This Week in The Bahamas Commentary by Elcott Coleby: June 16 – 19

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This week in Parliament

Deputy Director at BIS Elcott Coleby.
Deputy Director at BIS Elcott Coleby.
The 2015/2016 budget debate was passed in the House early Thursday morning, around 4:30am.

The House proceedings were not without some drama where the government moved for closure of the debate under House rule 33 resulting in a standoff between government members, the Speaker and the member for Fort Charlotte who insisted on speaking. In the end the House Speaker permitted the member from Fort Charlotte to deliver his budget contribution and in the process the member for Fort Charlotte, Dr. Andre Rollins resigned from the Progressive Liberal Party.

Another important development was the revelation by the Prime Minister that he received goods from the China Import/Export Bank regarding the Baha Mar Resort project. PM Christie said he would meet with Baha Mar CEO Sarkis Izmirlian at the earliest convenience to discuss the way forward.

Below are some of the budget highlights from presentations by the Hon. Damian Gomez, State Minister for Legal Affairs; the Hon. D. Shane Gibson, Minister of Labour, National Insurance and the Public Service; and the Hon. Obie Wilchcombe, Minister of Tourism.

Hon. Damian Gomez:

Mr. Gomez focused on the effectiveness of the Swift Justice Initiative and provided statistical data to support his claim that this policy was working.

* Ten new courts are fully operational and prove that Swift Justice is working as the huge backlog of cases is being addressed.

* Number of trials completed increased from 118 in 2012 to 200 in 2014, an increase of 69%.

* With 10 additional courts, the projected number of matters to be heard in 2015 is 348.

* The AG’s Office has brought an estimated 496 cases to trial since May 2012 and an estimated 200 more are expected by the end of 2015.

* Regarding bail applications in 2014 for persons charged with serious crimes against the person including murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, abetment and causing harm, 33 applicants were granted bail; 69 were denied bail; 22 had their variations granted; 3 had their variations denied; 6 had their bail revoked; and 25 had their bail applications dismissed.

Hon. Obie Wilchcombe:

* The Minister’s message was simply that Bahamas tourism was on the rebound and improving. He provided Key Performance Indicators, or KPI’s to support his assertions.

* Overall tourist arrivals increased by 2.8%.

* Air arrivals increased by 4.9%, bringing the 2014 total to 1.3 million.

* Sea arrivals grew by 2.2%, bringing that total to 5 million.

* Arrivals at major ports of call grew from 0.6% to 6.3%

* In addition to the new gaming regulations generating some $30 million for the public treasury in licensing fees alone, the policy to regulate the industry has protected the integrity of the financial services sector and the international reputation of The Bahamas by eliminating the international concerns about money laundering and the proceeds from crime.

* Numerous tourism field offices were opened along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in Florida, the Midwest and on the west coast.

* Numerous airline gates were opened throughout Canada and the United States.

* The Ministry saved millions of dollars from canceling the retainers with foreign marketers, promoters and PR agents in favour of using Bahamian talents to promote and market The Bahamas internationally. The Minister heaped much praise on the Bahamian talent and the results they produced for the country.

* The Minister credited sports, heritage and romance tourism for the turnaround. He mentioned the co-branding initiative with sports franchises, mega events such as the IAAF World Relays, the Popeye Bowl, the LPGA events and the huge Tiger Woods invitational scheduled for later this year. Mr. Wilchcombe also advised of a Beach championship event to be held in The Bahamas in 2016.

Hon. D. Shane Gibson:

Minister Gibson focused heavily on the reform and modernization of the public service with technical assistance from the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The government has concluded negotiations with the teachers union and negotiations are ongoing with the educators’ management, the air traffic controllers, customs and immigration, the nurses and the doctors unions.

The Ministry of Labour has established the Policy and Planning Unit in consultation with the Commonwealth Secretariat at an initial cost of $54,000. A full-fledged policy and planning unit will liaise with the National Development Plan Committee and guide the creation and management of the Strategic Plan for the Ministry of the Public Service.

Since 2012, some 43 agencies/ministries/units have benefitted from improved and increased work surroundings through new leases.

With the assistance of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the government will establish a Public Service College to address the developmental and skill set needs of senior management in the public service from Permanent Secretaries down, to fill what the Prime Minister characterized as the “hollow middle.” The scope of the college will include ministry specific training, a Distinguished Lecture Series Program, assessment review for Administrative Cadets and First Assistant Secretaries, attachments and the re-introduction of the Advanced Diploma in Public Administration.

Two bills are now before Parliament. One is to allow special payments to survivors of a public servant killed while on duty. The second is the amended pension act that will significantly reduce the waiting time for benefit payment to the family of a deceased relative whose post required the public servant to be under oath.

The government proposed to bring the weekly minimum wage in the private sector ($150) in line with the public sector’s minimum wage of $210 per week.

The NIB has funded the construction of the mini hospital in Exuma, the mini hospital in Abaco and has the mini hospital for South Eleuthera on the drawing boards.

