By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Businesses were yesterday urged to "pay more attention" as the government sets "a fast and furious" pace on reforms critical to hitting its end-2019 target for joining the WTO.
Darron Pickstock, who heads the Chamber of Commerce's trade and investment division, told Tribune Business that most of the 14-15 draft bills he had seen this year were "geared towards" facilitating this country's accession to full membership in the rules-setting body for global trade.
Suggesting this showed there was "no question" of the government backing down from joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Mr Pickstock said that in the eyes of many Bahamians it had yet to make a convincing case for why this move will benefit the country.
Describing the government's WTO communications strategy to-date as "patchy", the Chamber executive warned that "the word on the street" in the private sector was that it has "not made the case" for accession yet.
He called for the Minnis administration to set out "a road map", detailing the full WTO accession process and individual steps this nation will have to take, as a means to reduce the fear of the unknown that typically leads to "resistance" on any Bahamian economic reform.
And Mr Pickstock argued that The Bahamas should implement the proposed regulatory reforms for its own benefit, not merely to join the WTO, as a signal that it is "a progressive society".
With proposed competition legislation the latest effort released for public consultation, he said it was "safe to say" the Chamber will be providing feedback and recommendations on the initial draft.
Mr Pickstock told Tribune Business: "There have been so many draft Bills produced; I'm up to 14-15 different Bills for this year.
"Most are geared towards Bills required to accede to the WTO. That gives me an indication that the Government is preparing to accede to WTO. There's no question of whether the Government intends to join by the end of 2019. That's clear; it's a statement the Minister of Financial Services [Brent Symonette] made. How that will look is anyone's guess."
With the Government seemingly set on its WTO accession course, Mr Pickstock said the Chamber's planned empirical analysis of the impact this will have on key sectors of the Bahamian economy is assuming ever-greater importance.
A terms of reference (TOR) for this analysis is now being prepared by a trade consultant, and Mr Pickstock - a partner at the Glinton, Sweeting & O'Brien law firm - said the research was vital "to ensure we are getting the best out of the WTO".
He added: "If it's the Government's intention to go ahead we want to know we are getting the best out of our negotiations. If they intend to go full on, we want to be in position to influence that process.
"It's important for the Government to continue to hold these public forums to review legislation and have discussions, so that people can understand what it means. It needs to be at a level that the ordinary man in the street can understand. Normally, these things go over the head of ordinary citizens."
Mr Pickstock said both private sector and civil society groups had "a duty" to assist the Government with WTO-related education, and suggested all "can do more".
"The private sector needs to pay more attention to these draft Bills and legislation coming out," he told Tribune Business, "because they are coming fast and furious. They need to pay more attention; you are absolutely correct.
"I just think the dialogue and conversation should be better coming from the Government side. That's why I think a lot of people are confused and almost don't know what is happening because the Government has been patchy, at the very best, in disseminating information. It's not been clear.
"One of the things I previously said was that they [the Government] haven't made the case. That's the concern," Mr Pickstock continued. "I'm not saying this is my view, but that's the word on the street among the business community.
"What I'm hearing, and the Chamber is hearing, is simply that the case has not been made. There needs to be clearer communications from the Government. There needs to be a road map, and that road map needs to be shared, so people understand the process for the Bahamas and what steps we as a country will be taking.
"It's all about communication. When we communicate and people understand there's less friction. When people feel there is something pushed down their throat, there will be resistance. Communication is key."
Suggesting that proposed WTO-related reforms should have been implemented long before the accession arose, Mr Pickstock added: "People are still asking the question. That is the fundamental question people are asking: What are the benefits of WTO?
"I'm not saying that to be controversial, I'm not saying that to make things difficult for the Government. It's a legitimate question. What are the benefits? If you tell me the benefits are an improved business environment because we have to pass this legislation, in my view these things could or should have been done without any discussion of WTO.
"They should have been done because we want to be a progressive society or country, not necessarily because of government's intention to join the WTO. We want to be progressive. Ease of business should be one of our top priorities, but not because of WTO."
Mr Pickstock said Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration, had confirmed that the Bahamas' latest WTO 'offers' were before the Minnis Cabinet for its approval.
The 'offers' detail the Bahamas' negotiating position, and which industries it is prepared to liberalise/open up, and to what extent, plus those sectors where it is seeking 'reservations' or exclusions to protect local entrepreneurs and other interests.
It will also outline the Bahamas' proposals to eliminate and/or reduce certain import tariffs. These are seen as 'barriers to trade' under rules-based regimes such as WTO, and this nation will likely have to replace $100-$200 million in lost revenue.
Full WTO membership is a critical element in the Government's plan to open up the Bahamian economy through liberalisation and deregulation, in a bid to attract new industries and businesses that will drive economic growth in decades to come.
The WTO is the rules-setting body for global trade, meaning that the Bahamas and its entire private sector will have to 'play by the rules of the game' should this nation accede to full membership. The Bahamas currently has 'observer' status.
Bahamian businesses will also have to become familiar with terms such as 'Most Favoured Nation', 'national treatment' and 'reciprocity', which all relate to non-discrimination and will mean that this nation cannot - in many instances - treat local businesses and investors more favourably than foreign-owned ones.
Many sceptics also believe that full WTO membership will erode Bahamian sovereignty, and the ability of Parliament to set laws in the national interest, as these could be challenged and overridden by disputes resolution panels if they are non-compliant with international trade rules.
Others, though, believe WTO membership could open up new markets for Bahamian exports, while also making this nation more attractive to new industries and foreign direct investment (FDI) able to take comfort from greater certainty surrounding this nation's business climate.
The Bahamas remains the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that is not a full member of WTO. There was an 11-year gap between the Bahamas serving notice of its intent to join and the second meeting of the Working Party, made up of nations interested in trading with the Bahamas, which this nation will have to negotiate terms of its membership with.
The leading members of this Working Party will thus be the US, European Union (EU), CARICOM and individual Caribbean states, and China. The Bahamas has already submitted its Memorandum of Trade regime document, outlining its current trade regime and laws/regulations, but talks with the Working Party and information exchanges appeared to cease in 2013.
The Bahamas' is the longest-running WTO accession, with this nation having first served notice of its intention to seek full membership in 2001 - 17 years, and four administrations, ago.