Prime Minister Dr Hubert A Minnis last week acted on what appeared to be a revelation – Members of Parliament, he said, are not earning enough. How can we expect them to govern giving their all, pouring through hundreds of pages of documents to prepare for every session of the House of Assembly, and serve their constituency on a salary of some $34,000?
Dr Minnis is both right and wrong. MPs salaries are too low. He is right about that. So are the salaries for teachers with an entry level that is far less than an MP who works only part-time. Other salaries are too low, police, prison guards, defence force.
But there are two things that Dr Minnis got wrong and we offer these as suggestions so that MPs salaries can be increased without public outrage.
First, the timing could not have been worse. On the day we reported the PM wants to increase MPs salaries; Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest was telling us the government is earning insufficient revenues and the stagnant economy may force the imposition of corporate income tax. Did the leader of the country and the deputy leader lose each other’s phone numbers? Surely, they would have connected before either made such statements of dramatic proportions.
The thought of corporate tax is abhorrent if it is an additional tax, piled on top of outrageous business licence fees based on gross rather than net revenues, on top of Customs duties, on top of VAT and amid threats of an increase in National Insurance contributions which already weigh heavily on businesses. If the corporate tax is a replacement for one of the above or if it coincides with reduced business licence fees, it could be palatable, even preferable if it moves business taxation from regressive to progressive.
Secondly, the problem with introducing an increase for Members of Parliament is the timing. We are mired in an economy that is going nowhere fast with lower than expected growth rate and so much stagnation that if it were a pond it would have dried up. Every night, government statistics tell us, some 12 percent live below the poverty level of $11.64 a day, meaning thousands go to bed or to school hungry. Hundreds have lost their homes because of an inability to make mortgage payments. Thousands are without electricity or trying to work out plans to pay a little at a time. Half the people in New Providence still use well water though they know the dangers. Unemployment among male youth is pegged at close to 30 percent.
So yes, MPs need a raise. Their salaries are too low. But tie raises to growth. Focus on how to get this economy moving again. Be inventive and innovative. Take the handcuffs and ankle cuffs off business. Create economic zones, boost incentives for all things medical - research, treatment, tourism, wellness. Focus, too, on sports development and tourism. Look at marine resources, not for exploitation but to make The Bahamas the marine resources education and research capital of the region. No other country has the waters and the variety of species and coral reefs that The Bahamas does.
Explore climate change preparedness measures to jumpstart the blue and green economies. Former Prime Minister Perry Christie recognised the seriousness of climate change and its potential impact on The Bahamas. Do not disregard the warnings because the other party acted on them. Use national resources like the expertise of internationally respected meteorologist Wayne Neely, author of 12 books on hurricanes and the authority NOAA listens to.
Growing the economy is not so difficult if you really want to instead of continuing to spend and borrow. Think energy renewables, plastic substitutes, transportation solutions.
We have been told there is enormous potential for an international aircraft registry. Where does that stand five years after the concept was re-introduced? Where is the promised motor sports park? What does it take to modernize shipping regulations, some of which, we are also told, are over half a century old. The Bahamas was once the fastest growing ship registry in the world and the third largest. Today, we are seventh. Look at why we are slipping and fix it.
There are myriad avenues for growth if hands are untied and if those same MPs who want a raise listen to the private sector and put politics aside for one year. First raise comes with an additional one percent growth, second raise with another one percent. When the country is richer and the people of The Bahamas are doing better, we will all be happy to hand the Members of Parliament their reward too.
Thank you, Sir Durward
Congratulations to all those who helped organise all the celebrations for Sir Durward Knowles’ 100th birthday. It was a masterful staging that went on for weeks and while events ranged from sailing, walks and runs to formal dinners and school visits, the world’s oldest living Olympian and The Bahamas’ first Olympic gold medalist had a single message – we are one. One Bahamas. Stop talking about the differences and the problems. Hold hands, One Bahamas, and march on together.
Thank you, Sir Durward, you have made us all better just by being you and reminding us what unity is all about. Happy birthday.