A National Address by the Leader of the Opposition….

0
861
Dr. Hubert Minnis - Leader of The Opposition

New Year’s Address

By The Hon. Dr. Hubert A. Minnis, MP

Leader Of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition

7th January, 2014

My Fellow Bahamians, the Christmas and New Year’s Holiday Season is a period of reflection, introspection and forward planning. During this hallowed Season we as a people reflect upon the year which has now drawn to its close; focus upon our inward Faith through our outward celebrations of the Birth of our Lord; and look towards a better, happier, safer and more fulfilling tomorrow.

As we embark with renewed faith and hope upon this new year of 2014, we cannot help but to cast our minds back to the past and, as a Nation, most importantly, to the serious and debilitating slew of problems, errors, mis-steps and failings made by those charged with the duty of leading our Bahamas to new and better days. WE NEED AND MUST CREATE A NEW BAHAMAS.

Unfortunately, for every Bahamian 2013 has been a year marked by far too many failures on the part of the Nation’s leadership.

There was the total failure within the first year to deliver on the promise to create 10,000 new jobs; and worse the unemployment rate has increased and now exceeds 16.2% nationally.

There was an abysmal failure within the first year to deliver on the promise to craft an effective Mortgage Relief Plan; helping exactly nobody, and leaving thousands of Bahamians facing foreclosure and expulsion from their homes.

There was a failure within the first year to invigorate and revive the sluggish domestic economy, and inward foreign investment has also suffered leaving the United States Dollar Reserves in the Central Bank at an unacceptably low level.

The Gambling Referendum was an expensive and resounding failure for which no true or full accounting of its costs has yet been given to Bahamian taxpayers.

Despite publicly committing to honour the results of that Referendum, there has been a paralyzed failure on the part of the Government and law enforcement agencies to enforce the Law.

There has been a signal and abject failure to deliver on the promise to “double the investment in education;” and much needed educational reform initiatives appear to have been placed on the proverbial backburner.

Most distressing, among the significant failures in this remembrance of the past year, has been the now certain failure of the government’s highly touted Urban Renewal 2.0 programme in bringing any reduction in the high rates of violent criminal activity and the record setting numbers of Murders and other unexplained or as yet un-classified Homicides; which now exceed the grievous total of the previous year 2012.

Indeed, the escalating rate of violent crimes and murders is a cause for alarm, as this enveloping National calamity threatens the well-being, not only of innocent by-standers, but has also now attracted the attention of the news media in many of our major tourism markets. This inexorably places additional negative strain upon the attractiveness of the already weakened, but vitally important, tourism sector of our Nation’s economy.

My fellow Bahamians, as we look back upon the dismal catalogue of failures wrought by the present leadership over the past year, we as a People also have to look inward; calling up the resources of our Faith, Families and national resilience; knowing that there has to be a better way which we can fashion, working together in the Nation’s interests to solve the many and varied problems which now confront us! Looking forward it is only fair to conclude that 2014 will present even more complex challenges than 2013.

NEW TAXATION MEASURES AND VAT

Indeed, a most pressing challenge is likely to be the proposed introduction of a national Value Added Tax (VAT) by 1st July, 2014. We do, however, accept the pressing need for some revenue enhancement and even for the development of new streams of government taxation revenue, to address the chronic shortfalls in government income due in large degree to the ongoing negative effects of the Great Recession of 2008 and the continued sluggish rates of global economic recovery.

Notwithstanding our general recognition of the present circumstances, we have very great concerns that the proposed VAT may be the wrong tax at the wrong time for the already struggling national economy and poor hard-working and long-suffering Bahamians.

We are also greatly concerned that the government appears to have settled upon VAT without having first considered whether the same results could be achieved by way of alternative means of taxation including some less regressive taxes; so that those who are better able to shoulder increased taxation might do so for the benefit of the wider community.

It is also a cause of grave concern that the discussion of VAT is taking place without any consideration of the larger issue of controlling government’s recurrent spending and the ever-increasing yearly borrowing requirements.

The experience now well publicized of other countries in our Region who have VAT, but who are running larger deficit ratios every year than even our hard-pressed Bahamas, must clearly indicate to all right-thinking observers that VAT is not in and of itself the answer to the chronic budget deficits which have particularly affected The Bahamas since 2008. As I stated in an earlier press release and will re-state again: It is not how much you make, but how much you borrow and spend against how much you make, which will determine whether you can pay your bills as they become due. It might be an oversimplification, but every family is aware of this.

