By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
FORMER Cabinet minister Brent Symonette yesterday suggested the country was not ready for a white prime minister as he reiterated his call for a national discussion on race and wealth in politics.
“I think if I had run as leader of the FNM there would have been a barrier, if I tried to run as PM,” he told this newspaper. “But I’m Bahamian. You see the backlash against my resignation and all the comments, maybe The Bahamas isn’t ready for it yet.
When asked whether he wanted to prime minister, Mr Symonette said “absolutely not”, noting he had witnessed the toll it took on his father, the country’s first premier.
The St Anne’s MP also told The Tribune he did not consider wealth distribution to be an issue as the same disparity existed throughout the world.
“Any country in the world you can use the ratio that ten percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth,” he said.
“The Progressive Liberal Party used this in 1967. They said ten percent of the population controlled 90 or 80 percent of the wealth. And ten percent of the population is white, and the two comments ran together and you see what happened.
“The wealth in the Bahamas is controlled by the people who control it. You’ve got me, you’ve got Franklyn Wilson, you’ve got Tiger Finlayson, some very successful lawyers and bankers and doctors, that’s what it is. So let’s have that discussion.”
Mr Symonette pointed to the backlash surrounding his resignation from Cabinet that took effect July 1, and legacy accusations of conflict of interest levelled by the Progressive Liberal Party, as evidence the country needed to reconcile whether there was a place for “people who might have a couple dollars” in public life.
He also underscored his intent to become a “very strong member of the back bench of the FNM”.
Mr Symonette referred to himself as one of the last “boogeyman” of Bay Street, a sarcastic knock at the moniker “Bay Street Boys” given to the ruling white elite of the United Bahamas Party, led by his father Sir Roland Symonette during the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
“We keep talking about the Bay Street Boys, let’s go down Bay Street and see who’s there. I’m the last one, there’s a D’Albenas around but he’s not… there’s some Kellys but they’re not in frontline business.
“You walk down Bay Street and you see the many jewellery stores, see the number of non-Bahamians who are working in those stores but we don’t have a problem with that.”
When it was pointed out that the number of foreign labourers in the downtown area was predicated by the issuance of work permits, Mr Symonette countered “there are no Bahamians coming forward and registering for those jobs”.
“Some people try to say it’s a question of racism. This isn’t a question of racism, this is a question of race. You can see a backlash in some areas against the Haitian community, you see a backlash against the number of Indians you see on Bay St, you see a backlash about the number of Chinese that are here.”
Mr Symonette spoke to his personal experience in politics during an interview at his private office on East Bay Street. He said he did not feel he was treated unfairly in public life but did suggest there had been greater scrutiny of his personal finances than his colleagues.
However, he told reporters his issues were irrelevant as his time in Parliament, which began as a senator in 1987, was coming to an end.
“I don’t want my feelings to dominate the conversation,” he continued.
“My feelings are very clear that I’m a Bahamian. Once I declare my interest, once I’m not involved in it, there should be no reason why someone like myself couldn’t enter active politics.
“If you’re saying I can’t, then at some point you’re precluding anyone else from doing that. I think that’s the discussion we have to have and that has other meanings to.”
Mr Symonette pointed out that frontline politics has largely been populated by lawyers, and questioned whether attorneys should be precluded based on their clientele.
“Matter of fact I can think of one who sits right in Parliament right now who had some very serious clients,” he added.
The accusations of conflict of interest largely concern his familial ties to Bahamas Hot Mix - his children’s trust holds around “nine percent or 10 percent” of the company, but also its significant shares in a number of prominent businesses and services like CIBC.
The company was formed in the early ‘80s, he said, when a young man came into his office with an idea and no capital. Mr Symonette said he and four other groups each put up $100,000 to form Bahamas Hot Mix because they had a need for its services.
“If you look in the papers there is a list of shares in companies, I think there are ten or 20 of them,” he said. “I have shares in 80 percent of them. So does that mean the government can’t do business with CIBC because Brent Symonette children’s trust owns five shares?”
He pointed to an incident when the government opted not to lease a property from a public company because he was a two percent shareholder, and noted he was not included in Cabinet discussions over Lighthouse Point because he had financially backed plans to purchase the property and turn the area into an international preserve.
“So where does this end?” he said.
“If Franon Wilson wanted to come into politics, is that okay for him?” Mr Symonette said, “because he’s of a different race. He lives on Eastern Road, same place I used to. And Sebas (Bastian)?
“At some point I think we need to have this discussion because what this message is sending to a lot of people is, are we saying the House of Assembly or service in government is not a place for people who might have a couple dollars, or who might be in business? So are we limiting to people who are not in business?”
He added: “Let’s say my son or my daughter want to enter politics, are they going to have the same legacy issues that I’m going to have?”