By Hon. Philip ‘Brave’ Davis, Q.C., M.P.
Cat Island, Rum Cay & San Salvador
It is always an honour to rise in this House as the representative of the excellent people of Cat Island, San Salvador and Rum Cay.
They have been through so much lately, and unfortunately they are not alone in their suffering.
Outside of this House of Assembly, you would have a difficult time finding a Bahamian who does not believe our country is in serious trouble.
You can talk to an economist or you can talk to the mother sleeping with her children in her car – they’ll both tell you the same thing:
We are a nation in serious trouble – a crisis.
And what does a leader owe the people during a time of crisis?
Honesty – about the difficulties we face;
Transparency – about what may be required to overcome those difficulties;
Compassion – for those suffering;
Vision – a plan for the way forward;
Ingenuity – to see the opportunities that are the silver lining in any crisis, and Inspiration – the bringing together of our people in pursuit of a common purpose.
Unfortunately, the budget put forward by this Prime Minister and Minister of Finance offers none of these qualities.
It is neither honest nor compassionate.
It does not innovate or inspire.
It is cautious instead of bold, deceptive instead of forthcoming.
They offer paralysis in place of progress.
There is no plan here — no plan to manage $10 billion in debt, no strategy for economic growth.
What really gets me, Mr. Speaker, is the contempt for the Bahamian people.
It’s the lack of respect that is infuriating —
The certainty that Bahamians will fall for political gimmicks and ignore the role this government has played in worsening the crisis.
The expectation that people will say “thank you, sir” for some short-term give-aways – give-aways purchased with money we don’t have, money that we will have to borrow at very high interest rates because lenders don’t believe this government has a credible plan to pay it back.
This budget is about selfish political ambitions, not shared national ambition.
It is not what our country needs right now.
But they cannot do better than this, Mr. Speaker. They cannot and they will not.
Because they like the way things are going in this country. They aren’t interested in real change.
They are here to defend instead of upend the status quo!
This budget is a guilty plea, an admission that they will never do more than tinker, even though we desperately need an overhaul.
You want someone to transform the economy? Ain’ gonna be these fellas. Because it’s working just fine for them and for their friends.
But it’s not working for nearly anyone else.
Mr. Speaker, many Bahamians feel this is the worst of times.
Young people struggle to see a future here.
That means everything important is on the line for us.
We can’t afford to continue on this path. We have to make big changes, not small ones.
We need to restructure our debt, so it doesn’t drown us. I’m going to tell you how.
We need to end stupid spending. Some of the decisions this government has made – it’s like they lit the money on fire, for all the good it’s done for the people.
We need to invest in new sectors of the economy; the over-reliance on one industry is something we can and should leave behind. There are more opportunities than ever before to diversify, and in doing so, to create wealth and ownership for a new generation.
And Mr. Speaker, we urgently need to help Bahamians who are suffering the most right now.
Proverbs 29:2, tells us, “when the wicked rule, the people suffer”, and today the suffering in The Bahamas is widespread, leaving no island untouched.
Mr. Speaker, it’s important to understand that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, when constructing this budget, faced a choice:
He could confront the nation’s problems head on, or he could kick the can down the road.
He made his choice — to delay, and therefore to deceive – and the country is worse off because of it.
2. FNM GOVERNANCE BEFORE DORIAN & COVID
Mr. Speaker, the government is asking the Bahamian people for more time.
They say they were knocked off course by Dorian and COVID.
So how would they have governed without these crises?
We don’t have to guess, because nearly half their term took place before Hurricane Dorian.
And none of us have forgotten what those years were like:
— a shock 60% increase in VAT, with no accompanying rise in the minimum wage;
— tax breaks for the wealthy and well-connected;
— the VAT breaks for multinational corporations in Grand Bahama;
— the reduced business license fees for businesses with more than $50 million in annual sales;
— the disgraceful Oban scandal, never fully explained;
— the purchase of the Grand Lucayan, which we warned against, during which negotiations they failed to include the furniture and golf course – the bill to taxpayers is now nearly $200 million and counting; — the millions spent on failed prosecutions against the PLP (which featured Cabinet-level interference with witnesses, including a $1.9 million government contract given to a key witness on the eve of trial); — and a very lucrative government contract for a member of their own Cabinet – an agreement that the Prime Minister himself long ago promised to share with the Bahamian people.
