By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A prominent World Trade Organisation (WTO) advocate yesterday said he doubts The Bahamas will ever join, adding: "You can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink".
Carey Leonard, the former Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) in-house attorney, told Tribune Business he was "disappointed but not surprised" that Elsworth Johnson, the Cabinet minister with responsibility for the WTO negotiations, had told the House of Assembly on Monday that this nation will not achieve full membership within the next five years.
The now-Callenders & Company attorney argued that the result of "kicking the can further down the road" would only be to erode The Bahamas' economic competitiveness and result in it "slipping further behind the rest of the world".
Arguing that it would have taken "too much hard work" to bring the longest-ever WTO accession to fruition, Mr Leonard said the decision to defer joining would cause "a gradual erosion" of economic output and the Bahamian middle class that will only become apparent long-term.
"It certainly is an opportunity missed," Mr Leonard told this newspaper of Mr Johnson's comments, "and it's too bad the country is not going to get its act together. You can lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink.
"It's a very sad story for the economy long-term. It's not going to have an impact right away, but there's going to be a gradual erosion of the economic pie and the middle class. The employment rate may go down, but the bigger issue is who's going to be employed and what are they going to be earning. We're going to have lower-paying jobs, and the middle class is going to be something you can forget about."
Mr Leonard and other WTO membership advocates have argued that joining will force The Bahamas to modernise and liberalise its economy, and act reforms for its own benefit - such as improving the ease of doing business - that should have been implemented years ago.
They also believe that legal upgrades, such as making the National Investment Policy statute law, would codify the so-called "rules of the game" and enable The Bahamas to attract greater levels of investment, while membership in world trade's rules-based overseer would ensure Bahamian exporters have market access and can enter overseas countries with their products and services.
Mr Johnson alluded to some of this in his House of Assembly address, indicating that the Government will press on with strengthening the likes of intellectual property rights legislation and plant/animal safety. He indicated this showed not everything associated with WTO was negative, and indicated that the Government will press on with trade-related education efforts.
"The advantage of WTO is people are going to come in and make sure you are actually enforcing the laws," Mr Leonard added. "There's no sense in doing this stuff unless someone comes and looks at it because we will not police ourselves.
"I'm very disappointed but I'm not surprised. It required people to actually make sensible decisions and difficult decisions. I see they've taken then easy route out. We've been at it for almost 20 years. How much longer does one expect it to take? Another decade not to do it?
"In five years' time it will be another five years, then another five years, then another five years. They're just kicking the can down the road, and in the meantime the economy continues to deteriorate. We're not going to bother becoming economically competitive. We can expect to slip further behind the rest of the world."
Zhivargo Laing, the Government's chief WTO negotiator, was first to raise the likelihood last year that The Bahamas would not accede to full WTO membership within the next five years. He based this on the near-certainty that it would miss the initial June 2020 target for ratification of its membership, and added that the next date this could be achieved was perilously close to the likely 2022 general election.
The WTO drive seemed to slow when Mr Johnson replaced Brent Symonette as minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration. This occurred amid significant push back to joining from private sector elements and others, and the Hurricane Dorian reconstruction is now likely to consume much of the Government's attention over the remainder of its term.
Opponents argued that The Bahamas would give up too much sovereignty over its economic decision-making should it join, adding that there were minimal to no benefits from doing so. They also warned that this nation would be forced to open up too much of its economy to foreign firms who would drive Bahamian entrepreneurs out of business.
Mr Leonard, though, argued that the decision not to proceed "sends a very bad signal to the young and educated that they'll be better off staying out of The Bahamas and getting to another country. A lot of them are talking about Canada these days and I can understand why".
He added: "After Zhivargo's comments last year I thought it looked like too much work. I tend to agree with him when he said it may not happen in the next decade. I don't think it will ever happen.
"This was going to take some dedicated and hard work, and a real education process, and real meaningful change to the law and how we do business."