealing with financial matters at that level.
Governing The Bahamas is to some extent big, big business, so why should the Bahamian people, who elect politicians to run the country, settle for less? In the PLP administration, led by Prime Minister Perry Christie, which was ousted by the current FNM government in 2007, the Minister of State for Finance was James Smith, a former governor of the Central Bank, who is one of the best financial minds in the country. And in the previous FNM government, which was defeated by the PLP in 2002, the finance minister was Sir William Allen, who has also distinguished himself as a heavyweight in the financial arena.
If Sir William was not inclined to continue in that capacity when the FNM returned to power in 2007, Prime Minister Ingraham had the option of appointing someone with similar financial qualifications to the Senate and making that person Minister of State for Finance. But he chose not to act in the best interest of The Bahamas and the Bahamian people by appointing Laing to a position that was clearly out of his league. It is generally believed that this selfish decision by Ingraham is mainly because he is grooming Laing to replace him as leader of the FNM, which would put him in the position to become Prime Minister should the FNM win an election while he is the leader.
At the very least, it was irresponsible of Ingraham to gamble with the well being of this country’s economy just to satisfy his political agenda. I am among those who are convinced that although countries around the world have been affected by the current world-wide recession, the Bahamas has a small economy and could have fared better if the persons responsible for managing the country’s financial affairs had a better understanding of what they should be doing.
If they did, then it would not be necessary for them to now be frightening struggling business owners to pay their taxes.