Just add that hidden lease to a very big pile of broken promises on transparency.
That’s something else they didn’t do before Dorian—keep their campaign promises on reform and accountability.
So when they ask for more time, Mr. Speaker, we know exactly how that would go –
More pain for the small man;
More tax breaks for the wealthy;
More scandals like Oban;
More political vendettas; More broken promises, and more special deals for FNM insiders.
Bahamians deserve better.
They deserve a government that gives tax relief to those who need it most, instead of a government that makes fat cats even fatter.
Money going where money is……we’re going to disrupt that; you can count on it).
They deserve a Prime Minister who won’t get swing at the negotiating table, who knows how to be an effective advocate for the people.
They deserve a government that makes the hard decisions and then owns them, instead of hiding behind excuses.
3. MISMANAGEMENT OF DORIAN
Mr. Speaker, I feel confident predicting that the government would repeat their mistakes if granted more time, because there is zero evidence they have learned anything during the last four-plus years.
Let’s take Dorian. Along with COVID, the hurricane is their go-to explanation for why the economy is failing so dangerously today.
Well, let’s look at the record.
There’s no doubt Dorian caused terrible destruction.
It would have challenged any government.
But this government mismanaged Dorian from the start – their effort was bungling, ineffective, embarrassing, disrespectul, heartless.
And so Grand Bahamians and Abaconians have suffered more, it has cost us more, and the recovery is agonizingly slower.
Incompetence matters. Here it led to more tragedy, more heartbreak, more anguish.
Who can forget the aftermath of the hurricane, during which this government failed to coordinate humanitarian aid, failed to lift flight restrictions for planes flying in relief supplies, failed to show up where they were needed most? Who can forget Bahamians begging for the government to show their face?
“When the wicked rule, the people suffer.”
On 9th September, 2019, eight days after the hurricane, the BBC reported: “Locals warn us that there are more bodies buried beneath the rubble in Marsh Harbour. They wonder why officials haven’t come to retrieve all those who perished during Hurricane Dorian. As you walk around the town, there is very little in terms of any official presence.”
On the first of October, one month after the hurricane, USA Today reported, “A recurring question from many Bahamians is: ‘When will help from our government arrive?’”
On the ninth of November, more than two months after the hurricane, NBC News reported that residents of Green Turtle Cay said they had been ignored by the government. “Nassau’s response has been zero,” said one shop owner. “If it wasn’t for America, we would be dead,” said a fisherman.
So you see, Mr. Speaker, why Bahamians aren’t in the mood to give the government a free pass because of Dorian.
This government did not offer free flights on Bahamasair to those who wanted to evacuate before the hurricane.
How many people perished because they did not have the money to fly their family to safety? And if the answer is any number bigger than zero, how do they live with that?
After the storm, for nearly a week, only private planes were evacuating residents out of Marsh Harbour, a handful of seats at a time.
Where was our national airline?
When they finally showed up, they charged $75 a seat on flights – charging people who had nothing left but the clothes on their back. After a social media storm, they backed off, but they had already shown us their true colours.
I don’t need to remind anyone in this country about the bodies stored in trailers, or the shifting death toll numbers, or the mass funeral and the relatives who were kept away. Those are tragedies etched into our collective national memory.
These were not just governance tests, Mr. Speaker, they were character tests, and the result was failure.
The Guardian has a story this week, 21 months after the hurricane, about the temporary domes that have yet to be erected in Abaco and Grand Bahama. 21 months later, people are still waiting for some kind of simple shelter.
Meanwhile, the Disaster Reconstruction Authority has violated the financial disclosure requirements of its authorizing statute. Why? What’s the hold-up – why the resistance to auditing the financials, as required by law?
Almost worst of all is that they have learned nothing.
The budget we’re debating today, the same one they’ve been defending, cuts millions from hurricane preparedness – that’s right, ignoring warnings that there is a 60% chance that this year’s hurricane season will be more active than usual, the government has decided in 2021 we can invest less than we did last year in protecting ourselves from the next storm.
Bahamians deserve better.
We need an updated, comprehensive and detailed assessment of our vulnerabilities.
We need to take multiple steps to reduce risks, including better warning systems for hurricanes.
We must build and strengthen shelters across all of our islands to withstand 220-plus mph gusts and 20foot storm surges.
We need to invest in improving critical drainage infrastructure.
We must create detailed evacuation policies that ensure Bahamians across our islands can be safe in any number of scenarios.
