By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The private sector yesterday warned the Government it is rapidly “running out of time” to develop a much-needed structural economic reform strategy, urging: “Fortune favours the brave.”
Senior Chamber of Commerce executives told Tribune Business that The Bahamas “cannot sustain the economic holding pattern” it has been in since the turn of the century much longer, with this nation urgently needing to “move the needle” on a decade of “unacceptable” GDP growth and job creation performance.
Jeffrey Beckles, the Chamber’s chief executive, and Darron Pickstock, who heads its trade and investment division, argued that the Government needed to take the lead - in partnership with the business community - in crafting an all-encompassing economic reform plan that restores private sector confidence and gives all Bahamians a sense of where the country is headed.
Calling for such a strategy to be accompanied by benchmarks that allowed investors and citizens to measure The Bahamas’ progress, the Chamber duo said its creation needed to be given similar priority to a National Development Plan - an initiative that appeared to be placed in cold storage following the 2017 general election.
They added that without such an “apolitical” plan The Bahamas was “planning to fail”, as it lacked a detailed road map for successfully reforming its present economic model that withstand the frequent changes of government that The Bahamas has experienced every five years since 2002.
Mr Beckles said structural reforms that improved the ease and cost of business were critical to “moving the needle” on The Bahamas’ economic performance regardless of whether this nation became a full World Trade Organisation (WTO) member or not.
He and Mr Pickstock described the ongoing WTO debate as a distraction from the more important issue - structural reforms that improved the cost and ease of doing business, and which were needed regardless of whether this nation became a full member of the world’s rules-based trading overseer or not.
Reiterating that the Chamber was in favour of whatever would strengthen the economy, Mr Beckles added that the reform effort - both crafting of the plan and implementation - needed to be led by the Government with private sector support.
Mr Pickstock told Tribune Business: “What we’d like to see as a Chamber is the Government laying out those economic and structural reforms. What is the plan? It’s critical we get moving on this. It’s urgent.
“I don’t think we have any more time. We don’t have the luxury of time any more.... We have to be bold with this economy; we have to be bold. Fortune favours the bold. We need to be bold to turn that corner.
“I see the Government as being too timid when it comes to these reforms. We need the structural reforms, we need the land reform. We need to be bold. If we need an organised land registration system, implement it. It reduces the cost for everyone. If we need to put these things in place get it done.”
Mr Pickstock added that the starting point for any structural reform strategy was changes that improved the ease and cost of doing business in The Bahamas. He described as “concerning” recent comments by Lynn Holowesko, chair of the Government-appointed ‘ease of doing business’ committee, that many of its proposals were not taken into account in last year’s Budget.
“The charge is really for our policymakers, our government, to embark on a more broad-based and ambitious reform agenda to improve our economy, improve our competitiveness, improve the ease of doing business in this country,” he added.
“It needs to be easier and seamless to do business in our country. Can we start there? That is really the charge for our policymakers. For us, I suppose, it’s as simple as getting a Business Licence in this country. These things are difficult. It’s as simple as getting a birth certificate or registering property. These things have a huge impact on every day life.”
The Government has frequently touted the reduction in Business Licence renewal time to 48 hours, together with the creation of 90-day provisional Business Licences that enable start-ups and entrepreneurs to get into operation quickly.
However, Mr Pickstock said he was still having to visit agencies such as the Department of Physical Planning and the National Insurance Board (NIB) as part of the process of obtaining Business Licences.
An attorney with the Glinton, Sweeting & O’Brien law firm, he cited personal experience in revealing that it sometimes takes new owners between six to eight months to register their properties with the Real Property Tax Department. Besides the aggravation for clients, this also made it harder for the Government to collect due revenues from a tax where there is already a $480m arrears mountain.
“It takes a tremendous amount of time to do simple things after you’ve bought the property and paid the Stamp Tax,” he told Tribune Business. “It is difficult to register the property after the purchase. It takes a tremendous amount of time.
“I can take, in some instances, more than six to eight months to even register your property with the Real Property Tax Department. I send applications and declarations to the Real Property Tax Department, and have clients call a year later and say: ‘Mr Pickstock, I’ve not received a tax bill.
“When I go back and check, the property is not registered. I sent it in a year ago, and it’s not registered and the client wants to pay their taxes.”
Mr Beckles, meanwhile, warned that that The Bahamas and its economic model were “running out of fuel, and that holding pattern” it has been in since the start of the 21st century “cannot be sustained for much longer”.
“We’ve got to move this needle,” he told Tribune Business, “and whatever it takes to move that needle, we support. Someone has to lead, and that lead has to come from the Government of The Bahamas: Period.
“In The Bahamas we are a people proud of who we are and what we have done, but now is the time to be honest as fortune favours the bold. If we are to be honest with where we are in our life cycle, no one would say they are satisfied.
“That requires bold action. We believe, the Bahamas Chamber believes we have the capacity. We need to now summon the will as a people to do this.”
Mr Beckles added that the Bahamian economy would “expand beyond its wildest dreams” if the Government properly crafted a structural reform strategy, implemented it and fulfilled its role of creating an enabling business and investment climate conducive to economic growth.
“What’s critical to us is we have to effect change in the way we communicate the economic strategy for the country,” the Chamber chief executive said. “This is something that touches every single Bahamian, every resident, every investor. The health of the economy is literally everyone’s business.
“That said, it’s equally important for Bahamians participating in the business community to understand where The Bahamas is going economically, what is the plan, and how are we going to move the needle to where there’s positive gains in the economy.”
Mr Beckles warned that initiatives designed to empower Bahamians and increase local economic ownership, such as the Small Business Development Centre (SBDC), would not maximise their full potential unless they were part of the broader economic strategy the Chamber is pushing for.
He added that the creation of such a transparent plan, covering the short, medium and long-term, would boost Bahamian and international investor confidence - and spur increased economic and job creation - especially if this nation hit the targets laid out in the strategy.
Both Mr Beckles and Mr Pickstock emphasised that the economic strategy needed to be free from political interference and the five-year election cycle, the latter adding: “What we do in this country is one political party comes in and changes the entire strategy.
“That takes us right back to having this National Development Plan. Otherwise it’s two steps back, two steps forward and three steps back.”