By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government was yesterday urged to delay the Bahamas' WTO accession until 2021 to coincide with the prospect of lower energy costs for New Providence at least.
Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) principal, told Tribune Business that the proposed timetable for Shell's liquefied natural gas (LNG) power plant "gives the timeline" for when the Bahamas should seek to become a full World Trade Organisation (WTO) member.
Reiterating that he was in favour of the Bahamas ultimately joining the WTO once it could realise the full benefits, Mr Myers again urged that accession be delayed to properly position the economy for this.
Suggesting that the Government was currently on a WTO "sales mission" and "blowing smoke up our backsides" over the need to join global trade's rules-setting body, the ORG chief said his personal experience called into question the advantages said to flow from membership to Freeport.
Mr Myers argued that Freeport should instead be labelled "bureaucratic port", recalling how the imposition of 1 per cent Customs processing fees on all imports and exports - plus a doubling in Customs attendance fees - ultimately sank his VTrade transhipment/logistics business.
VTRade's business model was built on quick turnaround, bringing in bulk shipments for 'break down' and forwarding on to consumers via smaller loads. However, the extra costs and bureaucracy introduced by the former Christie administration ultimately undermined its existence and forced the company's closure.
"Why do they think the WTO is going to open up Freeport?" Mr Myers told Tribune Business. "What's closing down Freeport is that you have to deal with two governments: the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) and the Governmentx.
"You've got to jump through all the Port Authority stuff, and still have to deal with Immigration and Customs, and have Customs breathing down your neck. They imposed a 1 per cent fee on all goods imported and exported, and then doubled the Customs attendance fee.
"Every time you imported or exported something, you had to have Customs come in and inspect it. That's not a 'Freeport'; that's a bureaucratic port. That's what put me out of business. Until you get Customs and Immigration, and government, out the way, it's a 'bureaucratic port'."
Mr Myers argued that the Government seemed to be solely focused on selling WTO membership's supposed merits, rather than addressing productivity, energy, and cost/ease of business challenges that made Bahamian businesses uncompetitive with their international and Caribbean counterparts.
"I'm not buying it. Nobody's talking sense yet," he told Tribune Business. "They're on a sales mission to cram WTO down our throats without thinking. When they stop doing that, and start having real conversations, dealing with the gorilla in the room, they'll have better traction.
"Until then, they're on a sales pitch. There may be some people buying it, but I'm not. The Government is talking about WTO, but it has the biggest monopolies in the country that are killing us on price. Get some competition in your yard before you do it to us."
Mr Myers said it took 18 months for the former government to respond to his concerns over the Freeport tax changes, by which time he had been forced to close VTrade and lay-off 18 persons.
He called for WTO membership to be delayed until the Government had addressed "the underlying problems" making the Bahamian economy and private sector uncompetitive, one of which is energy costs and supply reliability.
Pointing out that these factors were largely outside the private sector's control, and rested with the Government, Mr Myers suggested deferring WTO accession until at least 2021, which is when Shell's LNG plant is scheduled to begin supplying Bahamas Power & Light's (BPL) operations with lower cost energy.
"If it's going to take two years to get LNG, that gives you the timeline," he told Tribune Business. "We won't be competitive with the rest of the region on the cost of energy for two years. That there's reason enough to put WTO off.
"Until we get power costs down to 21 cents per kilowatt hour, don't talk to me about WTO. Tell the WTO you've got to fix this first, or you'll torpedo the rest of the economy. Let's fix some of these problems and fix our cost base."
"There are advantages to WTO, just not now. I'm for WTO, but only if it benefits us and when the playing field is level. I'm very pro-WTO; it could have a very positive impact for us."
Mr Myers likened the Government's WTO push to the Christie administration's efforts to introduce VAT, adding: "They seem to be hell bent on pushing us down this road. I don't know why.
"It's like when we tackled VAT. The external forces were saying this is what you have to do, and no one in government wanted to roll up their sleeves, do the hard work and determine what we had to do. I don't want that again. They have to listen, figure out the right solution and do the economic modelling.
"A 15 per cent VAT with all those exemptions would have put us in stagflation and killed us, the Bahamian people. Slow it down, pump the brakes and do the work. Let's come up with a viable solution. Currently, they're throwing mud at the wall."