We need to invest in flood-proofing our critical infrastructure.
And we need to train people – as part of our Economic Plan, the PLP proposes giving young people the technical training needed to serve in a Disaster Response Corps.
There is a better way forward, but it requires a plan, and the ability to execute a plan.
4. MISMANAGEMENT OF COVID
Mr. Speaker, the other explanation the government offers for the depth of our economic crisis is COVID19.
Here again, one can sympathize with the initial difficulty in managing this new threat. Indeed, my colleagues and I supported the initial State of Emergency; we thought the government deserved time to come up with a plan.
The problem is, 17 months later, there’s still no plan. 17 months later, it’s still react, react, react, the shortest-term thinking, instead of incorporating all that has been learned since the start of the pandemic into a thoughtful approach that balances health and economic considerations.
17 months later, this government is still over-relying on the blunt instruments of lockdowns and curfews, imposing enormous economic costs, especially for those who can least afford it – Bahamian families and small businesses.
This government has not been effective at stopping the virus or protecting our economy.
I pause here to table the latest data from the World Health Organisation, which shows The Bahamas continues to perform poorly in comparison to other countries in our region, which have both fewer COVID cases and fewer COVID deaths per capita.
That’s what happens when you don’t have a plan. That’s what happens when you have a Competent Authority who doesn’t truly listen or consult. That’s what happens when you disrespect local voices.
Instead of a plan, the Competent Authority instead has issued — and continues to issue — dozens and dozens of emergency orders, imposing and changing restrictions that result in a zig-zagging maze of regulations, prohibitions and penalties.
We needed fairness; instead, we got a government that appeared to pick favourites.
Remember when certain restaurants and liquor stores were allowed to serve customers, and others were not?
Remember when food chains like Burger King and Wendy’s got better treatment than the folks at Arawak and Potters Cay?
Remember when hundreds of Bahamians were stranded abroad, their requests to return refused — even as wealthy foreigners were allowed in without testing, even as foreign flights were allowed to land to take home their own citizens?
Ahead of the re-opening last July 1, the PLP’s COVID-19 Task Force warned the government to have sufficient testing, tracing and isolation resources in place. They did not listen. Private boats, yachts and flights were allowed in even earlier than the announced date. The new rules contained critical loopholes.
Because the government did not know – still does not know! – how to use testing to stay ahead of an outbreak, a few cases turned into many thousands.
And then started the series of lockdowns that were the final deathblow to so many of our local businesses.
“When the wicked rule, the people suffer,” Mr. Speaker.
Families learned they would be locked down for a full week, effective immediately. Only when people took to the streets did the Competent Authority re-consider and allow some stores to open – although he had scores of the protestors arrested.
By October 2020, Sandals’ Bahamian resorts were among the only of Sandals Caribbean resorts to remain closed.
As the Tribune reported, “Given that other Sandals resorts around the Caribbean, from Jamaica to St Lucia, Grenada and Barbados are now open, with only its Bahamian properties still shuttered, the signs are that this nation’s own COVID-19 levels and travel-related restrictions…may have been the greatest factor.”
Indeed, Sandals’ chief executive blamed “confusion” in the government’s Covid response for the delayed reopenings.
Club Med opened in Mexico and Guadaloupe – but still has not opened in San Salvador. I shall get to that very important issue later.
What is absolutely clear is that the repeated lockdowns and the delayed reopening had massively destructive impact on our economy.
If we had opened successfully on July 1, and stayed open, instead of locking down and delaying reopening until November, we would have had an entirely different year – one where more Bahamian businesses survived, more people continued to work, and revenues much healthier.
Poor governance matters.
This government’s mistakes have been expensive. It is really something to see the government cite the economic impact of COVID, as if they played no role, as if Bahamians aren’t smart enough to know that more successful COVID policies would have reduced the impact to the economy.
Again, it’s the contempt, the lack of respect, that infuriates.
Even as visitors have started to return, Mr. Speaker, as of April it was estimated that some 75% of hotel workers were still out of work.
On the issues of redundancy, severance and the extension of the emergency orders, the government has not heeded the input of these workers.
Then there’s the issue of testing. Late in July 2020, the government required testing for inter-island travel – but did not do enough to expand access or to reduce cost.
The PLP’s Task Force called for free testing – the Competent Authority said it was “Alice in Wonderland”.
