REMARKS IN THE HONOURABLE HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY BY MR. PICEWELL FORBES, MP ON THE RESOLUTION REGARDING THE SALE OF THE BAHAMAS TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMPANY (BTC) TO CABLE ON WIRELESS ON THE 21ST MARCH, 2011
There have been few occasions in the long history of this Ancient and Honourable House of Assembly when a debate has mattered as much as this one. Looking back, there have been some moments of historical importance. In recent time, and in living memory of many Bahamians, one such occasion was that historic debate on the Report of the Boundaries Commission in 1965. It was an occasion of seminal importance for Bahamians and on that occasion real men, men such as the late Governor General, the late Sir Lynden Pindling and Arthur Hanna among others stood up and faced an oligarchy and made the case on behalf of the Bahamian people. They were prepared to face the consequences of their actions like real men.
For those who might not remember, on that occasion there was, like today, a large crowd of people in the Square below. They were, like the people outside, citizens of all walks of life who had come to voice their disapproval over what they say as the injustice of the day. They were people who were patriots and cared about what they saw as the dangerous direction their government was taking. History would record that the late Sir Milo was carried physically out of this Chamber after he threw out the Hour-glass. Sir Lynden Pindling was also ejected after he threw out the Mace. They were real men who lead real men. They were heroes and heroic in their actions.
Now some forty six years later, the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters have felt the need to come to this place again to address their grievances.
And Let me say this , Mr. Speaker, they have every right to do so and I take great exception to the fact and am insulted that members on the other side would impute other motives to the demonstration and brand people with legitimate grievances as paid criminals. Why would they want to say that the PLP has paid for the demonstration? It is insulting to brand members of Trades Union movements, and every day citizens as paid demonstrators. This is an insult to the integrity of our people and no self respecting Bahamian should ever say that about his or her people. But this accusation tells me about the mindset of the Party opposite. Everything must be tied to money. Well not all the money in the Treasury would be sufficient to pay the people who are outside.
This debate was supposed to be about the sale of BTC. You would have heard from speaker after speaker on this side why this should not happen. You would have read in the Blogs, heard on the Talk Radio and read in columns of newspapers, attended the Town Meetings and met in little groups to discuss why this should not happen. It has been the topic of discussion at every nook and cranny of our Nation. Why? Because people care about this National Asset!
And so there is nothing of any technical nature , nothing of any financial nature, nothing of any policy nature that the Government can bring to the floor of this House that would cause us to change our views on this matter. The argument and the decision that will be taken by this House is an emotional one – one that strikes at the core
and at the heart of what it means to be a Bahamian and have some sense of pride in what are the assets of our country. The Prime Minister and his Minister might reel out statistic after statistic and argument after argument but it is not good enough. At the end of the day it is a bad move and one that is a slap in the face for our people.
In the time allotted to me, I could cite the many arguments against the sale of BTC but as I have said the arguments totally against have already been made and will be made by others on our side. For me, Mr. Speaker, the real argument against the sale is that we are selling ourselves short.
What do I mean by this? In remarks to this House a few weeks ago I said that somehow this Government has a lack of confidence about what it means to be a Bahamian. This sense of pride, self reliance and putting The Bahamas and Bahamians first appear to have escaped the FNM Government. It is clear and plain to see in every single one of their actions. They have rolled back large swaths of the Bahamianization policy and now they seem hell bent on selling at a pittance one of the institutions of a Bahamianization policy to a foreign entity when patently there is no need to do.
This is unbelievable. It seems as if we are afraid to step up to the plate and do it ourselves. We have become a country and an economy reliant on having foreign expertise and in the process we have knocked out the props from under Bahamians who have the education, training, experience and integrity to run their own affairs. Why are we doing this? What is this visceral fear of having a Bahamian in charge? And so for the first time since 1966 when the new incarnation of BATELCO was created by an Act of this House of
Assembly we are turning it over to foreign ownership and foreign management. And let me say this right now: As long as Cable and Wireless are in The Bahamas you will never see another Bahamian as President, Managing Director or General Manager of the entity known as BTC. What a shame after some fifty- five years of continuous Bahamian leadership.
No doubt about it, Mr. Speaker we lack confidence and in the process we are giving away our birthright.
The second point I would wish to touch on very briefly, Mr. Speaker, is something which every young Bahamian must be concerned about and that is to ensure that there is a successful commercial and entrepreneurial model that can serve as a model for our managerial class. I have said time and time again that there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it. We can run companies, we can manage banks, we can run trades unions, we can build roads, we can fly planes, and we can do whatever it takes to keep this country going.
But this Government has no trust in Bahamians. This is quite baffling. At a time when we should be empowering Bahamians to scale the commanding heights of management and entrepreneurship the Government is taking away the rights of empowerment. It is a sad day when all that we have built up over so many years will be taken away by the signature of a pen.
