Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the Press,and those joining us via Social Media.
I want to recognize the recent loss of two nation-builders and trailblazers who were giants in their respective fields – the late Patrick Bethel, an educator, author and a gentleman and Paul Eric Hanna, a pioneering engineer and patriot. I join many Bahamians in sending condolences to their families.
May their souls rest in peace.
I want to begin today by talking about events currently unfolding in the United States.
I cannot stop thinking about the look on the police officer’s face as he murdered George Floyd. It was the look of someone to whom black lives do not matter.
It was the look of someone who had faced no consequences for 18 prior complaints.
It was the look of someone who was utterly confident he would not be held accountable for his brutality.
The explosion of protests – which have taken place in all 50 states, as well as in countries around the world – are a recognition that while the US Constitution promises equal rights, in practice police violence against black Americans is rarely prosecuted.
Many Bahamian families have a son, or daughter, or nephew, or cousin, or grandchild, who study or work in the United States. We stand in solidarity with the peaceful protestors. We share their anger and despair. We understand how high the stakes are.
We know the costs of systemic racism, the costs of justice postponed. It is not just policing that needs reform. Racial inequality remains widespread in housing, employment, and education. And the protests come after months of seeing the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on black communities. The virus has affected everyone, but it has not affected everyone equally.
That has been true here at home as well. The wealthy and well-connected have been able to weather this storm with their lives mostly untouched. They are experiencing inconvenience, but not despair. That is not the case for a large majority of Bahamian families, however, for whom these lockdowns and the economic crisis are catastrophic.
We need change in The Bahamas. We need to do the hard work of building a more equal and more just country. How many older Bahamians have no security, despite a lifetime of hard work? How many young Bahamians are prevented from reaching their full potential? How can that be right?
That is why I am proud to lead the Progressive Liberal Party. We may not be a perfect party, but we have a perfect cause: we work and fight for progress and justice. To talk to PLPs today, particularly young activists, is to know the resolve and purposethey bring to today’s battles. Their fierce determination makes me an optimistic man.
With Labour Day approaching, I have been thinking about the Burma Road Riots. They mark the beginning of our country’s modern political history. They began as a labour dispute over equal pay, but revealed a broad hunger for equality and freedom.
The men and women of the labour movement have always been on the frontlines in our nation’s battles for racial, political and economic justice. Majority Rule and the rise of the modern Bahamas would not have been possible without their courage. Working with the Progressive Liberal Party, we have won important changes to the country’s labour laws to provide greater rights, benefits and job protection for working Bahamians.
In the PLP’s last term in office, we increased the minimum wage by 40% to provide Bahamians with more income to take care of their families. We executed more than one dozen labour contracts, prioritizing fair compensation and benefits for thousands of Bahamian workers. We also established the Tripartite Council to promote collaboration between the private sector, unions, and the government in creating economic and labour market policies.
Since 2017, we have called for another increase in the nationalminimum wage so that families can better endure steep increases in the cost of living. This government has never recognized how their ill-considered increase in VAT hurt Bahamians, slowed our economy, and created a moral responsibility to act.
In fact, the current government appears to view working Bahamians not as allies but as foes against whom they must wage war.
Their mistreatment of the Junior Doctors Union, the Nurses Union, the Public Services Union, The Bahamas Union of Teachers, the Gaming Board, the Air Traffic Workers, and the Water and Sewerage Union represent their disregard for industrial agreements and their disdain for Bahamian workers.
How many Bahamians has the Minnis government fired? They were fired in the name of fiscal discipline, yet the country’s fiscal situation never improved. Sending working Bahamians to the unemployment line has devastated families, disrupted local consumption, and hurt small businesses.
Let’s be clear: this was happening before Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19. I don’t want this to go unnoticed. I’m asking those of you here today to pay more attention to the Bahamians involved in the cascade of lawsuits and grievances filed against the government. Elevate their voices. Let them be heard. Their stories matter. They matter.
In his recent Budget Communication, the Minister of Finance said that there would be no payment of increments during the upcoming fiscal year. You can imagine the reaction of Bahamians working in the public sector. This is not a budget that prioritizes helping Bahamian families.
Bahamians have lost confidence in this government. We have alllearned that “the people’s time” was an empty slogan, a promise they never intended to keep.
The Bahamas is reeling from the impact of COVID-19, but the government continues with its ad hoc, imbalanced, and scattered approach to the reopening of our economy.
I worry that the Minister of Tourism is making more promises he will not fulfill. I pray he has the judgement to listen to both health officials and hospitality experts so that the nation’s largest industry can get back on track safely and successfully. The number of cases continue to rise in 20 US states. This is before the projected increase from the protests, the size of which we will not know for several weeks. What the Minister of Tourism and the Prime Minister owe the Bahamian people right now is honesty about the challenge before us. It may be true that we cannot afford to wait for a vaccine to open our borders. But it may be that in order to protect Bahamians we need a faster, more reliable way to test people seeking to come in.
Even as Bahamians struggle through the health and economic crisis, the hurricane season is upon us. Climate experts are predicting a 60% chance of an above-normal season. We are profoundly concerned that the government has not done enough to prepare the country. In Abaco, many people are still without shelter, running water or electricity. Recovery and relief there and in Grand Bahama have been strangled by bureaucratic bottlenecks and incompetence. How can Bahamians living in tents survive another hurricane? At the very least, shelter capacity must be increased right away. Our Defence Force must be properly equipped and prepared for deployment. Our radar system must be made fully operational. The roles and reporting relationships between the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Disaster Management, NEMA and regional coordinators must be clarified now. We cannot wait. And we cannot afford division and dysfunction at the highest level of the government. It could literally prove deadly.
We need concrete evidence of progress. How many times have we heard claims of improvements, only to find that no one living in the affected communities can see any advancement at all?
We are living through difficult times. I am warning this government: this is a time for serious solutions, not half-steps or stumbles. It is a time for truth, not propaganda. And it is a time for cooperation. As always, we stand ready to be willing partners for progress.
On a final note, I want to say something about the reports of police violence against journalists covering protests in the United States. It is wrong when it happens anywhere, and it is especially tragic to see this in America, whose First Amendment protections for the press have been a model for so many other nations. I want to thank the reporters here today, and your colleagues, for the role you play in our democracy, and the light you shine on the issues facing our country.