By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Economic Recovery Committee's (ERC) report is an admission The Bahamas has "wasted three to four years" that may have given it a head-start on COVID-19 recovery, a top banker said yesterday.
Gowon Bowe, Fidelity Bank (Bahamas) chief executive, told Tribune Business that the 60-page summary report on the Committee's proposals largely mirrored and "regurgitated" many of the recommendations that were contained in the National Development Plan (NDP) that was unveiled in 2016 under the former Christie administration.
Suggesting that the Government-appointed committee's work was effectively akin to 'reinventing the wheel', Mr Bowe said the failure to start implementing the structural reforms outlined in the National Development Plan represented "an indictment" of wider Bahamian society.
The former Chamber of Commerce and Bahamas Institute of Chartered Accountants (BICA) head added that Bahamians should have "demanded" that their political leaders embrace the National Development Plan, and commit to following through on it, rather than seemingly allow the initiative to be shelved as a result of the Government changing hands on May 2017.
Arguing that the failure to follow through on what was billed as a bi-partisan initiative "really highlights the lost years" for The Bahamas, Mr Bowe turned to Bible scripture and Ecclesiastes 1:9's verse of "nothing new under the sun" to describe the contents of the Committee's report.
Agreeing that the Government and Committee had to guard against "selling the dream of a silver bullet" that will instantly cure The Bahamas' current hardship, he said the proposals outlined in the latest document "don't swing or change the pendulum to any great degree".
Mr Bowe, acknowledging that "talk is talk" and many elements in the Committee's recommendations have been talked about for decades, said the Government needs to explain "what is going to be different in the execution" this time around.
Marlon Johnson, the Economic Recovery Committee's co-chair, defended its work by arguing that good proposals never lost their merits even if they have yet to be enacted. "The truth of the matter is a good idea will continue to be a good idea regardless of when it is put forward," he told Tribune Business.
Paul Moss, president of Dominion Management Service, one of the few Bahamian-owned firms in the international financial services sector, also branded the Economic Recovery Committee's report as "a missed opportunity" to reposition the financial services industry and chart a new economic course post-COVID-19.
A long-time advocate for a low-rate corporate income tax, which he argues will enable The Bahamas to shed the stigma of the 'tax haven' label and escape scrutiny from the likes of the European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Mr Moss also argued that there is "nothing earth-shattering or swashbuckling" in the proposals.
Mr Bowe, meanwhile, told this newspaper: "While it may seem a bit critical, my question is: What is it that's different from the National Development Plan? I would say that COVID-19 is not the impetus I would expect to drive national development planning.
"That should have been done many years ago, decades ago. The fact it commenced a few years ago and was not as aggressively followed through as it could have been, by changing and successive governments, is an indictment on wider society. It should have been a demand of society on our political leaders.
"My issue is if [the report's] not completely revised for data and other numbers in the National Development Plan, all we're admitting is we've wasted three years, maybe four years, from where we could have been at the implementation of the National Development Plan."
"My criticism is that it's by and large a regurgitation of what's been done several years ago," Mr Bowe added of the Economic Recovery Committee's effort. "It really highlights the lost years. My personal view is that we're not swinging or changing the pendulum to any great degree.
"We could have used those resources, time and energy in deploying some of the elements set out in the National Development Plan. To me, it's where we have to demonstrate maturity as a country and set aside political colours. To me, there are three colours - aqua marine, black and yellow. To me, it does not matter who sows and who reaps. It's to the benefit of the country."
The National Development Plan represented the first ever co-ordinated effort to plan the Bahamas’ development in a systematic manner using empirical data and analyses, while also obtaining input from private sector and civil society organisations.
Labelled ‘Vision 2040’, the Plan aimed to break with the Bahamas’ past ad hoc approach to national growth by setting a clear path towards a more sustainable future.
Designed a non-politically partisan initiative that was to survive changes in administration, it also set out a ‘road map’ - containing measurable goals and objectives for the Bahamas to attain - so that this nation’s progress towards achieving its development targets can be judged according to set timelines.
Vision 2040 focused on four main policy pillars - the economy, governance, social policy and the environment, both natural and built - in its first 400-page draft which was publicly disclosed. However, the effort was seemingly shelved after the Minnis administration took office, even though it was invited to provide input when in Opposition.
Mr Bowe said The Bahamas needed to distinguish between COVID-19's impact and "how we change the trajectory of the country for the foreseeable future", arguing that this required a long-term outlook of 25 to 30 years into the future.
He added that the Economic Recovery Committee's report was largely "conceptual" in nature, and "doesn't give sufficient granuality" in terms of laying out the steps to implement its recommendations.
The Prime Minister on Wednesday alluded to the creation of an implementation unit to oversee the Committee's recommendations taking practical effect, but Mr Bowe reiterated: "We have to get beyond the conceptual stage and get to the tactical stage of how we do some of this.
"If it's [the report] the driving force for the Government to take the action it should have done upon taking office, I welcome the Committee's efforts, but if there's going to be a repeat of what happened last time where it's disappeared like the National Development Plan appears to have been, then I cry shame on all political leaders."
Agreeing that there was too much talking, rather than a "rolling up of sleeves" to implement profound structural reforms, Mr Bowe said some of the Committee's proposals - such as pensions legislation - have "been on the table all my working career, which is 20 years".
"A lot of these elements have been spoken to before," he added. "What is going to be different in the execution?" Reforms, he added, also needed to be based on empirical evidence.
Mr Moss, meanwhile, argued that the Committee had not gone far enough. "I don't think they were bold," he told Tribune Business. "They put some ideas together, spoke about some ideas, but I don't think they were bold. They spoke to the obvious that people have been talking about for some time.
"It was a missed opportunity. It's not earth-shattering or swashbuckling. It's none of that at all. It's a gloss over. It's not something that's fully thought-out given the time and resources we have to put together these pieces. They've failed to get the report to the level where people will say, yes, that's innovative, bold and let's go and explore it."
In particular, Mr Moss said there was nothing in the report that spoke to the need for The Bahamas to take the lead and unite international financial centres (IFCs) against attacks from the likes of the EU and OECD.