IT WAS not the best of times, but it was certainly the “worst of times” for a beaten Bahamas. The only bright light on the horizon was a belief that an “age of foolishness” was nearing an end.
The year was 1992 and in August of that year Sir Lynden Pindling ceased to be prime minister of the Bahamas after a reign of 25 years. He had left behind a scandal scarred nation with failing economy, high unemployment, a hotel industry in tatters and downtown Nassau looking like a shanty town. He had replaced a bloated government that acted — as it is doing today — as though it was unaware of the suffering outside the cabinet’s doors.
In an interview shortly after his defeat, Sir Lynden Pindling ruefully admitted that his party had lost touch with the people. He did not realise that the economic conditions were such that it would cost him an election.
Hubert Ingraham, a former member of the Pindling government – with which he had severed all ties about nine years before – led the Opposition FNM to victory on August 19, 1992, becoming prime minister and serving three terms. His first action was to set an example of fiscal restraint in a country that was gasping its last breath.
In that year, the PLP had overstayed its time. Its five year term had ended on June 30, 1992, but there was no sign of an election. The nervous talk about town that year was whether the Bahamas had a “Papa Doc” Duvalier situation on its hands, and, like Haiti, was threatened with a dictator for life.
A political rumble was created when Mr Ingraham announced that his five-year contract with the Bahamian people as a member of parliament had ended on June 30. He announced that he would not accept a penny of the people’s money after that date. All FNM MPs followed their leader and refused any salary after June 20.
This caused political embarrassment to the Pindling government.
The late Paul Adderley, then Pindling’s finance minister, had announced that all salaries would be paid until such time as parliament dissolved.
Mr Ingraham had ordered his bank to put no cheque from the Treasury into his account after June 20.
A tug-of-war then followed between the bank and the Ministry of Finance, which had been instructed by Finance Minister Adderley to issue monthly cheques.
The PLP government, Mr Ingraham complained, had moved into “overtime” even though the Bahamian people had not invited it to do so.
June 20 had passed. It was now August and by then MPs had accumulated two months “overtime” pay.
“We finished our straight time and we got paid for our straight time. Any other time was cheating time and we didn’t want any part of cheating time,” Mr Ingraham declared.
After winning the government, Mr Ingraham made certain that none of his members had accepted their uninvited “overtime” pay.
By August 1992 the Treasury was bare. If it had been a private company it would have had to declare bankruptcy. Wherever the new prime minister looked, there was fiscal chaos, seemingly with no way out. Even closure was forced on small businesses because the PLP government had not paid what it owed them.
However, unlike the present time, Mr Ingraham did not turn to the people and announce that they would be taxed – no VAT in those days – so that the foolishness could continue. No, he set an example of fiscal restraint.
He reduced the size of government. He cut his own salary and the salaries of all parliamentarians, he reduced government’s direct intervention in the economy, promoted private investment, both local and foreign, privatised the hotels, and restored confidence in the financial sector.
“He and his government have been credited with the revitalization of The Bahamas economy since 1992,” said a report at the time, “most particularly of its tourism sector, which has enjoyed massive international capital infusions over the past seven years and its financial services sector, which restored confidence in The Bahamas as a clean financial jurisdiction and spurred increased international banking and trust businesses in recent years.”
The Bahamas prospered until the financial crash started in 2007, affecting the economies of the world. Mr Ingraham was faced with a dilemma and an unemployed work force that was gradually increasing as investment money was no longer forthcoming from the banks, and proposed large projects were being shelved — some forever, others with the hope of an upswing in the world’s fortunes. The Bahamas, solely dependent on tourism and foreign investment, suffered a heavy blow. Bahamians started to feel the pinch. To keep Bahamians employed, the Ingraham government invested in upgrading the island‘s infrastructure to have it ready for the day when tourism would return to normal. Money was spent, and Bahamians can daily see how their tax dollars were used. The drive from the airport into town is an impressive introduction to the island of tourism. People, both Bahamian and foreign, still comment on the improvements. The Bahamas was and is in debt — even moreso after the first year of the PLP government.
But what do we see — the same old PLP government moving in overtime. There is plenty talk of tax, but nothing of cutbacks. Government has been enlarged, retirees are being brought in without clearly defined duties, to do jobs that can easily be done by on staff civil servants. The Bahamas’ 40th anniversary of independence was party time for MPs to enjoy themselves wherever a Bahamian Embassy was established. The festivities given for Prime Minister Christie’s visit to New York is rumoured to have cost in the $60,000 range. In hard times like these one would have thought the embassy wherever located could have hosted its own parties without a delegation going from Nassau to assist them. Then there were the overseas trips with ministers, and their staffs tripping over each other. One would have thought that in the words of Charles Dickens it was indeed “the best of times.”
With so many jobless, a member of government lacked the sensitivity to understand that this was belt tightening time. But obviously oblivious to the suffering of his neighbours, he complained during the Budget debate in the House earlier this year that over the past year he had “spoken many times and in fact moved a resolution to support a Select Committee request to review the benefits and allowances of Members of Parliament”.
It was a time for belt tightening and he was asking for a salary increase for a government that to date has been unable to fulfil even one of its election promises.
Like a defeated Lynden Pindling at the end of his term in office, the Christie government has lost touch with the Bahamian people.