In fact, the PLP’s Task Force has issued detailed, constructive recommendations for combatting COVID, on multiple occasions; I table those now.
Of course, the Competent Authority hasn’t just been ignoring our advice – he ignored an offer from the private sector to help the government ramp up testing with a lower-cost, quick results test, too.
The Tribune reported at the time that “Many observers believe lack of testing capacity has been a major contributor to (the) second wave,” noting that a prominent businessman had called the second wave “devastating for businesses, absolutely devastating”, which indeed proved to be the case.
In the meantime, the cost of PCR testing in The Bahamas remains out of reach for so many, especially with widespread unemployment.
Bahamians know that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers, but to this day, if you are exposed to the virus, and don’t have symptoms, you can’t get a free test.
It would be easy for the government to partner with clinics and private providers to subsidize the cost of PCR testing for Bahamians in this position.
Not just easy — ethical. And not just ethical – but smart, too – we would catch more cases, people who tested positive could isolate from relatives and co-workers, people who tested negative could carry on earning a living and taking care of their families.
So what’s the downside of free testing? None – unless you want to protect the private profits of those who are allowed to conduct PCR tests.
I don’t see any provision for free testing in this new budget, Mr. Speaker.
Which brings me to another question: just what exactly is going on with the digital payments company that was given the contract for the health visas?
First, we know there was no competitive bidding for the contract. Are any members of the FNM inner circle profiting from these health visas? I’m sure that’s something Bahamians would like to know.
And why does the collection of monies by this company appear to violate our Constitution, which requires that all revenues be paid into the Consolidated Fund (Constitution § 128)? But that’s not happening in this case, is it? Why not, Mr. Speaker?
How many millions of dollars has this company collected in travel visa revenue? This government’s budget suggests it plans at least $3 million in revenue from visas next year.
So how much was made this year, and where is it?
I think it’s important to note, Mr. Speaker, that other Caribbean nations have not implemented similar travel visas. Most require a negative PCR result, and some require the traveler to fill out a questionnaire or registration form – but none of them have these very expensive travel visas like the kind we have here.
So, why isn’t the money where it should be?
Where’s the political connection to those profiting?
If the government is not forthcoming, I think we will start to see that the Bahamian people, who are much vexed with the cost and hassle of these visas, will start to demand answers. I will leave it there – for the moment.
I turn now to vaccines, Mr. Speaker, which is a story of too little, too late.
The Bahamas was one of the very last Caribbean nations to start vaccinations, and we continue to lag behind our regional neighbors in procuring and administering vaccines.
Inexplicably, the government has relied almost exclusively on COVAX to obtain vaccines.
But COVAX was never intended to be the sole or even the main source of any nation’s vaccines. Instead, the Pan-American Health Organisation has been clear – countries such as ours can expect to receive an allocation of vaccines to cover between 16 and 20% of our population.
So on the one hand, we have the government shouting from the rooftops about the importance of the vaccine, pushing to give the vaccinated all sorts of privileges – and on the other hand, the government has only purchased enough vaccines for less than one-sixth of its population—assuming every person needs two shots.
I’ve heard the government, from time to time, claim that they have made efforts to secure more vaccines, but it’s not clear what, if any, steps this may have included.
We remember the Minister of Health’s assertion that the country would achieve herd immunity by this summer, Mr. Speaker, and we have to wonder about the reliability of his utterances.
I was made aware of a private company who reached out to the government at the end of January, and the beginning of February, to offer to secure the Pfizer and other vaccines for Bahamians. The government turned them down.
In February, Bamboo Town promised to spend $100,000 for ultra-cold coolers that could store Pfizer vaccines – even in the absence of the ability to procure the Pfizer vaccine, apparently.
Here again, our neighbors are ahead of us — other Caribbean nations have procured Pfizer doses. [CARPAH, 5/10/21; Reuters, 2/16/21]
The Bahamas has administered just 68,000 vaccine doses.
The Bahamas is behind, according to the Caribbean Public Health Agency.
Mr. Speaker, the vaccination campaign has been particularly slow in the Family Islands. It wasn’t until late April that many in the Family Islands had access to the first jab, when the United States helped our country distribute doses.
Mr. Speaker, we have both a supply problem, and a demand problem.
Not enough vaccines, but also significant numbers of Bahamians hesitant to take the vaccine.
There has been all sorts of talk recently from the Prime Minister about vaccination holidays and privileges.
