By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government and private sector were yesterday urged to finally “close off” work on legislation to revive the small business sector, a well-known consultant arguing: “Enough is enough.”
Mark Turnquest, head of Mark A. Turnquest Consulting, told Tribune Business that 2016 marked the second year since those leading the consultation on the proposed Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) Bill completed their efforts and presented their findings to the Christie administration.
Reiterating his deep “disappointment” that legislation had yet to be brought to Parliament, Mr Turnquest said the Government had managed to drive through the Gaming (web shop) Bill - and was now moving on National Health Insurance - despite the fact small businesses were regarded worldwide as the fastest job creators.
Illustrating why the SME Bill and agencies it would create are so badly needed, Mr Turnquest said the only businesses that appeared to be open in south Andros when he visited the island over the Christmas holidays were web shops and liquor stores.
“We had finished the SME Bill and the structure for SMEDA from 2014,” Mr Turnquest said. “I really would like the Government, the Chamber of Commerce and the private sector to close on this.
“Unfortunately, working with a lot of small businesses, even in the Family Islands, it’s very depressing. I went to south Andros, and 90 per cent of the businesses were closed.
“Over the Christmas holidays, the only things open were the numbers houses (web shops) and the liquor stores. Only two restaurants were open. There’s nothing going on in south Andros; there’s nothing happening.”
The SME Bill proposes to create the Small and Medium-Sized Business Development Agency (SMEDA) as a “one stop-shop”, and as the “umbrella” body co-ordinating all the Government’s small business support services.
Apart from providing all the resources necessary for start-ups and entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into sustainable businesses, SMEDA’s structure is also designed “to minimise political interference”.
Mr Turnquest, though, said he was told by a senior government official late last year that the Christie administration was fearful SMEDA’s creation, and role, would lead to job losses at other agencies such as the Bahamas Development Bank (BDB) and the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC).
The consultant told Tribune Business he rejected such fears, as SMEDA would simply make all government agencies involved in supporting small businesses more productive, enabling them to focus on the better ideas and business plans.
“Once SMEDA is operational, it will align the other agencies and make them more productive as they will be focused on businesses that are innovative,” Mr Turnquest said, “handicraft, information and communications technology (ICT) and creative businesses that can hire beyond the ‘Mom and pop’ stores.
“I’m tired of this rigmarole every year. Our government, PLP and FNM, are they really focusing on small business development? You can’t focus on small businesses if there’s no supporting Act in place.
“I’ve been talking about the SME Bill for the past eight years. Enough is enough.”
Mr Turnquest said the Government, Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) and the wider private sector all “have to be on board” with the initiative for it to succeed.
Khaalis Rolle, minister of state for investments, previously told Tribune Business that the SME Bill and SMEDA had both effectively been placed on ‘hold’ to ensure they dovetailed with the Government’s National Development Plan, and that there was no “duplication” of roles and structures between the two.
But Mr Turnquest argued that this concern, too, was not insurmountable, as the Government could merely recall all stakeholders for further discussions if it wanted to restructure either SMEDA or the Bill.
“Just bring us back to the table and close off this Bill,” he told Tribune Business. “They say small businesses are the sector that’s number one for hiring people, but that’s not what the policies are doing. Everyone has to be on board.”
Emphasising that Baha Mar’s fate had shown the dangers of relying on one project to create employment and drive the economy, Mr Turnquest said he was not blaming anyone for the SME Bill ‘stalling out’.
Yet he called for those likely to benefit the most to agitate for its passage.
“We have too many small businessmen who are passive,” Mr Turnquest told this newspaper. “They don’t put any skin in the game. They’re too scared or are politically driven.
“This country cannot go another year without the SME Bill and SMEDA. We have got to close on this. We are in dire straits and cannot go on like this. The simplest thing is to get the Act and SMEDA in place, so we can grow the country’s competitiveness and businesses can grow their sales.”
Mr Turnquest said it was “a sign of weakness” that the Bahamas, unlike its regional counterparts, had no uniform definition of what a ‘small business’ was.
The sector, the Government, banks and credit unions all have their own definitions, which made it difficult to achieve a structured approach to supporting small businesses.