Bahamas Foreign Minister addresses the OAS

Underscoring the importance of fair and equitable access to the Organization of American States by all member states, Bahamas Foreign Minister the Hon. Fred Mitchell outlined the Bahamas’ broad vision for the OAS.

“For my nation, The Bahamas, we have a vision of an OAS where once again all 35 sovereign States in the hemisphere will be seated around the table. We applaud the recent rapprochement by Cuba and the United States, which finally helps the hemisphere turn the page on an era of mistrust and hostility and will lend our support to the future work to enable Cuba to become fully integrated into the OAS” said the Foreign Minister.

In addition to one day seeing a CARICOM national ascend to the highest post in the Organization, Mr. Mitchell expressed some concerns that the proposed rebalancing of the organization does not go far enough and desires to see the role of the second highest post enhanced.

“We are concerned that the proposed rebalancing that is now being circulated does not adequately reflect the requirements for change and in particular our concern is that the role of the Assistant Secretary General should not be diminished but rather enhanced” said Mr. Mitchell regional delegates.

Mr. Mitchell was delivering the country’s statement at the 2015 OAS regular session of the general assembly in Washington DC on Monday, 15th June 2015.

Government clarifies misinformation on NHI for civil servants

In responding to widespread misinformation posted on social media about reduced health insurance coverage for civil servants in the wake of the proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) plan, the Ministry of Finance issued a statement on Monday clearing the air on this. The statement made it clear that not only will there not be a reduction in the level of health coverage, the government expects cost savings from reduced administrative costs when NHI is implemented in January 2016.

“This year, there has not been, nor will there be reductions in existing health insurance benefits for any public servant, including law enforcement officers and nurses. Existing plans are fully funded by the Government and only managed by private administrators. The Ministry of Finance however, expects savings from reduced administrative costs, and from existing surpluses that some plans have accumulated.”

The statement went on to explain that currently, the government only funds health insurance costs for its employees, but private insurers manage and administer the group fund. The administration of the group fund will be transferred to the government once NHI is implemented, thus the expected cost savings.

New fly fishing regulations foreshadowed

In foreshadowing new regulations to govern the fly fishing industry in order to protect the marine environment and ensure the sustainability of this industry, Agriculture Minister Hon. Alfred Gray explained what constitutes fly fishing.

He said this aspect of sports fishing “is carried out within the shallow waters of The Bahamas, by the catch and release method, in pursuit of species such as the bonefish, the tarpon, with permit almost exclusively by visitors to The Bahamas.”

He was speaking with reporters in conference at his Ministry on Wednesday afternoon

The Minister advised that after consultations with industry stakeholders in Nassau, the Government has approved draft regulations and amendments to the Fisheries Act. He revealed that the draft document has been posted on the government’s website and comments from interested persons are welcomed.

“My Ministry has had preliminary consultations with some stakeholders, other representatives, and a number of agencies of the Government, and a consultative draft regulation has been prepared that proposes various changes to the Fisheries Act and Regulations, to allow for orderly growth and development of the fly fishing sector,” said Minister Gray.

“This draft document is today being provided on our website and otherwise, for review and comment by the general public, particularly those who are involved in the industry.”

PM Christie opens National Development Plan (NDP) workshop

Prime Minister Christie officially opened a two-day workshop on the proposed National Development Plan – VISION 2040 at the Harry C. Moore Library on Thursday morning and participated in a press conference immediately following the opening ceremonies.

The purpose of the workshop was to discuss the critical role of the public service and agencies of the government in the development and execution of a National Development Plan. The theme of the workshop was “Transforming Government: United in Service.”

“The public service has for far too long been viewed as a place for safe jobs – safe jobs for Bahamians at all levels and a bastion – and people have seen and described it as a bastion of inefficiency and poor work ethic” said Mr. Christie.

With this perception, the Prime Minister stressed that in order to improve the quality of public goods and services the priority of the public service must be to ensure that it has the requisite skills to meet the growing demands of the public.

“Therefore our first order of business must be about ensuring that the public service has the necessary skills which are required. We must assess these skills which are required for every post within the public service. Assess where there are weaknesses and ensure that we build towards strength.”

Also addressing the body was the President of the College of The Bahamas, Dr. Rodney Smith who said that the University of The Bahamas will align its academic programming with the pillars of the National Development Plan (NDP).

“The plan will determine the way forward for The Bahamas and it is therefore, crucial that the national university align its academic offerings with that path. If the plan calls for greater entrepreneurship, or more doctors, or further expansion of the maritime sector, the University will be poised to respond to those needs” said the President.

Minister Fitzgerald announces “historic” education conference

In less than five days, hundreds of youth, teachers, and stakeholders along with Education leaders from about 50 countries in the Commonwealth and five countries in the region will converge at Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island for the 19th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (19CCEM).