I would encourage him to be more thoughtful about the concerns Bahamians have about taking the vaccine, and to address those concerns respectfully.
Why not hold town hall meetings and make doctors available to answer questions about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines?
Why don’t we open up the process and include primary care doctors in the administration of vaccines, so Bahamian patients can discuss the issue with their doctor one-on-one, with someone who may know them.
When you start with respect for the people, instead of contempt, you can get so much farther.
Speaking of respect – the Competent Authority has refused to properly engage doctors and nurses, or to train and retain sufficient health care personnel – during a pandemic.
Since as early as last summer, Bahamian physicians and nurses have been nearly begging the Competent Authority for proper consultation to protect public health and the country’s economy.
And nothing has improved since – in April and then again in May, the Consultant Physicians Staff
Association raised concerns over the lack of consultation, saying physicians are still not being engaged in
Doctors and nurses have said they were not included in conversations about vaccinations, or discussions about the extension of the emergency orders, or in the decision to allow vaccinated travelers to enter without a negative PCR test.
In the meantime, nurses report being owed money and training hours by the government.28
All that rhetoric about “essential” and “frontline” workers – what’s all that talk worth to them, when this is how they’re treated?
The Competent Authority has also made a habit of ignoring pleas from the business community.
Again and again, he has imposed lockdowns without consulting with business owners about how to limit the economic fallout.
The small business programme they spend so much time boasting about – too often it has failed to get help where it’s most needed.
As the Tribune reported, “Grand Bahama micro, small and medium-sized firm (MSMEs) have to date attracted just under four percent of the $50m made available to the sector this fiscal year.”
Meanwhile, the Business Continuity Loans came with a 5% interest rate. [Access Accelerator, Business
Continuity Loan Program FAQ]
The deferral period was too short – five months – and the government extended it, but only to January
2021. Many small and medium sized firms are now struggling to repay the $20,000 Business Continuity
Loans they received via the SBDC last year.
Mr. Speaker, again and again we see a government that wants to hide behind COVID, to say “it was COVID’s fault, don’t blame us”, a government that is uncomfortable with scrutiny of their policy choices during COVID.
Perhaps they ride around in their government cars and don’t see the fallout from their mistakes.
But the rest of us are painfully aware of the suffering. The rest of us live with evidence of their failures all around us.
Mr. Speaker, how is it that after so many hours listening to this government over the last few weeks, we have heard almost nothing about the children who could not, for a variety of reasons, participate in virtual classes during this pandemic?
In February, the Minister of Education acknowledged that at least 30 percent of students were not participating. 30%, he said – and I wonder if it’s not more, given the severe economic stress this year.
When interviewed, the Minister sounded almost like he was blaming the children themselves: “The children have a responsibility. This is their education.”
In March, it was reported that some public schools saw student participation drop to less than 50 percent.
My God, if that’s not a crisis, I don’t know what is.
Yet the Minister blamed parents, said families were investing in $2,000 iPhones instead of in education.
How many homes are we talking about, where in 2021 misplaced luxury spending was really the main thing holding back our public school kids?
It’s almost as if the economic crisis does not exist in their world.
What do you think upwards of 40% unemployment does to families?
What kind of pressures do you think that exerts?
You see people waiting for hours in long lines for one bag of groceries, and you’re still blaming families?
Maybe that’s easier. Maybe the Minister believes that absolves the government of responsibility to do more to catch these students up.
Because it’s not an easy fix.
The obstacle isn’t the same in all homes.
Sometimes it’s a connectivity issue.
Sometimes the family is moving around, without a stable place to live.
Sometimes there are learning challenges that didn’t allow for learning through a screen.
But we have to help.
These Bahamian children deserve better.
We have to come together as a country and hold these children up, give them the support they need. We cannot let a pandemic year steal their potential, steal their future from them. Helping them catch up is absolutely achievable, but only if there is the compassion and the will to make it a priority.
It will require bringing people together – teachers, principals, families.
Yet, Mr. Speaker, no one could be surprised when I share the following: teachers were not consulted sufficiently ahead of school reopenings.34 35
And just so we’re clear on this government’s priorites, they cut education funding during the pandemic, hampering reopening plans. As students were finally returning to in-person learning, dozens of schools could not reopen due to uncompleted construction.
As many as 30,000 students on four islands did not have students return to campus in February for faceto-face instruction because necessary repairs had not been carried out.