It is the considered view of the Opposition that a meaningful discussion of revenue enhancement measures and new or additional taxes can only, and should only, take place within the broader context of full disclosure of all suggested and alternative tax proposals; proposals for fiscal and public sector reforms; freedom of information; and realistic and sustained reductions in capital and recurrent expenditure by the government of the day.

It would be the ultimate disservice to the Bahamian People if VAT or, indeed, any new taxation measures were merely to become the means by which all that happens is for the government to borrow even more billions of dollars against a larger pool of projected tax revenue. Such an irresponsible course of action would only serve to postpone, but not prevent, the eventual day of reckoning. A mature and responsible government would consider all possible options and would have a meaningful and full dialogue with the business sector and the wider public, so as to craft the best and most fair, and equitable taxation and spending structures as well as disciplines. Such a process would ensure not only the needed increases in government revenue, but also, most importantly ensure that a significant proportion of any increases in revenue were applied directly towards debt reduction as a first and most urgent national priority.

The Opposition stands ready to serve as a full contributing partner to such a meaningful national dialogue as we seek to assist in the implementation of real and effective reforms which will reduce the National Debt, and benefit every Bahamian by assuring the reliable delivery of essential services by the Government.

THE SCOURGE OF CRIME

Fellow Bahamians, the continuing upsurge in violent crime particularly in the number of murders is not only a cause for alarm, but it is also a call for immediate, sustained and effective action! For far too long Bahamians have lived in the shadow of terror that any moment could be the last for them or their loved ones. For far too long the culture of gangsterism, drug abuse and trafficking have led to a pall of fear throughout our society where even the home, our sacred place of retreat and family, is no longer immune to invasion and armed incursion.

Indeed, the present crime wave can be shown to have its roots firmly planted in the drug culture which was permitted to overwhelm The Bahamas in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the invasions of drug trafficking foreign elements became a well-entrenched aspect of Bahamian society. It was in the Report of the National Drug Task Force in 1984, Chaired by Dr. David Allen, that the serious social breakdown of the integrity and morality of the family unit in wide sectors of Bahamian society were first documented. The Task Force reported that entire sub-communities throughout New Providence and the Family Islands had succumbed to widespread endemic drug addiction. The Report also documented the first significant upsurge in drug-related violent armed robberies and gun related crime, a more than 25% increase in a single year, as well as evidence of child neglect whose effects unfortunately continue to resonate even today. Annual police reports since that time clearly show the continuous and broadly increasing scale and volume of crimes, particularly violent gun-related crimes and murders from that sad period in our Nation’s history to the present day.

During the last general elections the present government made crime a political issue, erecting many large billboards, touting the 490 murders since 2007. Today, less than two short years into the present administration with more than 231 murders from 2012 to now, we as a nation are well on the way to exceeding that gruesome total touted by the present government!

They signaled to the electorate that there could be a political solution to violent crime and that a vote against the FNM would achieve that goal. Our position then and now is that there is no political solution to crime. There is a community solution with stronger churches and social intervention; and stronger parenting particularly by fathers as a linchpin of stronger upbringing of our youth. There is also a law enforcement solution which must be strengthened by political will and policy guidance.

Now is the time for Bahamians to unite in political will and make common cause to restore peace and harmony to our streets and communities, and to craft effective responses addressing not only the fear of crime, but also the prevalence of apparently unrestrained criminality and disregard for human life as well as to address the root causes of crime.

Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done! Justice must not only be sure but must be felt by those who would offend against its dictates!

In the apparent total ineffectiveness of present initiatives to stem the rising tide of crime, Bahamians feel a strong sense of fear and despair that is real.

No comfort was provided to a fearful nation by the limp and visionless response of the government to the recent horrific drive-by shooting of innocent by-standers in Fox Hill. Clearly, more must be done to effectively address both the causes of crime and the criminal element who threaten by their contempt of law and common humanity, to reduce our beloved Bahamas to the level of a failed State in the arena of crime and crime prevention.

The first duty of any government is the maintenance of peace and good order in society along with the protection of the civilian population! All challenges to the peace, good order and well-being of the social order must be met with responses appropriate to the threat posed by those elements who would kill and maim in order to achieve their own depraved objectives and goals.

