By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The prime minister was yesterday warned he must urgently “take a knife and slice through the red tape” otherwise investors will “simply say goodbye” to The Bahamas.
Fred Smith QC, the Callenders & Co attorney and partner, bluntly told Tribune Business in the wake of complaints by Compass Point’s owner that “money goes where it makes money; it doesn’t have to fight to stay in The Bahamas”.
Arguing that The Bahamas had suffered such a “fate for many, many decades”, Mr Smith said it appeared as if “the government bureaucracy has taken Cabinet ministers hostage” over their much-publicised efforts to improve the ease of doing business by improving processes and eliminating unnecessary obstacles.
Emphasising that he wanted The Bahamas “to succeed”, the well-known QC called for “everyone to raise the alarm” both domestically and internationally as this often seemed to be the only way to provoke government action.
In a week when Leigh Rodney, Compass Point’s owner, warned that he will close the resort for good - and put 60 Bahamians out of work - at the next general election unless the government makes good on addressing his concerns and improving the ease of doing business, Mr Smith said businesses “hitting their head against a brick wall” were fully entitled to move elsewhere.
“I am a Bahamian citizen; I hold no other passport,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business. “I want to do everything possible in The Bahamas for the benefit of all of us who are living here. I don’t criticise the government or cause alarm just to be negative. I do it out of a sense of frustration, as a Bahamian citizen, as someone who thinks, and as someone who knows, it can be better.
“For some reason, and I don’t know why, the government bureaucracy seems to have held the Cabinet ministers hostage with red tape. When I speak to Cabinet ministers about these challenges they are experiencing themselves, either personally or through their friends and family, they lament the difficulty in doing business and they are pulling their hair out.
“I call on the prime minister to take a very sharp knife and slice through the red tape quickly and effectively, because otherwise we will see people not coming to The Bahamas, and we will seen a reduction in business initiatives and the closure of businesses,” Mr Smith continued.
“Money goes where it can make money. It doesn’t have to fight to stay in The Bahamas, and when the struggles and challenges become too much it simply says goodbye. That has been the regrettable fate of The Bahamas for many decades where red tape, lack of response, government negligence and ignorance, and sometimes obstinance and arrogance, has cost opportunities for Bahamians who need a job.”
One such example was the loss of the captive insurance industry, a sector in which The Bahamas was a market leader, to Bermuda in the late 1960s and early 1970s following changes in this nation’s regulatory regime. This country has not won that business back ever since.
Mr Smith, who last month said he “would not advise anybody to do business in The Bahamas right now” because of the “strangulation” caused by excessive red tape and client due diligence, yesterday said the advertisement published by Compass Point’s owner - together with the e-mails and letters he had received in response - showed “everyone is pulling their hair out”.
“I’m available to help the Government, and want to see The Bahamas succeed, but I’m not going to stop criticising,” he added. “People have criticised me for criticising my own party who I helped to get in. I want to help my political party to do better so they can win the next election and continue in office to create a better Bahamas.
“I urge everyone else to raise the alarm domestically and internationally. That seems to be the only way the Government finally reacts and makes changes. If someone cannot do business here, frankly they should close shop and go somewhere else. No one likes to be hitting their head against a brick wall while their hands are tied behind their back.”
Enacting major reforms to facilitate the smooth conduct of commerce by removing unnecessary bureaucracy and “red tape”, thereby improving The Bahamas’ 119th ranking in the annual World Bank standings, was a major thrust of the FNM government’s election campaign and appeal to the private sector.
It has already touted several achievements, including a reduction in Business Licence processing time to 48 hours and the introduction of provisional licences. The Delivery Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office said the time for approving and renewing Business Licences has been reduced by 37 percent and 77 percent respectively.
The Unit’s annual report also hailed a 44 percent reduction in the time taken to register a property conveyance, along with a 12 percent cut to the time taken to obtain construction permits. The latter, though, was challenged by Gustavus Ferguson, the Institute of Bahamian Architects (IBA) president, who said he knew no one who obtained a building permit in less than six months.
Despite the professed improvements, and progress in some areas that should be built upon by the Government’s digitisation reform roll-out, the evidence to-date still suggests that not enough persons on the ground are feeling the benefits.
The reform drive also appears to have eased in recent months. Lynn Holowesko, chair of the Government-appointed ease of doing business committee, told a recent accountants’ conference that it was disappointed more of its recommendations were not incorporated into the 2018-2019 Budget.