The Ministry of Education cut their funding for education infrastructure by $11 million.
Yes, this is the same government of the $20 million sidewalks.
“When the wicked rule, the people suffer.”
Mr. Speaker, I have been listing at some length the failures of this government under COVID, but the tragedy is that I have only scratched the surface.
What is most important now, though, is to have better policies going forward. Bahames deserve better.
We all desperately want COVID to be yesterday’s news, but COVID is not finished. The new data on the Delta variant, is alarming. This is the variant that was first detected in India and now has been identified in 74 countries.
This COVID variant appears to be both more transmissible and more lethal.
There are concerns that by the fall it will become the most dominant variant.
Mr. Speaker, we cannot keep making the same mistakes. I urge the government to be ready this time. Don’t be passive, don’t wait until the Delta variant is here.
Do it all – ramp up testing, source more vaccines, build public trust, invest in public health.
5. CAT ISLAND, RUM CAY & SAN SALVADOR
Once again, I thank the people of Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador in whose name I stand today, for their continuing confidence in me.
They trust me to represent their interests, to promote their cause and yes, to have their backs.
And yes, I hear from them all the time.
And I listen!
The way that this government has treated my constituents since 2017 has been shameful. The government’s incompetence, lack of compassion and spite is emblematic of how they’ve treated most ordinary Bahamians – certainly the ones who they perceive not to be their political supporters.
On coming into office, with their usual ‘Stop, Review and Cancel’ philosophy, this FNM government cancelled the building work on the clinics in Cat Island, San Salvador and Rum Cay, which our Administration had started. One clinic was just three weeks away from completion! Cancelling it was an act of pure spite! The same can be said for the Rum Cay clinic which was nearly finished. **PROP
The result of course, is that now, as Cat Island is facing an outbreak of Covid-19 infections, residents have to be airlifted to Nassau for treatment.
Then there is the crude use of ‘lockdowns’, a blunt and harmful practice, to stop the spread of the virus. As we have said time and again, if the government conducted free testing instead, they would know which people are infected, and which are not. Those without the virus could carry on being economically productive, whilst the others could be isolated and treated as required.
The lockdowns imposed by the Prime Minister, the Competent Authority, has devastated the local tourism industry. Boutique hotels have especially suffered. Making a bad situation much worse, he refused to reach out to the owners of Club Med when they were deliberating over whether to keep the resort open.
His petulant response that, “they should contact him first”, displayed the kind of callous mindset that we have so often seen on display from him.
Never mind the hundreds of Bahamians who lost their livelihood as a result.
Never mind the families who depended on their incomes to sustain them. This, Mr. Speaker, is the suffering of the people.
And then there is this government’s shameless habit of claiming PLP successes as their own. It has become so commonplace as to be laughable. Except that it is the Bahamian people who suffer in the end.
We left completed survey and architectural plans in place for a new state-of-the-art international airport at New Bight. Our Cabinet had approved the award of the contract to Wosely Construction. Another example of a spiteful cancellation that hurt the Bahamian people.
A $28 million loan was negotiated for potable water infrstructure for San Salvador, Cat Island, Long Island, South Andros, Eleuthera, Crooked Island, Boatswain and parts of Pinewood Gardens. We completd the full planning for potable water for Cat Island and San Salvador. Implementation was disrupted by the Election. This Government abandoned the project then used it to try and insult me as the faithful representative of the people of Cat Island.
Cat Islanders and San Salvadorians know the truth.
In each of these examples we see the uncaring and incompetent faces of this administration that have taken over the country.
The incompetent handling of the pandemic.
The uncaring closure of the clinics.
The unwillingness to lift a finger to keep open a major employer.
In continuing to give me their support, the people of Cat Island, Rum Cay and Salvador look forward to a new day, when their suffering will end and the wicked rule no more.
6. MANAGING THE DEBT
Mr. Speaker, our Deputy Leader, our party’s spokesperson on Finance, has already delivered a detailed analysis of the government’s budget, and his verdict was damning.
As he said, it’s not a strategic budget.
It relies on everything going exactly according to plan when hardly anything ever does for this administration.
What if their revenues are again off by 10%, as they have been in the past?
What if their expenses over-run by 10%, which looks likely, given how unrealistic they are and have been in the past?
What if the economy doesn’t rebound as quickly as forecast?
