By Malcolm Strachan
THE controversial Commercial Enterprises Bill (CEB) has been met with broad criticism across the length and breadth of the nation. It has been vehemently opposed by many citizens. That said, there are also still some who view this bill as a progressive step towards ushering in a much-needed stimulus of our economy.
However, our fundamental fear of what is foreign paralyses our ability to have an open mind – making us perhaps reject outright something which may catapult the country forward.
This is not to say the initial draft of the bill does not need some revisions. It certainly can offer a lot less ambiguity with regards to equal opportunity for Bahamians, work permits and ensuring training and knowledge transfer to Bahamians. Likewise, it also gives credence to the belief the public were not included in the bill’s planning and the need for us to shore up other vulnerabilities in our system.
None of this can be done without us charting some unfamiliar territory, as we cannot achieve progress without some discomfort.
The issue at hand may very well be a lack of trust – while both sides of the political spectrum are not helping the situation with the government’s poor communication and the opposition’s political mischief taking front and centre, while the electorate struggles to understand the nuances of this bill.
If perhaps there was a broader understanding of the bill and fewer blunders to prompt the citizenry’s scepticism - just maybe, we wouldn’t be here.
Because we are change-averse as a people, it also leads to stagnation and lagging behind neighbouring economies which have swum with the tide to their benefit.
Successive governments have sought to saturate the same industries by way of foreign direct investment – mainly in tourism - which has led to us struggling to keep pace with our regional neighbours. It is quite clear. Our fear of the unfamiliar and unwillingness to diversify industries within the country have led to a large export of talent and a knowledge gap that has left us trying to build an economy on quick sand.If we’re not cultivating the nation’s next leaders and promoting diversification of our industries, how can we reasonably expect to compete in a global business environment?
While we may not have seen much to give the Minnis government credit for thus far, after some more fine-tuning, the CEB is a certainly a start. Granted, much could have been done differently with regards to their communication and indication that the bill will create opportunities for Bahamians. However, we as citizens, must see the potential within this bill.
We are too easily caught up in the political and xenophobic aspects of the bill, which only create obstacles to progress. Quite honestly, the circulating claims throughout the country that the CEB is only for foreigners are, at best, byproducts of other issues. Specifically, the government has to ensure the process of doing business is made easier for Bahamians. Much was promised on the campaign trail and citizens are saying ‘it is time to ante up’. Pandering in politics leads to high expectations, and any indication that those will not be met as soon as possible only serves to create obstacles for a government trying to move the country forward in other ways.
Likewise, immigration has been a political football for decades. Prime Minister Minnis brought immigration back to the fore in October. With the blistering temperature of Bahamians on foreigners and his recent issues of communicating with the media, of course, everyone is hyper-sensitive. While we hope this administration is ready to take on the task of resolving both of these issues, we, as citizens, also have a part to play.
As a matter of responsibility, citizens of this country must be able to acknowledge that we don’t exist in a vacuum and diversification of our industries does not equate to a complete sale of the economy. This is especially the case when, for the most part, those industries do not exist. Therefore, this is still jobs for Bahamians, if done the right way.
We are being too dramatic, and we all need to dial it down a few notches. Moreover, those with the good sense to know better ought to stop mischievously seeking to create confusion.
With a spectrum of opponents of the bill ranging from the PLP and their supporters to union members, as well as some fair-minded Bahamians, there has been no shortage of criticism. Some we can agree with, while others are simply outrageous. It has been easy to see the fierce opposition of the bill has either come from those who don’t understand the intent or others who seek to politicise it to exploit the lack of understanding amongst the electorate.
Consequently, it is irresponsible twofold - by both the governing party and the opposition.
The government’s job is to carefully put together a bill that is able to fully achieve its intent in introducing new industries to The Bahamas with a goal to grow the economy, as well as to clearly present it to the citizens. Knowing the implications, the way this was rolled out was poorly done. As xenophobia has become as cultural as conch salad in The Bahamas, the government should have known that it would be self-limiting to not fully engage the citizenry in a mass education of their intentions.
Not doing so leaves the door open for many of us to assume they were only seeking to appease the interest of foreigners and not Bahamians, particularly when we are already so sensitive to being treated as second class in our own country by the former government, the prime minister should have ensured full transparency.
The lack of broad discussion on this bill on the front end has allowed this to become a controversial issue, and the government has found itself in defence mode.
Meanwhile, the Opposition is making dangerous statements of their own - suggesting they would repeal the bill once they are the government again. Certainly, they are seeking to score a few political points. But is impeding the government’s plans to potentially thwart the economic growth of the country worth it?
It is this type of myopia that leaves us spinning our wheels.
Former prime minister Hubert Ingraham gave a rare interview to The Tribune last week. In assuming the job of the Opposition party, he gave a pointed and beneficial assessment of the bill. He was able to raise various issues with its current construction that we all can agree with. Perhaps one of the most impactful anecdotes was the need for a bipartisan approach in bringing this bill to bear.
The truth of the matter is both sides have to support this bill for it to meet its full potential. Nothing scares off potential investors like political and economic instability. And with The Bahamas being eons behind our neighbours, the threat of the bill being repealed certainly doesn’t allow for that to happen. Mitigating against the politicising of the CEB would have also encouraged national buy-in among the populace.
In future initiatives, it would be grand to see both sides work together in such a way where they can agree on what’s best for the country over the long-term.
The need for diversification is real, and far too many of our best and brightest are going abroad to study medicine, law and business. Unfortunately, with shrinking slices of the pie not allowing for our salary scales to compete with those abroad, the option of returning home is becoming increasingly less attractive. If you also consider the rising cost of living and the deterrent that crime is, then it almost becomes a foregone conclusion for our scholars abroad to make their lives outside of the country.
As the world is changing, and the government sets its sights on Freeport becoming the Silicon Valley of The Bahamas, there may be an abundance of opportunity for future generations.
With the world rapidly becoming more digital, we have to close the gap on our neighbours. This means we will have to become more open to change. Bahamians will have to become more educated, and not only rely on the government to spoon-feed them. Essentially, we have to get a grasp on the information that’s out there so we can intelligently contribute to the discussion and keep our government’s feet to the fire as we embark on these new horizons.
While it may have been calming to hear the Attorney General indicate the government will be fine-tuning certain aspects of the bill to highlight the benefits for Bahamians, we would like to see the government put forth plans to increase the ease of doing business for Bahamians in existing industries.
Citizens have too long felt as though they were an afterthought in their own country. The government would be doing itself a favour by simply allowing their actions to indicate it is, in fact, “the people’s time”.
If Bahamians were to feel as though the government was working with us as a top priority, the time the government takes to defend itself against an onslaught of critics would drastically reduce and free them up to handle other important business.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t get much worse than the last administration. And in their role as the opposition, the government is making it too easy for them to remain relevant.
Brave Davis’ threats to the international community were a reckless attempt to get on the front page of the dailies. Rather, he would have gotten a much better reception had he given a fair analysis of the bill’s strengths and weaknesses and offered to consult the government on what improvements were needed.
Pandering will get us nowhere. Similarly, lack of transparency and poor communication will do the same. As the government brings more bills to Parliament, hopefully there is greater inclusion to ensure widespread support.
We must remember: this is our country, and as much as we need the government to lead, they equally need citizens to challenge them and make them better.
Let us all do our part to ensure the best possible future for The Bahamas.