Over the past several months my colleagues and I have carefully considered crime remediation and prevention solutions, both at the Parliamentary level and through political consultations in the Party, and with Officials and outside experts who have advised us. We are certain that any response to crime must be both vigorous and effective, but with a holistic view towards healing the afflicted where possible, while also addressing the underlying causes of crime throughout our communities.

It is, however, of critical importance that the law be upheld in every particular, inclusive of the ultimate punishment. It is clear that every government will arm, equip and fully support the police force. It is also clear that if there are laws on our books which cannot be enforced then we run the serious risk that the perception of weakness and inefficiency on the part of the law enforcement agencies will only continue to contribute to a perception in the minds of would-be criminals that they need not fear the legal consequences of their actions.

It is the considered position of the Free National Movement, that immediate steps must be taken to restore the integrity and effectiveness of all laws on our books, including Capital Punishment.

In so finding we acknowledge the preponderance of modern research which asserts that it cannot be shown that the Death Penalty has a deterrent effect upon the mind of the would-be murderer. That may be so, but what is also clear in our Bahamas is that today there is a hardened criminal element who have nothing but contempt for law, order, or human suffering, and for whom there is no respect for human life even the lives of innocent by-standers, and children. At the very least there should be the certainty of sure punishment, and punishment which is appropriate to the crimes committed. Our policy is not based upon any concept of deterrence; it is based on the right of national self-defence.

The wave of gang and drug-related murders is a matter which threatens not only the wellbeing of every citizen and every community, it also threatens the fundamental integrity of the State. It threatens the way of life of every law abiding Bahamian. It threatens National Security. Violent gun crimes and rampant murders must be tackled on that basis.

Towards this end the Opposition will table and publish in advance a Bill to amend the Bahamas Constitution so as to address several of the weaknesses in our procedures which have caused the Privy Council to overturn several capital sentences for convicted murderers in the past; and to strengthen and to enhance the integrity and effectiveness of the trial process in serious gun-related and murder cases.

Among other things the Bill will mandate that:

(1). an appeal against a sentence of death can only be made to the Bahamas Court of Appeal and nowhere else. This is a reflection of our considered view that in so serious a question as the sentence for a convicted murderer, a determination that a crime is “the worst of the worst” (or any similar legal formulation) should only be made by Judges who reside in The Bahamas, and who consequentially have to live every day in the society which they help to shape by their Rulings. All other appeals such as an appeal against conviction, or an appeal on constitutional grounds will still be able to be made to the Privy Council.

(2). If a delay between conviction of the murderer and the proposed date of hanging is caused by the Appeals made by the convict then the five year limit imposed by the Privy Council will not apply.

(3). The Governor General acting on the advice of the Minister of National Security will prescribe time limits for the lodging and conclusion of all appeals against conviction, or constitutional appeals, and if the same are not concluded within such time limits the Advisory Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy will be able to advise that the law should be brought into execution.

The Bill will also remove the Constitutional right to trial by jury either at the request of the Prosecution or at the request of the accused where there is a charge of having committed murder, manslaughter, or crimes involving the use of firearms to inflict harm or death, and particularly in instances where there is a likelihood of jury or witness tampering or intimidation. In such instances the case will be heard by a panel of two Supreme Court Judges along with a qualified non-judicial Attorney called an Assessor.

As this Bill necessarily seeks to affect fundamental rights and freedoms which are presently enshrined and protected in the Constitution, it will require the holding of a National Constitutional Referendum. My fellow Bahamians, it will be up to each and every one of you to decide whether these proposals become law by way of an amendment of our Constitution.

JUDICIAL SYSTEM

A comprehensive independent review of our judicial and policing systems must be conducted with strict goals, marked objectives to determine recommendations which must be adhered to without political interference. The entire judicial system must be reviewed, assessed, digitized and integrated. All agencies must likewise be updated, digitized and brought into this technological age of integration so as to improve communication, decrease inefficiencies and improve processes.

I am advised that there are over 16,000 outstanding warrants for arrests, we must integrate technology to ensure the police are equipped to bring these individuals before the courts.

The entire Bail Act must be reviewed, as 70% of murders are committed by those on bail.

POLICE ANTI-GANG UNIT

My fellow Bahamians, during the recent debate over the last compendium of crime Bills brought by the government to the House of Assembly, I suggested that the government should establish an Anti-Gang Unit in the Royal Bahamas Police Force. Just as the drug trafficking cartels were largely forced out of the Bahamas by the focused attention of the Drug Enforcement Unit which only occurred after the 1984 Commission of Inquiry, it is envisaged that such a specialized Unit would be able to bring more focused attention to the eradication of violent professional criminals organized as street gangs.

