By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Tribune Chief Reporter
ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel has defended the Fisheries Bill 2020 against criticism that it is discriminatory, saying the government wants to preserve an area of the economy for exclusive Bahamian utilisation and benefit.
The bill, passed in the Senate yesterday, has been heavily criticised because it prevents foreign spouses of Bahamians from engaging in commercial fishing.
Speaking to pushback over the bill, Mr Bethel said he’s seen what the critics have said but he believed their position “doesn’t quite logically follow” the intention of the legislation.
Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, in a letter published in yesterday’s Tribune also criticised the section of the Bill that excluded spouses of Bahamians from commercial fishing. This supported the position held by East Grand Bahama MP Peter Turnquest who also criticised the bill last week.
As he spoke on this issue, Mr Bethel declared support for another gender equality referendum, saying the next administration that wins the general election should put forth another vote on the issue. This comes despite the fact that Bahamians have overwhelmingly rejected previous attempts to address disparities in the constitution – most recently in 2016 and in 2002 in a constitutional referendum, which addressed gender equality among other issues.
“This theme, and I may as well just dive in on it, this theme in the context of a vitally important law that regulates a critical part of the economy of the Bahamas, one that touches every island, rock and cay inhabited by Bahamians,” Mr Bethel said. “It is important to preserve that space that will enable we the ‘inheritors’ as we say in the constitution of this archipelago of islands, rocks and cays that we should be the primary beneficiaries of the sustainable use, sustainable exploitation and sustainable marketing of marine resources in accordance with the law.
“So this is a theme, because I note that there have been criticisms on the immigration side of this matter, and while there may be so I do believe that it doesn’t quite logically follow that because you wish to preserve an area of the economy for exclusive Bahamian utilisation and benefit that that somehow offends the fundamental principle you have that there ought to be full marriage equality in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.”
He continued: “It has always been fundamental to the Free National Movement that a Bahamian woman should have exactly the same constitutional right and entitlements as a Bahamian man that is fundamental.
“…I fully agree with every bone in my body and every Free National Movement member of Parliament agrees and every Free National Movement government has fundamentally agreed that the issue of full marriage equality in terms of husbands the citizenship of your children straight out of all of them. There must be at some time absolute equality,” Mr Bethel also said.
“If we could only find a way for the PLP not to jam us when we try to do it and the FNM not to jam the PLP when they try to do it, one day we’ll get there. So, I would like to really suggest that whatever the results of the next election, whoever wins should move immediately once more on this issue, yes third time lucky.”
He said if a referendum is held after the next election, it must be done before the halfway point in the new administration’s term to limit political sway.
“In each case, both governments waited until after the halfway point, but you know after you’re after the halfway point people only thinking about one thing after the halfway point. So, you gotta go before the halfway point, that’s my respectful suggestion.
“The question of the immigration status, bear in mind anybody who marries a Bahamian woman on the day he is married can apply for citizenship. Now because of the reluctance and the way immigration go, they tell you and they tell us we want to make sure it’s not a marriage of convenience and then there is very little checking.
“There is no compliance unit, there is no special unit set up to check that all these marriages are not marriages of convenience and that point has been made and it is absolutely true that immigration has this thing that we want to make sure it’s not a marriage of convenience, but who checks whether it’s convenient or not. Who checks? Nobody.”
His comments follow former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham’s letter to the editor where he expressed distress and disappointment over the FNM government’s decision to move the Bill.
Mr Ingraham said the party was known to have fought for equality for all citizens and insisted the Bill contained a “pointedly discriminatory” provision, which prevents the foreign spouses of Bahamians from engaging in commercial fishing.
Mr Ingraham said he was moved to publicly support Mr Turnquest’s recent position on the matter.
Last week the East Grand Bahama MP said it was a slippery slope to ban foreign spouses of Bahamians from fishing commercially.
The Bill notes that “no person shall engage in fishing, or be employed on a commercial fishing vessel for fishing other than sport fishing in the fisheries waters; and use or be employed on a commercial fishing vessel licensed under this act for fishing other than charter sport fishing, unless that person is a citizen of the Bahamas.”
For his part, Mr Ingraham said he lamented the position taken by the government on this matter.
“The provision excluding spouses of Bahamians from commercial fishing tarnishes the codification of the fisheries law,” he said.
“This offending provision, with an obscenely outrageous penalty, will overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, have a negative impact upon Bahamian women married to foreign nationals who are engaged in the fishing sector.
“It will have widespread ripple effects on human rights of persons legally present in our country with an unrestricted right to work.”