The five day conference will take place from Monday, June 22 to Friday, June 26, and is being jointly organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Government of The Bahamas through the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. The theme for the 19CCEM is “Quality Education for Equitable Development: Performance, Paths and Productivity”.

During a press-conference on Wednesday, June 17, at the headquarters of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the Hon. Jerome Fitzgerald, Minister of Education, Science and Technology said The Bahamas will be “the centre of intellectual discussion” when Commonwealth and Global Education leaders assemble for the triennial event which is regarded as the second most important Commonwealth meeting after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

In addition to the principal ministerial meeting, several other meetings and events will take place during the course of the five days including the Senior Officials’ Meeting, the Teachers’ Forum, the Youth Forum and the Stakeholders’ Forum.

Minister Fitzgerald described the conference as “historical” as it takes place at the twilight of the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All Goals and on the dawn of the Post-2015 Education Agenda.

“There is a global focus on education and each country is seeking new and innovative strategies to meet the educational needs of its citizens. This is perhaps the most important conference for the Commonwealth as collectively.”

Baha Mar partners with the Magic to strengthen Bahamas co-branding

One of the many strategies of the Ministry of Tourism in diversifying our tourism product offerings is to facilitate the co-branding of The Bahamas with professional sports franchises as a vehicle to promote the Bahamas as a preferred sports tourism destination.

This week the Baha Mar Resort, sponsor of the Orlando Magic, used its strategic partnership with that NBA franchise to invite nearly 30 women to Nassau to try out for the organization’s dance team.

During a special welcome reception at Baha Mar’s Arts and Entertainment and Convention Centre on Cable Beach, the ladies were treated to special eats, music and dance.

Baha Mar’s Director of Partnership and Alliances Matt Albury said the resort is looking for any partnership that would benefit The Bahamas.

“Baha Mar is very happy to be in partnership with the Orlando Magic. We have been the official sponsor for the Orlando Magic this year and we are going to be the official sponsor next year,” he said.

“Partnerships with Baha Mar are a big part of how we spread our message; how we educate people about the luxury options that we have here in The Bahamas. We partnered with the Ministry of Tourism and more specifically the Sports Tourism Department to bring exciting activities in outside key markets and in Nassau. Our hope is that we will have a very prominent place as the ministry brings exciting programmes like golf, tennis, basketball and football partnerships.”

Bahamas responds to European Union blacklisting

There is an expressed view within CARICOM that the overtures of the industrialized world towards small countries with open and vulnerable economies will have the impact of weakening their financial services sector. This sentiment was articulated during the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting held in Nassau earlier this year. Well the European Union placed many CARICOM countries including The Bahamas on a blacklist of jurisdictions that are “facilitating tax evasion.”

This blacklisting did not sit well with The Bahamas and the Ministry of Financial Services released this statement in response on Thursday evening.

“It is disappointing that The Bahamas has been placed on a European Union (eu) Blacklist of jurisdictions that have been identified as facilitating tax evasion.

It is also regrettable that the EU blacklist does not take into consideration the significant efforts and accomplishments experienced by The Bahamas in the area of tax transparency, both within the EU and globally.

This includes the many tax information exchange agreements (TIEA’s) signed by The Bahamas, progress within the OECD Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes including the Automatic Exchange of Information.”

In passing…

We all know by now that the Golden State Warriors are the 2014/2015 NBA World champions with a 105 – 97 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The series lasted six games. Klay Thompson, son of Bahamian born Mychal “Sweet Bells” Thompson plays for the Warriors. The Tourism Minister has announced a reception in his honour.

The Bahamas has won the gold medal in the Caribbean Basketball Confederation Championships in the ladies division. Not to be outdone, our men’s team moves into the semi finals and medal round with a 4 – 0 record in Group B, fresh off their 69 – 61 victory over Antigua and Barbuda on Thursday evening, avenging a loss during the 2014 tournament. The championship is being held in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Vice President of the Bahamas Senate the Hon. Joseph Curry is vacationing in Bermuda and took time out on Thursday to pay a courtesy call on the island’s Premier the Hon. Michael Dunkley. He also called on the Speaker of the House, the President of the Bermudan Senate, and the Leader of the Official Opposition.

Earlier this week, Todd Isaacs Jr. signed with the Cleveland Indians minor league team as he begins his career as a professional athlete. He is clearly a product of the hard work and networking efforts of the Bahamas Baseball Federation (BBF) and the Freedom Farm league (FFL). Congratulations to Todd, the BBF and the FFL for a job well done and you continue to make The Bahamas proud.

Veteran media personality and Director of Production at ZNS Mario Lightbourne is retiring after more than 30 years of service at the corporation. We wish him well in his much deserved retirement.

About the author: Elcott Coleby is a Deputy Director at the Bahamas Information Services. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry (B.Sc) and a Masters of Business Administration (MBA). He provides frequent commentary on public policy and communicates the works of the government. Address all comments to the following email: egcoleby44@gmail.com