By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government's Fiscal Responsibility Bill will create a non-political "Council" to oversee its financial stewardship, with the law yesterday hailed as a safeguard against national "bankruptcy".
Matt Aubry, executive director of the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), told Tribune Business that the Bill - set for full public release today - could be "very big" for fiscal transparency and accountability.
ORG, and other key private sector and civil society groups, were sent an advance copy of the draft Bill on Friday ahead of a narrow two-week consultation period for interested parties to provide feedback on its provisions.
Acknowledging the tight timeline, with the Government aiming to table the Bill in Parliament to coincide with the 2018-2019 Budget presentation at end-May, Mr Aubry said ORG and its affiliates would seek to provide as much advice as possible given the need to move the legislative agenda forward.
He added that a letter attached to the Bill, signed by Marlon Johnson, the Ministry of Finance's acting financial secretary, conceded that the consultation had been launched with little warning.
"There's a lot to be done in a short period of time," Mr Aubry said, adding of the letter: "It did say that they [the Government] appreciated there was not enough notice, but they want to work through this in an expedited way.
"We want to make sure we get this right. I understand the balance of wanting to move forward. With the way the legislative agenda has got stacked up, the intention of moving this and trying to get it in place needs to happen now."
Mr Aubry said ORG had already distributed the draft Bill to its council members, along with affiliate and partner groups, and was pushing for all to submit comments/concerns as rapidly as possible to ensure the broadest possible consultation on critical legislation.
The ORG executive director added that he had already begun to "work through" the Bill, benchmarking it with similar laws in other jurisdictions, and praised several proposals in it - including the creation of a 'Financial Council'.
The Bill, as presently drafted, calls for the Council's members to be appointed by the Governor-General following advice from the Speaker of the House of Assembly and MPs - not the Government, as is normal practice.
"There's going to be a 'Financial Council' appointed by the Governor-General through the suggestion of the Speaker and Parliament," Mr Aubry told Tribune Business. "The composition of the Council is really coming from an outside perspective.
"Private sector folks have a role in making sure the Government is doing what it's supposed to. I saw that as a first step, making sure there's a nod to transparency and the provision of information."
Mr Aubry said other aspects of the Bill made the annual Budget process "a lot more open to public understanding and scrutiny", while setting the Government's revenue and spending plans in context, enabling them to be judged and benchmarked against strategy and specific goals.
"When it goes off track it will be very clear," he added. "One point speaks to the need for presenting a financial strategy in the latter part of the year that will guide all Budget presentations going forward.
"It's [the Bill] going to be more specific, and I think it needs to be more specific; what we're trying to achieve in a year and the current strategy. That can be used to hold the Government accountable and fight for transparency.
Mr Aubry said the Bill will also provide a "framework" to help explain, and allow the public to assess, the reasons for terminations/lay-offs in the public sector. Noting that such firings have aroused considerable controversy, especially in the political realm, he suggested the proposed legislation will offer an objective criteria that can be used to determine if such moves are justified.
Robert Myers, ORG's principal, yesterday told Tribune Business that the Fiscal Responsibility legislation had been "too long coming", given that successive administration had run-up a near $8 billion national debt with $300 million-plus annual deficits.
He suggested that the binding limits the Bill will impose on current and future governments will serve to protect the Bahamas against bankruptcy, telling Tribune Business: "That's where we're headed otherwise."
"I think it could be huge," Mr Myers said of the Bill. "What I'm excited about is that it's going to create laws that create Fiscal Responsibility across the board. That's why I think it's so important that we it establishes accountability and rules that all governments have to live with, not just this one.
"We're not trying to tie anyone's hands down, because there are natural disasters that occur that force us to spend above Budget limits, but when they don't have those events there's at least some guidelines that mean they will not bankrupt the country.
"That's where we're headed. These Fiscal Rules will hopefully bind them to live within certain realities, certain limits, and that's critical."
Mr Myers said all previous governments, both FNM and PLP, had "done a crap job on fiscal controls and fiscal accountability, and that irresponsible behaviour has to stop. The lack thereof will take us all down with them.
"If they keep increasing taxes, the cost of living goes up, the cost of business keeps going up, people stop coming here and the country's over. It's a vicious cycle. That's why it's not just policy; we need to make it law. It's [Fiscal Responsibility] been too long coming, but I'm very happy to see the first phase."
Mr Aubry, meanwhile, said ORG planned to work with the Government and private sector partners on a Fiscal Transparency Portal that will enable Bahamians to have a better understanding of, and participation in, a country's fiscal affairs.