By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A CABINET Minister yesterday slammed the PLP's "crazy" opposition to the Government's bid to halt the loss of the Bahamas' "best and brightest".
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism, told Tribune Business that the Minnis administration was trying to reverse "the brain drain" of college graduates and highly-skilled workers by using the Commercial Enterprises Bill to attract new industries.
Describing this as "a more troubling problem" than the financial services industry's decline, Mr D'Aguilar said the Government had no choice but to break the 'status quo' given that it had inherited an economy "which hasn't grown in 10 years". He added that the intense global competition for foreign direct investment (FDI) and skilled human capital made it almost imperative that the Bahamas incentivise overseas firms and entrepreneurs to domicile here through innovative, 'out-of-the-box' thinking.
"Right now we have an economy that hasn't grown in 10 years," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business, "and so it behooves the Government of the day to try and come up with an innovative and different approach to solve that problem.
"We are attempting to attract businesses to the country that, by and large, are not presently active in the jurisdiction. You will probably find one or two examples of businesses in operations in the fields mentioned in the Bill, but not many."
The Commercial Enterprises Bill is targeting selected industries to come to the Bahamas by offering a 'fast track' work permit regime, where senior executives and specialist personnel can enter the country without first obtaining such permissions.
They must apply for work permits within 30 days of arrival, and the Immigration Department will be mandated by law to approve such applications within 14 days or otherwise they will automatically be deemed to have given permission.
The Bill thus seeks to eliminate the uncertainty associated with work permit approvals and timelines for select financial services sectors, plus other high margin, value-added industries that are knowledge and technology-based. All industries targeted are viewed as having economic growth, diversification and foreign exchange earning potential.
The minimum investment threshold to qualify for the Bill's incentives is $250,000, with the Government hoping it might attract the next Google or Microsoft, and Mr D'Aguilar said the Bahamas had no choice but to offer such incentives if it was to compete for, and win, significant FDI.
The Minister, who declined to comment on terminations at the Gaming Board because he is currently outside the Bahamas, added: "If you are in the field of travelling and attending conferences, and seeing what is going on, every country is trying to attract foreign direct investment and human capital to their countries.
"Many, many countries are trying to make it as easy as possible for companies to come to their country and attract human capital in areas where they have little expertise, thereby igniting the possibility of growing new industries.
"To me, it makes sense to ask these people that move around the world and make investments: What would attract you to the Bahamas, and it's to make the process as expedient, transparent and open as possible. That's what the Government's trying to do," Mr D'Aguilar continued.
"When you look at the fact that financial services, which was one of the bedrocks and pillars of the economy, has declined from 25 per cent of GDP to roughly 3 per cent of GDP, then you can't just keep doing what you're doing.
"You've then got to be innovative and creative to attract these businesses to the country, and then try and stop the more troubling problem: Brain drain. Our best and brightest are going away to college, see nothing to return to, and we've been losing them. That's a bigger problem.
"We're trying to stem that and make a difference by attracting new businesses that, by and large, are not represented in our country in any significant way."
The lack of economic diversification, and absence of many science-based and technology industries, has long been viewed as exacerbating the 'brain drain' that results in a high proportion of Bahamian college graduates remaining abroad and taking jobs overseas.
This undermines workforce productivity and economic development, and the Government is desperate to counter this. The recent Grand Bahama Technology Summit had its roots in Bahamians, working abroad in Silicon Valley and for technology companies elsewhere, who want to return home to the Bahamas but feel there is nothing here for them.
"Once you remove the politics, and what sounds good to the base, it's crazy to me that the Opposition are opposing this," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business.
"We're not trying to take away opportunities from Bahamians. The Government will be coming up with proposals in the near term to make it easier to do business in the jurisdiction for local businesses that are frustrated by the bureaucracy and the processes.
"We're just trying to diversify the economy some more and create some high-paying jobs to replace those lost by the shrinkage of the financial services sector. It makes sense to me."
The Government this week emphasised that the Commercial Enterprises Bill's benefits also apply to Bahamian-owned firms, which do not have to meet the minimum $250,000 investment threshold. Carl Bethel, the attorney general, yesterday said work permits under the Bill would only be issued for a maximum of six years, or two three-year terms, with companies obligated to provide 'knowledge transfer' and train-up Bahamians.
"The previous government tried to reduce unemployment by creating public sector jobs, and that's a crazy position," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business. "We've got to grow and reinvigorate the private sector. We need to create new opportunities, new industries for Bahamians to participate in.
"Many other jurisdictions are making it even easier than what was put in the Commercial Enterprises Bill. We're not competing in a world by ourselves. For us to remain competitive we've got to do something.
"The Commercial Enterprises Bill is an attempt to do just that: To stop the continuous degradation of middle income, decent paying jobs. At least we've ignited the discussion."
Mr D'Aguilar said that his "business background" meant he agreed that the Government needed to go further than the Commercial Enterprises Bill in liberalising and deregulating the economy, but it could only move as fast as society.