What if there is a hurricane?
This budget was the Prime Minister’s last chance to step up, to show leadership and govern in the national interest.
Instead he chose to present a budget that ignores the dire economic reality of our country’s crisis.
His budget offered no serious attempt to to grow the economy and develop new sources of revenue: merely hopes that the tourists come back quickly.
Having racked up billions in debt, he offered no strategy for managing that debt.
Averaging almost $2½ BILLION DOLLARS of borrowing each year, there is not a single new hospital, school or road to show for it. Bahamians are mocking them for the fact that their biggest achievement in government is that drivers can now turn left on red lights.
But this business of not articulating a debt management strategy – that is serious – and an absolute disgrace.
With projected interest payments of over HALF A BILLION DOLLARS per year, how can the Prime Minister so casually fail to deal with the biggest stone around the necks of the Bahamian people?
Over HALF A BILLION DOLLARS, Mr. Speaker, is nearly more than the combined expenditure for Education and Health. The government is using more of the Bahamian people’s money to pay interest on reckless borrowing, rather than to educate and secure the health of the people.
Bahamians deserve better.
Mr. Speaker, we need to stabilize the country’s economy, while at the same time improving our future prospects.
In order to do this, countries first have to acknowledge and quantify the problems they face, consider a range of options as to what changes are required, then develop and implement a strategy to solve the problems.
What a country shouldn’t do, is exactly what the government is trying to do here: present a sugar-coated reality, deny responsibility for it, offer no new solutions, and carry on as though it’s business as usual.
It’s dishonest to the citizens and undermines confidence among lenders and investors.
Who wants to put their money in a place where the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance pretends that everything is fine, while the economy is on a cliff’s edge?
So, Mr. Speaker: what would a debt management strategy look like under a PLP government?
We would implement a combination of the following Repayment Strategies:
- We would negotiate refinancing with existing debt holders to seek to rollover debt instruments;
- We would implement plans for refinancing from new recruited debt holders; This means we would line-up funding to payout existing debt which is coming due, but schedule longer repayment terms;
- We would seek to extend repayment terms, and also to convert to amortized payments, so that the country is making unsustainably large payments at a time. So, for example we would re-finance the existing debt, which is due in 2023/2024, and replace with new debt that commences annual principal payments over an agreed period of time, say ten (10) years.
- We would find ways to reduce expenditure on operating activities, so that we can use more of the revenue to repay debt.
- And finally, as we have already committed to in our Economic Plan published in March, we would review our entire tax structure, and seek to expand the revenue through fairer taxation measures.
These are some of the obvious, prudent measures which the next PLP government would take, as a strategy for repaying the debt.
It is a scandalous dereliction of duty that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, had nothing to say about how he intends to repay the mountain of debt which he and his administration have racked up.
It is grossly irresponsible that he intends to add to it with a number of tax giveaways, and spending purely aimed at extending his political life.
In running up all this debt, this government has shackled the opportunities and life chances of the next generation. As we approach the 50th Anniversary of Independence, they have put a drag on our national development.
No wonder that one of their own, former FNM MP Pierre Dupuch, in an interveiw recently described this FNM government as “the worst government in Bahamian history”.
7. REVENUE & THE NEED TO GROW THE ECONOMY
I turn now to the budget’s revenue forecasts.
Everything in this budget hinges on these forecasts being correct. As many others have pointed out, in order for this budget to work, every single scenario set out by the government has to be right. Every single one.
However, this government’s track record on getting things right is not encouraging, to say the least, and the numbers forecast for Revenue are simply not credible.
This FNM administration has missed its revenue projections by at least 10% in every fiscal year that they’ve been in office. Yes, Mr. Speaker, they got it wrong every single time.
And 10% is a HUGE margin of error. For every $1 billion dollars of revenue forecast, they were short by at least $100 million.
Take the shock increase in VAT by 60%.
A Tribune editorial at the time, in 2018, predicted the VAT increase would “stifle growth, undermine business and investor confidence, and affect consumer spending since disposable incomes will be reduced.”
We said much the same thing.
At the same time the government was raising your taxes, the government was cutting taxes for the wealthy.
So much for “the people’s time.”
And now the Prime Minister is saying in his NEXT term, he’ll look after the poor.
There’s that contempt for the people again.
Looking at the present budget, Mr. Speaker, they clearly haven’t learned from their mistakes.