Such a Unit would allow for the more effective collection, pooling and analysis of intelligence information, which can be obtained through surveillance and other lawful information gathering methods. The Anti-Gang Unit would be at the forefront of the intervention efforts of the police to disrupt and destroy the drug gangs who are allegedly responsible for so many of the serious crimes which now beset our Nation.

I call upon the government to live up to the commitment they have now given and to expeditiously create and institute the Anti-gang Unit of the Police Force.

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOUR PROGRAMME

In order to further strengthen our communities we call for the creation and institution of a Nation-wide “Know Your Neighbour Programme”. It is envisaged that such a positive programme of neighbourhood self-empowerment would enable community leaders, elders and clerical statesmen and women to provide, through a structured programme of community involvement, a kind of ‘on the streets’ eyes and ears warning and early intervention system. Where parks, playgrounds, vacant lots and abandoned structures are being used as gang recruitment centres or for the sale and abuse of dangerous drugs, these can be identified and the community can then be empowered with government support to devise holistic intervention programmes to prevent the continued corruption of the youth.

Such a programme should be administered through the central government with the support of the Department of Social Services, as well as law enforcement agencies.

CAUSES OF CRIME AND EDUCATION

My fellow Bahamians, for too long our educational system has failed those children, most perhaps from our most challenged and economically disadvantaged communities. Far too many children leave high school with no academic qualifications and with no marketable skills or training. It is time to end the “one size fits all” approach of the system of comprehensive education.

We call for a thorough review of the entire system of junior and senior high school education to ensure that no child is left behind and that every child leaves high school with either academic qualifications or with an accredited certificate of training in some marketable skill, whether it is electrical installation, pipe fitting and laying, welding, auto repair or plumbing, to name a few. These programmes can and should be tied into the productive sectors of the domestic economy, with the full participation of businesses which are situated nearby to the participating junior and senior high schools.

The present system, which has every school trying to do a little bit of everything, is both inefficient, in terms of the utilization of teaching and technical resources, and ineffective in equipping and training those students who are not inclined to a purely academic education.

The present educational doctrine that the aptitude of every child must and can only be judged by the BGCSE examinations is outdated and unrealistic. It is time for the creation of differing assessment methodologies which, coupled with the structural reform of our schools, can provide a rigorous means of ensuring the accredited training and certification of the skills of those children who are more inclined towards technical and work-based education.

Such aggressive reforms in education will, in our view, attack the biggest single cause of crime, which ultimately feeds upon a vast pool of frustration, anger and lack of opportunity which afflicts too many thousands, particularly, of young men who leave school with no marketable or social skills and with insufficient work qualifications or any training.

NATIONAL ANTI-DRUG EDUCATION PROGRAMME

My fellow Bahamians, we also call for the immediate creation of a National Drug Prevention and Education Programme to be implemented in every primary and junior high school so as to warn our youth and to better equip them to withstand any peer or societal pressure to try dangerous drugs. It is clear that the drug culture of trafficking and abuse lies at the heart of so many of our present day problems. It is a cultural imperative that more effective steps be taken at the earliest opportunity to curtail the negative social impact of this harmful cultural development upon future generations. By early intervention and a structured programme which informs, educates and warns children of the dangers posed by drugs, hopefully, we can begin to counteract the allure of dangerous drugs, particularly marijuana.

CONCLUSION

My fellow Bahamians, as we embark upon this New Year, we are painfully aware of the tremendous challenges confronting our society. We in the Opposition have only the power to recommend and to offer the spirit of cooperation with the government. This evening, we have offered several proactive recommendations which, in our view, would largely address the most pressing issues of the day. It is our hope that the governing Party would accept these recommendations in the spirit of bi-partisanship in which they are offered. We are convinced, in the immortal words contained in the Preamble to our nation’s constitution, that the peace and welfare of our beloved country can only be assured by a “national commitment to self-discipline, industry, loyalty, unity and an abiding respect for Christian values and the Rule of Law”.

Guided by these high principles, we pledge ourselves throughout the coming year to tirelessly struggle for all that is right, all that is true and all that is in the best interests of the advancement of the Bahamian People. We pray that Almighty God will richly bless each and every Bahamian with a similar purpose and commitment now and throughout this year, 2014.

Thank you, good night and have a Happy New Year! May God bless our Bahamas.