PHEW! Doesn’t it seem complicated! Makes one want to find the nearest armchair to sit down to take it all in!
Two years needed to decide whether it’s best to make 100 amendments, or scrap the Bill and start all over again, maybe even get a committee together, hire more staff, set up new offices, try to understand what financial obligations are needed for inclusion in next year’s budget… and the list of excuses goes on to delay the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act that Bahamians are now demanding. However, Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald’s to-do list on this Act is so long that the earliest he can forecast its introduction is the Spring of 2016 — not quite a year before Bahamians go to the polls, hopefully to bring this administration to the end that it so justly deserves.
But to hear Mr Fitzgerald tell it, so many bits and pieces are needed to put this Humpty Dumpty together that one wonders if he is striving to build the Taj Mahal – or is it just another justification for a couple more million to escape the Public Treasury?
The Freedom of Information Bill was introduced in the House in 2011 by the Ingraham administration. The preliminary to that Bill stated: “This Act shall come into operation on 1st July, 2012.”
However, when the Act was passed in the Senate in February 2012, the commencement date of July 1, 2012, had been removed by the House and replaced with these words: “This Act shall come into operation on such date as the Minister may appoint by notice published in the Gazette, and different dates may be so appointed for different purposes.”
Two months later, the Christie administration was the government. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), already passed by the Legislature, was just waiting a commencement date to come into force. But there it has languished for the past two years, until, because of public demand, the PLP has been forced to predict its future.
Last Monday, Mr Fitzgerald broke his silence when Opposition Leader Dr Hubert Minnis insisted that the FOIA be in place before the Value Added Tax Act comes into force on January 1.
Without a Freedom of Information Act in place, Dr Minnis had said, VAT could easily be used as a government “slush fund, to continue spending, to continue hiring friends, family and lovers and to continue giving contracts to friends and it can even be used for election funds with mass hiring pre-election”.
However, Mr Fitzgerald’s position was that government is still deciding whether to make the “over 100 amendments” or scrap FOIA and start all over again.
“The next thing is that each ministry has to get set up in order to deal with the requests and we have to staff the ministry so we have to understand what the financial obligations are going to be needed in order to set these departments up and I have to include that in next year’s budget. So I can’t do anything until next year and I have to be able to advise (the Ministry of) Finance and the public service that this is a whole new set of job descriptions that have to be approved within the budget.
“So there is a whole lot that needs to be done, you don’t just say we want it and click, it’s here. It simply does not work that way. Once I get the support from our next budget then I know it will take me a year and when it comes around by spring 2016 we will be ready to present it. This is a major undertaking, we could pass it but it will not go anywhere without structure.”
In April this year, the New Zealand experts – brought all the way from New Zealand to advise our government on the implementation of VAT – emphasised the importance of having a FOIA and a Fiscal Responsibility Act in place before introducing VAT. They explained that this legislation had been important to help establish New Zealanders’ trust in their government’s efforts to implement VAT. New Zealand had its FOIA in place five years before VAT was introduced. Then with the introduction of VAT their government passed a Fiscal Responsibility Act to allow “fiscal reporting”.
With Bahamians’ growing distrust of their government, it is vital that this legislation is taken off the back burner and treated as urgent.
Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe’s answer, published in yesterday’s Tribune, to FNM Deputy Leader Loretta Butler Turner’s request for the Financial Action Task Force’s recommendations to be laid on the table of the House is an example of why the FOIA is urgently needed. Also it illustrates why no elaborate committees, staff, or budget is necessary to meet this simple request. Just get the report, bring it to parliament, give it to the clerk to hand it to the Speaker so that he can order that it be laid on the table of the House.
But Mr Wilchcombe’s reply was extraordinary. Such a request, he said, questions the integrity of the government. Yes, Mr Wilchcombe, so it does. Surely, sir, you are smart enough to know that this government’s main problem is that it has lost public confidence in its integrity, especially in the handling of the Gaming Bill, and the only way to regain that confidence is to lay the FATF’s advice on the table of the House as requested. At least this will prove that there is nothing to hide – or is there?
“At the end of the day,” said Mr Wilchcombe, “I don’t think it is necessary to table the FATF’s recommendations to us. We must have some integrity with this issue, we are the government of the Bahamas and we were put here to do what is right.”
And what is right, Mr Wilchcombe, is to be open with the people of this country and give them the information that is rightfully theirs.
Mr Wilchcombe fears that Mrs Butler Turner only wants this information so that the Opposition can “scramble for issues” on the government’s “ground breaking” legislation. Whatever issues she might be scrambling for is nothing to what the Bahamian people — with lack of information and highly suspicious — are already concocting and peddling as the truth.
The only way, Mr Wilchcombe, that your government can gain the confidence of Bahamians is to be open and demonstrate that there is in fact nothing to hide. You can deal with whatever the Opposition might want to scramble. But if you only knew what the Bahamian people are already scrambling and peddling as the truth, it would give you high blood pressure.
And so all this arrogant talk about “integrity” will get you nowhere, because Bahamians do not believe there is any. “Something is rotten in the state of the Bahamas, but it aint all fish!” is how Bahamians would rephrase the lines of William Shakespeare.
Mr Wilchcombe pointed out that the Attorney General went to Paris in July to meet with the FATF to get an opinion on our Gaming Bill. And who paid the expenses for this trip and investigation? The Bahamian people’s tax dollars, of course. Therefore, who is entitled to the information? The Bahamian people, naturally.
And so, Mr Wilchcombe, let’s have some proof of that integrity. That document belongs to the Bahamian people, so lay it where it should be laid — on the table of the House for all to see.
We assure you, you will not need Mr Fitzgerald’s committee to perform this simple act.