Every time there is something of value that would lead to the enhancement of the Bahamian business sector, the FNM Government looks outward rather than inwards. Remember Cable Bahamas? There were several Bahamian groups willing and capable of getting into the business. But no… we were not good enough to run a cable company; we were not worthy to become entrepreneurs.
The result, we gave the franchise to a small, no body heard about company from Newfoundland and made the parties instant millionaires. What is wrong with us? We should have every opportunity to compete and if we fail then so be it. Get up and move on and allow someone else to do it. This is the syndrome of lack of confidence in one’s own people.
Mr. Speaker, on the technical side, I am very much concerned that giving away 51%of the shares in BTC will spell the death knell for modern communication in the remote parts of The Bahamas. If there was one thing you could count on BTC to do was to provide a means of communication to ever hamlet and community throughout The Bahamas. The old lady in Mayaguana could at least speak with her children and grandchildren if there was a need. A person could go into the BTC office and make a long distance call to a sick relative and not have to borrow from the bank to pay for such a call. One of the last things our Party did while in Government was to ring The Bahamas with a fibre optic cable to ensure better quality communication.
We realized that the technology was changing and that it was important for every community in The Bahamas to be connected to each other. It was not just Mayaguana reaching Nassau, but also Mayguana reaching Exuma or the Berry Islands or Bimini or Grand Bahama. I am afraid this will all be a thing of the past because as a private company, Cable and Wireless priority will be so different than that of BTC. They will be bottom line driven and as a result the consumer will suffer. In fact, I am convince and can assure you that even within New Providence consumers will be paying more for local calls on trunk lines and on mobile phones. And this is why we are selling BTC.
Mr. Speaker, I do not place an ounce of trust on the assurances by the Government about a guarantee of extending telecommunication services. It won’t happen. As a glaring example of private sector monopoly run amok I need only point to Cable and Wireless. Despite putting pen to paper that cable television would be extended to all of The Bahamas it is yet to happen. Indeed, there are places in Andros, Cat Island, Exuma, Acklins and Crooked Island where the only television reception they get is by satellite television. On the other hand, Cable Bahamas is continuously rolling out new and more expensive products to get the consumers in the population centres to spend more and more. In the same way that Cable fees are too high from a very low base in 1995, I predict that Cable and Wireless will sock it to the Bahamian consumer as it would be in their interest to achieve higher and higher profits which is what the private business world is all about. But then it will be too late.
Finally, Mr. Speaker, I will touch on the matter of jobs. The demonstration in the Square is about jobs. Each and every worker at BTC must know that despite the guarantees which the Government is giving their will be some attrition. The attrition will be in senior management, at middle level management, at technical levels and at service provider levels.
Cable and Wireless will lay off people when it suits them to do so. This will be sad because for so many people BTC has been their life. “To whom will they go to paraphrase the Bible –“Lord, to whom shall we go?” They will have no place to turn to. There is no other telecommunication company in The Bahamas and so the skill levels and the experience built up over the years will be lost. One BTC worker has told me that he is already making plans to move his family to the USA while it is still possible to do so and use his skills
where he can. He has seen the writing on the wall and has decided to get out while he can still use his skills in another place.
But more than the job loss there will be a minimum to recruiting. The days of hoping to get job at BTC is over. A company such as Cable and Wireless will not be hiring, instead they will be firing. So the door has been slammed shut on career opportunities for young women and young men in a vibrant telecommunication company. Their aspirations of a career in one of the leading companies in the Nation may never be realized. This is too sad for words. This Party and a PLP government would have protected jobs and ensure that there would be a steady source of recruitment to meet the demand s of a changing environment in telecommunications.
All said, this is a sad day for The Bahamas. Where the profits of BTC stayed at home to expand and grow the company, it is now a sad reality that the profits will leave our shores. It is not a sound economic or financial model that any government would or should be willing to propose. The hard earned money of the Bahamian people will be repatriated will not be re-invested in The Bahamas but will become a part of some global multi-national company and the Bahamian economy will be the worse off for it.
Mr. Speaker, time will not permit me to say anything more on this matter. I will say this, however. This is one of the saddest days in the history of The Bahamas. In 1966, the then leaders came to this self same place and created an institution that ha s stood the test of time. It has grown as The Bahamas has grown it has served as the demand for service increased. Now today, forty five years later, we have come to dismantle that which was created.
I feel for the workers of BTC. They have been hung out to dry by an uncaring Government. They have been abused twice in this process of privatization. This time they may have lost the battle but only for a time because I go on record as supporting any moves by the new PLP Government in setting aside this agreement and returning control of one of our national assets back to the Bahamian people.
Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the good people of South Andros, I will not be supporting this Resolution!