By Malcolm Strachan
The lawsuit naming former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest as part of allegations over a $27m fraud scheme last week spurred a wide range of emotions. While some defended the Member of Parliament for East Grand Bahama, others noted a distraction of this nature saw it necessary for Turnquest to resign with immediate effect.
Initially, it wasn’t clear that would be the path taken, but in the end, we now have an Acting Minister of Finance in Prime Minister Dr Minnis – the second time during the pandemic that he has had to become an acting minister. In April, former Minister of Health Dr Duane Sands resigned in a controversial fashion at a most inopportune time – amid a first wave while we were still trying to gain an understanding of how this virus works.
Similarly, we could not name a worse time to be substituting the person in the post of Finance Minister. Yet, such are the cards we have been dealt.
Although both Sands and Turnquest would have done things some citizens found fault with during their tenures, they continue to be highly respected professionals. That said, replacing Turnquest will not be easy, however, it surely isn’t impossible.
A sober contribution on this issue came from Fidelity Bank CEO Gowon Bowe late last week as the country was still in a state of uneasiness contemplating the next steps.
He said: “No one individual is irreplaceable. The reality is the Ministry of Finance is a function and whilst the Minister of Finance would be the chief executive officer, the actual executive team which would be his financial secretary, his advisers, the deputy financial secretary report to him. They should still be in existence and it’s really from the perspective of saying there would have to be a new chief executive officer so we have to say that his leadership and his planning for the future is one that we hope is already put in place and they are the same people that he would expect to run it even if he was there.
“I think it’s important to note that he would not be doing calculations personally. He would not be drafting budgets personally. He would not be doing elements that would be creating our economic strategy personally. His primary role would be to review, provide input, produce ideas, guidance and provide direction.
“Will we miss that? I think we certainly will because he’s been in the room for three plus years. The personnel would have already become accustomed to his working style. They would be accustomed to the nature of information that he would have requested and also the instruction of how things get executed.”
In saying all of that, Mr Bowe’s final analysis is that we need to “depersonalise the conversation” and recognise the Ministry of Finance is an institution, to which, Turnquest served as the chief executive – not the institution itself.
Honestly, I could not have said it any better than that. Turnquest, while a likeable character, was the face of an entity that was in existence long before him and one that will outlast all of our lifetimes as it is a necessary function of the government. The belief it is at risk of simply crashing and burning in his absence is an insult to the hard-working men and women that essentially keep the lights on, not just in the building, but essentially in the country. Whether we agree with the policies handed down to them is a debate for another time. Unequivocally, however, we can agree the Ministry of Finance has many astute professionals.
Nonetheless, when we take into consideration the distress we’ve experienced with the departures of both ministers, the question of why these events caused such hysteria come to mind. After all, Mr Bowe said it perfectly, “No one individual is irreplaceable”.
While some may argue Minister of Health Renward Wells’ personality or communication style may not be as favourable as Dr Sands, he is getting the job done. Cases are down and we will hopefully continue to trend in the right direction. Likewise, although Turnquest may have sparked the ire of many Bahamians when he led the government’s efforts in increasing VAT from 7.5 to 12 percent, those wounds have also become less prominent after some time.
Perhaps the greater challenge with watching those whose minds and talents we respect leave such positions in government is the possibility our leaders largely do not inspire the confidence of the Bahamian people.
As we’ve tried to parse through Cabinet to see who would be fit to take on Turnquest’s former role, my bet would be that most of us saw slim pickings. Not to say that there was no one who could be slotted in the Ministry of Finance, but the risk of removing one such person from their current ministerial post and creating another void is also a great challenge.
This is an unfortunate and sobering realisation. More than the Prime Minister’s comfort with Cabinet Ministers, how well-rounded and how much confidence they engender in the Bahamian people is a far more valuable asset in forming a government. As Cabinet’s shuffle, which we’ve seen in this administration and others prior, along with unfortunate situations that lead to resignations amid a pandemic, while not the everyday situation, it is no less a signal governing is a wise man’s business.
It will be a surprise if Acting Minister of Finance and Prime Minister Dr Minnis decides to hold on to this post as it is doubtful he would be interested in the never-ending criticisms that we are assured will come. That being said, we can be certain he is mulling over who would be able to put the minds of the populace at ease.
At least, I certainly hope so because this spectacle has already taken up too much of the people’s time. There is still a pandemic that has left a crater in our economy and we don’t have any assurance of where the light at the end of the tunnel is.
It is time to get back to more pressing business. But in so doing, it is my sincere hope the Prime Minister, or any other aspiring leader, puts the people they serve at the forefront when building their team.