These revenue estimates are nonsense.
They simply do not make sense.
For example, the Government is forecasting that export duties will increase by over $48 million to $76.9 million over the previous year’s total, and more than $24 million more than in the fiscal year 2019/2020.
Can the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, explain exactly what new export industry has been started? Where does the magical $24 million come from? Or is it just a case of plugging in a number to get to the overall revenue totals?
And once again the government is giving away revenue without any rhyme or reason. What is so special about micro-breweries in The Bahamas, that once again, they are deserving of special tax exemptions?
Are they performing some kind of public service? Are they contributing to national life? Or is it to do with the fact that the owners are friends with all the right people?
I don’t know whether it’s ignorance or incompetence, but some of the measures announced, are in many cases a restatement of existing provisions. Does the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, not know the laws of this country?
Churches, for example, are already afforded concessions for construction and repair of their sanctuaries, as well duty-free imports on items for worship. In addition, churches are already eligible for VAT refunds on items purchased. So, can the Minister of Finance explain what is different with his new provision?
But Mr. Speaker:
Apart from the lack of credibility in the revenue forecasts, the real tragedy is in the lack of strategic planning to expand the economy into new sectors.
If ever there was a moment to chart a course for doing things differently, this was it.
These new sectors not only reduce our reliance on tourism, but offer many new streams of revenue. Even in tourism, there is no targeted effort here to seriously expand or innovate.
Bahamians deserve better.
The PLP’s Economic Plan is full of dozens of solutions for kickstarting the economy and creating jobs, for incentivizing the creation of new industries and new opportunities.
It is faith in my fellow Bahamians that underpins our entire Plan.
Faith that they deserve better than business as usual.
And faith that with the Bahamian people as partners, yes, we can climb out of this crisis, and build a more dynamic, more inclusive, more sustainable economy and country.
From sports to culture to renewable energy, there are so many possibilities. We don’t have time for pessimism.
We should not fear change, we should embrace it.
We face a serious crisis.
In this, its final budget, this FNM government leaves our beloved country in a much worse state than they found it.
As a result of their poor governance and mis-management of the economy, the Bahamian people are poorer, more frustrated, and unhappier than they were in 2017. That is their shameful legacy.
But Mr. Speaker:
And yet, a time of crisis can also be a time of renewal.
I remind the Bahamian people of the promise made in Second Corinthians: “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing.”
Elections are coming, and with it the chance to choose a brighter future, the chance to choose a better way.
This government will go down in history….
Actually I’ll just leave it there: this government will go down in history.
Last year, I spoke about the promise of Independence.
This is the birthright of all Bahamians.
In order to fulfil that promise, we now need to make some fundamental changes, not just try to patch up the broken economy that this government is leaving behind.
We need to build a better Bahamas, one that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.
They want to put things back to the way they were before, when them and their rich friends had a vicelike grip on this economy, their knees on the necks of ordinary Bahamians. No more, Mr. Speaker, no more.
This is the moment when we stand ready to bring about the kind of fundamental change that the Bahamian people are crying out for.
We do not promise that it will happen overnight, but if we put the country on the right path, we will all get there.
The poor won’t have to wait for the rich to get their time first. We will all get there together.
It didn’t have to be this bad, Mr. Speaker.
And once this wretched government is consigned to the garbage bin of history, a new day will dawn in our beautiful Bahamas.
My party has a Vision for a new, progressive future.
My party has published Plans on how we get there, and the promise of Independence can once again be a hope to be fulfilled for ourselves and our children. May God bless all the people of our Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/bahamas-prepare-for-dorian-some-evacuate-ahead-ofhurricanes-arrival/2019/08/31/5332df42-cc19-11e9-a1fe-ca46e8d573c0_story.html (“Bahamasair was offering discounted rates to those seeking to leave the islands on flights before Dorian hits.”)
 The budget cuts almost $5 million from the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness budget. FY2021-22 Budget, p. 189 ($2.5 million budget cut), p. 195 ($2 million cap ex cut).
 The government’s FY2021-22 budget projects that it will collect $40 million in revenue from the health travel visa program [p. 25], while spending $37 million to administer it [p. 174], for a profit of $3 million.
 http://www.tribune242.com/news/2021/may/05/doctors-chief-we-cant-sit-and-do-nothing/ 28 http://www.tribune242.com/news/2021/feb/22/not-all-pay-promises-nurses-met/