By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
EXUMA & Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper yesterday accused Finance Minister K Peter Turnquest of pushing “partisan rhetoric” instead of answering real questions about the country’s economy.
Mr Cooper questioned the motivation behind Mr Turnquest’s decision to advise the country that the deficit for the 2016/2017 fiscal year was $695 million, and not $500 million as previously reported, without clarifying how the Minnis administration spent a whopping $381m in June alone. The shadow minister of Finance, in a statement circulated by the PLP Sunday, explained that the Opposition has been querying the variances between the Minnis administration’s initial deficit figures and those of the Central Bank of The Bahamas.
Mr Cooper said rather than give clarity on why the government spent $381m and why that data is still not finalised in Central Bank reports, the Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest in his address to Parliament last Thursday sought only to push “partisan rhetoric” and pat himself on the back.
Mr Turnquest claimed the country’s deficit was adjusted because not all the bills incurred under the former PLP government were presented when he spoke on the matter during the 2016-2017 budget debate.
Mr Turnquest added that bills were still coming into the government when he gave a snapshot of the hefty bills with which the Minnis administration is faced.
In June, $381m in taxpayer dollars was spent for commitments dating as far back as January of this year, he said.
Seemingly unconvinced, Mr Cooper said the government hasn’t explained the specific nature of these bills and why the government decided to make these payments in full and not stagger them as is customary and from which ministries these payments originated.
Mr Cooper also contended the Minnis administration had “a lot of questions to answer” when referring to the country’s finances, insisting that in the interest of transparency and accountability, the minister of finance must reconcile and explain his new deficit figures.
He further questioned why the East Grand Bahama MP continues to “change by a wide margin” the country’s deficit and fiscal outlook every time he addresses the issues.
“If the proverbial “cupboard was bare” as he pronounced in May, where did the Minister find $381m during the month of June,” Mr Cooper questioned. “While he is at it, perhaps the minister could indicate when, indeed, the year-end for the last fiscal year will finally be closed, as we are now in the second quarter of the current fiscal year.”
Mr Cooper said the government’s recent actions do not inspire confidence in the country and its economy.
Referring to the Opposition’s request, the Exuma and Ragged Island MP said: “The purpose of the request for information was not to do a political dance with the minister, but to make sure the government is being transparent with the public’s funds — the most basic of public expectations.”
“As shadow minister of finance, I have no time for political football and will make no attempt to explain the minister’s numbers for him as the details are resident in the Ministry of Finance, to which I have not had access at any point,” the statement added.
“It is noteworthy that last month, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House requested, in writing, of the minister, an explanation for these variances; a request to which he has yet to respond.”
“In the interest of transparency, accountability and credibility, I urge him to comply promptly.”
“While he is at it, the minister must explain, in detail, what he means when he says that $42 million of the $150 million the government borrowed and placed in the consolidated fund last year for hurricane relief ‘cannot be found’.”
Mr Cooper said now is not the time for “nonsensical talk,” insisting the minister has a fiduciary duty to reconcile the government’s accounts.
“This is money the people of The Bahamas will have to pay back with interest,” he said.
“It is incredibly irresponsible to say the government cannot locate $42 million of the public’s money. However, to blithely say he has no idea where the money is, is shocking, unacceptable and the innuendo is again language unbecoming of a Minister of Finance.”
“It would be remiss of me not to point out that since the FNM took office, no significant foreign direct investments (FDI) has materialised and the government has presented no plan of any kind to spur life into the economy. I once more urge the government to focus attention on job creation, economic growth, FDI and domestic investment rather than continuing to look backwards. Bahamians are hurting and await the government’s attention to creating opportunities and bringing relief to hurting families”
“I again caution the minister, as I did during the budget exercise, that sensationalising and playing politics with the economy does not serve the national interest,” Mr Cooper said.
“There is an old and timely adage: ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ The elections are over, there is no question that the PLP lost and the people have entrusted the FNM to move the country forward.”
“The government must focus on bringing the country together and inspiring confidence in the economy. The Minnis administration and the honourable minister should not continue to squander the goodwill of the Bahamian people.”