By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas must not treat WTO membership as “a snap general election decision” that can be reversed in five years’ time, private sector leaders warned yesterday.
Jeffrey Beckles, the newly-appointed Chamber of Commerce chief executive, told Tribune Business that deciding whether or not it was in The Bahamas’ best interests to become a full World Trade Organisation (WTO) member was a decision that will impact all citizens “for the rest of our lives”.
Emphasising that the choice confronting The Bahamas should not be taken lightly, given its long-lasting implications for the economy, Mr Beckles and Darron Pickstock, who heads the chamber’s trade and investment division, said this nation had one chance “to get it right”.
Both conceded that it has yet to be determined whether full WTO membership is part of the solution to The Bahamas’ persistent low GDP growth woes, but argued that the final decision cannot be viewed in a vacuum or isolation from this nation’s other economic challenges.
Acknowledging growing anti-WTO sentiment among some Bahamians, the duo called on accession opponents to base their case on facts and proper analysis, just as the Chamber was doing through the study it has commissioned from the Oxford Economics consultancy.
This analysis, which forecasts WTO’s impact on the wider economy and key industries, will be completed around Easter 2019 and give the Chamber and wider private sector empirical evidence on which to make their case to the Government for any changes in negotiating strategy.
Mr Beckles argued that amid the focus on potential “challenges” arising from full WTO membership it was easy to overlook the fact that The Bahamas’ economic status quo was struggling, with its two key industries - tourism and financial services - facing competitive and international regulatory pressures that will only increase.
He added that he “cannot understand how we as Bahamians believe we don’t have to change” when the rapid pace of technology-driven evolution meant this nation had little choice but to align its economic model with 21st century demands.
The Chamber’s chief executive and Mr Pickstock spoke out after activists opposing the Government’s decision to join the WTO yesterday held a protest march from Arawak Cay to Rawson Square.
The Say no to WTO protest, organised by many of the same persons who put together last year’s march to the House of Assembly over electricity costs, appeared to attract a much smaller number based on Facebook videos of the event that showed around 50-60 present at most.
“While objectors will always be there, it’s important that when they do put forward their perspective it should be from a factual base,” Mr Beckles told Tribune Business. “The mistake we cannot make is that we cannot treat this decision like a general election.
“If enough people are vex we get together on election day and vote for the other party. If that doesn’t work we switch and do the same thing five years later. We cannot treat this [WTO accession] like that.
“The objectors must be encouraged to put together a fact-based analysis or provide an alternative. Once we make a decision, this is no three, four or five-year term where we can say: ‘We don’t like this group. We can switch back’.”
Messrs Beckles and Pickford argued that there was no time for regrets, or “buyer’s remorse”, should The Bahamas later determine that whatever decision it takes on the WTO was incorrect.
Many in the UK are currently having such “second thoughts” over the vote to leave the European Union (EU), but the Chamber chief executive said: “We want to let the public know that we strongly support research and analysis so that, at the end of the day, The Bahamas is much better off from whatever decision it makes.
“This is not a snapshot decision; it has implications for the rest of our lives. We must treat this like any other national policy decision, and take care and act in the best interests of our members, who are part of the community in which they live and there’s no differentiation between the two.”
Mr Beckles told Tribune Business that the WTO decision cannot be divorced from The Bahamas’ current economic reality, which is one of persistently low GDP growth and high unemployment under austerity measures designed to tackle an $8bn-plus national debt.
“We cannot look at any of these discussions in a myopic way,” he said. “They all have an impact on our ability to grow the economy. If we just look at the conversation of whether or not to join the WTO, and forget the fact there’s energy issues, forget that financial services is under great pressure and forget that tourism - despite recent gains - is under great pressure; forgetting all these things will put us in great danger.
“None of these can be viewed as silo conversations. It has to be a holistic conversation about how we set the economy up.”
Mr Beckles added that fear of the unknown, in the shape of WTO membership, was distracting persons from focusing on The Bahamas’ reality of an economic model that may no longer meet the demands of a growing population and modern world.
“Sometimes it’s easy to look at WTO as presenting challenges,” he told Tribune Business. “The fact is even in a status quo position we have limitations and restrictions on what we can do as we are. It’s not as if the idea of WTO suddenly created challenges.
“It’s a negotiation, and as the world around us changes I really don’t understand how we as Bahamians believe we don’t have to change. It doesn’t make sense in a global context. We have to face everything in the global context. If the world is changing we can’t expect to remain the same.”
While there are valid concerns about the economic implications of The Bahamas’ accession, Mr Pickstock yesterday reiterated alarm that much of the “anti-WTO sentiment” was being fuelled by inaccurate information that seemed designed to spread fear.
Chief among these concerns, which have been circulated widely on social media, is that full WTO membership will lead to a mass influx of foreign workers pushing Bahamians out of jobs.
However, The Bahamas’ just-released initial services offer leaves “mode four” - the ability for foreign workers to come into this country to sell goods and services - “unbound” across all sectors. This means The Bahamas will not permit this beyond the current regulatory regime and its Immigration, Investments Board and National Economic Council (NEC) approvals, effectively maintaining the current position.
While the Government has always maintained that WTO membership will not lead to such “free movement of labour”, opponents have also claimed it imposes a “privatisation policy” that will force a sell-off all government services, and Bahamians will thus be unable to depend on government jobs.
“There’s a lot of anti-WTO sentiment around,” Mr Pickstock told Tribune Business, rejecting such arguments as invalid. “It’s necessary to be informed, and that’s why we have the anti-WTO sentiment.
“It’s important for any research to be based on fact. We at the Chamber and our members would support debating issues of national importance but it has to be based on analysis and fact. We don’t want to get the wrong result by not basing something on the facts.
“Yes, there is concern about the sentiment and it’s not factually-based. Obviously that is of some concern to us, and should be of concern to everyone.”