By Frederick R M Smith, QC
Over the past several months, a theme has emerged in public commentary suggesting that despite near universal high hopes following the landslide victory of May 10, 2017, the Minnis Administration has strayed badly off course and is haemorrhaging support on a daily basis.
This perception has been fuelled by certain high profile miscalculations, such as the government’s flirtation with ill-conceived and reckless projects like the Oban deal; its shocking decision to pass an anti-democratic and intrusive ‘Spy Bill’ despite denouncing it in opposition; the illegal and inhumane immigration crackdown and the prime minister’s most unfortunate comments following the recent earthquake in Haiti.
The FNM seems to have forgotten it did not campaign on any of these issues. The Bahamian public was not looking to elect an administration of wheeling-and-dealing Crown Land salesmen, nor a gang of authoritarian xenophobes hell-bent on undertaking ethnic crusades.
What Minnis and his colleagues actually promised - and what voters resoundingly supported - was a commitment to strengthening transparency, accountability, individual rights and the rule law. A pledge to end corruption and cronyism, level the economic playing field and give each and every individual a say in how their country is developed.
Yet to this day, there there is no sign of a functioning Freedom of Information Act, no Fiscal Responsibility Act, no campaign finance reform. There is no transparent bidding process for public contract while consultation on large-scale projects is utterly pathetic – amounting to little more than a cynical and meaningless rubber stamp.
If this government wants to get back on course, it must refocus attention on these and other core promises it made 17 months ago. Beyond this, it must take meaningful steps toward fulfilling the larger vision it sold the Bahamian people of a humane, fair and prosperous society. Broadly speaking, the necessary initiatives fall into two categories: upgrading our economic system for the 21st century, and strengthening the rights and protections of the individual under the law. This article deals with the first.
A good start
When it comes to revolutionising our stagnant, suffocating economy, the progressive spirit behind the Commercial Enterprises Act (CEA) is exactly what the doctor ordered. In a nutshell, the Act should make it easier to start and grow businesses, thereby attracting more economic activity to the country and creating jobs, new wealth and – crucially – new cutting-edge skill-sets for countless Bahamians. If applied fairly and transparently, it will put The Bahamas on the map as a global hub for several exciting new industries.
This game-changing Bill, passed early on in the FNM’s political term, signalled the arrival of a government with the potential to truly transform this country for the better. Sadly, for whatever reason this progressive energy stalled and in the intervening months the administration’s reputation took blow after blow as its decisions began to reflect the old, tired politics of the status quo.
A good way to recapture this early enterprising spirit would be to organise public seminars and workshops for local businessmen, led by top international experts, on how best take advantage of progressive legislation such as the Commercial Enterprises Act.
Exchange control reform
Unfortunately, no amount of advantage drawn from the CEA can surmount the severe economic handicap created by our repressive exchange control regulations. This is a small country and there is only so much revenue that can be generated domestically. If we want to see real success for our home-grown businesses, they have to be able to go international. In this day and age, it is absolutely unconscionable that the government would continue to hold our hard earned money hostage, preventing us from exporting all but a pittance for use outside of the country, thereby preventing any growth in our prospects beyond these shores.
Meanwhile, virtually all the key players in the tourism industry are internationally traded companies, yet citizens and residents are prevented from investing in any of these enterprises. Bahamians can aspire to no more than employment in what is essentially, a foreign-owned industry in their own country. A review should be conducted with a view to systematically liberalising and eventually abolishing exchange control, thereby empowering Bahamians to both have a stake in their own economy and conduct business overseas.
A new tourism policy
The days of the neo-plantation must come to an end. Government should prioritise eco-tourism projects over the far more environmentally destructive – and from the perspective of employees, much lower paying – mega-resort and exclusive gated community models.
There could be no better time for such a move. High net worth travellers are paying top dollar for “light footprint” vacations that exist in harmony with nature and have a low impact on social, cultural, land and marine environments. Eco-resorts attract a greater per visitor spend, thereby preserving environments while attracting wealthy guests and creating more opportunities for Bahamians.
Because this model is more modest in scale than mega-resorts, imagine how it would open up the tourism economy to Bahamians. Instead of being dominated by a single foreign-owned mammoth resort, our coastlines could be dotted with small, high end, high paying eco-resorts, owned fully or in part by Bahamians through joint ventures with foreigners.
