By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
THE Government yesterday said it plans to introduce several 'ease of business' improvements in the upcoming Budget, given their important link to the WTO accession.
Brent Symonette, who has Cabinet responsibility for the trade and industry portfolio, confirmed that the Minnis administration plans to act on proposals from its 'ease of doing business' committee.
"That committee has reported on a number of issues. We have a large batch of recommendations," he disclosed after addressing the first in a series of World Trade Organisation (WTO) consultations with the private sector. "There will be several which will be brought out during the Budget and we are looking to make it easier to do business."
Some in the private sector have argued that the Bahamas should hold off on becoming a full WTO member, and opening up more sectors of the economy to foreign competition, until the Government first improves the 'ease of doing business'. This is viewed by some as critical to improving the Bahamas' competitiveness, and allowing local businesses to thrive.
Darron Pickstock, who heads the Chamber of Commerce's trade and investment division, said: "I think it's important that the ease of doing business correlates with our accession to the WTO, because businesses coming into the Bahamas - and even Bahamians - would want to know it's easy to do business.
"I think the Government is aggressively addressing that. The Prime Minister appointed the National Ease of Doing Business Committee, and the Chamber has a seat on that committee and other various private sector individuals. I think it's all working together to work in the same direction so we can be ready for WTO accession."
Mr Symonette yesterday sought to calm fears among some in the private sector that WTO membership could create "unfettered access" for multinational giants, such as Wal-Mart, to establish a physical presence in the Bahamas' market.
"The unfettered access of companies like Wal-Mart to the Bahamas; that, too, is simply not the case," he said. "The ability of any 'mom and pop' store in the region, or anywhere else in the world, to freely set up shop in the Bahamas; yet another falsehood I must stress."
The extent to which the Bahamas opens up the various sectors of its economy for foreign companies to establish a physical presence here will be determined by the skills of this nation's negotiators in determining its 'terms of accession' in talks with other WTO members.
Mr Symonette, meanwhile, refuted claims that full WTO membership will cost the Bahamas sovereignty over its domestic economic and monetary policy. He added that, unlike the Caribbean Single Market & Economy (CSME), joining the WTO will not result in the free movement of foreign labour into the Bahamas.
"The free movement of labour, in which people from anywhere will have unfettered access to the Bahamas for work. Allow me to stress that is not a feature of the WTO at all," the Minister said.
Still, Mr Symonette acknowledged that joining the WTO "represents a paradigm shift for international trade in the Bahamas", and he hinted that there may be some short-term pain before the benefits are felt.
"We are fully aware of the opportunities and challenges that membership in the WTO poses, but believe that, based on our research and best guidance, that this is in our medium and long-term interest," he said.
The Minnis administration is pushing for WTO accession by December 2019. "It's going to be a tight, aggressive timeframe. We have had a WTO accession team out from [WTO] headquarters," said Mr Symonette.
"They were here for a week. They worked with us, with the staff and we feel happy. They have offered us assistance from head office and we look forward to being able to meet that challenge."
Asked why the Government was pushing to complete WTO accession now, having applied for membership back in 2001, Mr Symonette said: "We need to create a competitive environment. We need Bahamians to have access to the international markets. Likewise, non-Bahamians need to have access here which will create more opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses."
Mr Symonette said membership will allow Bahamian entrepreneurs and companies to pursue trade opportunities globally, and benefit from the protections and safeguards of rules applicable to all WTO members. He added that it will also strengthen the Bahamas' competitiveness and ability to attract international capital and investors.
Addressing WTO's likely impact on Freeport and its 'free trade zone', Mr Symonette said: "That's going to be an interesting one. The free trade zone that exists, that will be part of the negotiations. We will deal with that in the whole WTO accession process and that will be carved out."
The Minister added that developing a new tax structure as the Bahamas becomes less dependent on Customs duties for government revenue; the cost of compliance; and the need for some sectors to make 'adjustments' to a more liberal investment environment are some of the challenges this nation will face with WTO accession.