The Magic City
Freeport is the key to sustainable national development. Long neglected for irrational, politically-motivated reasons, the “Magic City” represents a unique opportunity to centralise virtually all of the economic and environmental risk associated with large-scale development, whether industrial or touristic, in a single location.
Designed in 1955 as the industrial and innovation hub of The Bahamas, Freeport’s infrastructure is ideal for developments of all kinds. It also abounds in natural beauty – forests, beaches, coral reefs, stretches of canals, abundant mangroves, fisheries and bird populations.
With a little vision, it could become the headquarters for numerous high-tech companies and at the same time home to the most daring and audacious tourism spectacles imaginable, the playground for the ever-growing Florida economy and an attraction to visitors from around the world.
The Bahamas could become a country of two national hubs, one political the other industrial; two centres of employment and opportunity, two paths to success and empowerment for each and every Bahamian to choose from.
Best of all, the rest of the country, from Abaco to Inagua would be unshackled from reliance on environmentally and economically risky development, free to concentrate on developing new, unique, organic, socially and culturally sensitive and exciting tourism models that respect the environment and bring a whole new high-end demographic traveler to our shores.
When it comes to immigration policy, we continue to live in the dark ages. The government remains in the grip of a blinkered, anxiety-driven mania of keeping the “invaders” out at all costs, when instead it should be focused on attracting cutting-edge industries and experts to our shores in the greatest number possible.
Innovative minds in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nano-technology, renewable energy, biomedical industries, bioinformatics and analytics are looking for a new home. Silicon Valley in California and other traditional cradles of these industries have been so massively successful and are now so ultra-exclusive that young bright minds are priced out of entry.
Once again, Freeport could be their saviour and ours. Were we to invite these bright minds to take part in our audacious economic experiment in the north, The Bahamas would benefit tremendously from both the technology itself and the cutting-edge skills transfer to Bahamians. In particular, a skills boost to industries such as renewable energy and public sector technology could help address some of the key development issues facing The Bahamas today. If the government must give incentives and concessions to foreign entities to attract their attention, the beneficiaries should be the innovative and groundbreaking individuals and companies of the future, not the stagnant old barons of a mega-resort model.
Despite the existence of a Local Government Act, decision-making power on each island remains in the firm, suffocating grip of central government in Nassau, which also retains control over local budgets and collects all tax revenues for payment into the public treasury. Local communities are prevented from deciding their own future and deprived of the ability to invest the fruits of their labour in their own neighbourhoods and industries. Worst of all, large and environmentally harmful developments that undermine the local cultural heritage are foisted upon these communities without their permission and often against their will.
The Act should be amended to create a system in which each island is free from undue outside meddling and able to create its own future, with district councils empowered to collect taxes, pass by-laws and enforce them, and control issues such as town planning and Crown Land use.
The creation of a Land Use Plan (LUP) for New Providence was mandated in the 2011 Planning and Subdivision Act. True to form, the PLP administration of the day simply ignored it. LUPs aim to make development more rational, efficient and ethical. They aim to bring an end to the current unhealthy development model which leads to environmental destruction, disregard for traditional customs and culture, social upheaval and economic uncertainty. The FNM should make LUPs should be made mandatory for all islands in The Bahamas.
Over the years, secret ‘Heads of Agreement’ deals with developers have resulted is the giveaway of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of land which is supposed to be the property of the Bahamian people. A Crown Land Act must be passed which clearly outlines the circumstances under which leases and grants can be issued. Dialogue with the local population should be a key and binding cornerstone of this law.Applications by Bahamians should be prioritized over proposals from foreign developers. There must also be provisions for clearing the backlog of 30,000 applications by Bahamians and providing for transparency in all matters relating to the granting and lease of Crown Land.
The FNM administration has already taken an important step in this regard with the announcement of an impending Environmental Protection Act. This Act must be the all-encompassing final authority on environmental matters in The Bahamas and must deal decisively with urgent issues such as unregulated development, abuse of Crown Land, and the wanton destruction of natural resources.
It must also provide for the training of Environmental Officers on each island, answerable to the Local Government authorities and empowered to investigate any and all alleged environmental infractions. It must establish an Independent Environmental Czar, who is mandated work closely with the Office of Ombudsman to investigate matters of concern fairly and without prejudice.
• Part 2 of this column will address initiatives aimed at strengthening the rights and privileges enjoyed by individuals and communities in The Bahamas.