By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
PROGRESSIVE Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper criticised government’s decision to reduce spending on capital works projects on several Family Islands, saying the move will “strangle” the economy as the country tries to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a press conference at the PLP’s headquarters Friday, Mr Cooper expressed disappointment with the Minnis administration’s response to the crisis, accusing officials of having no clear plan or strategy on the way forward.
The Exuma and Ragged Island MP was responding to Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ announcement of his administrations intentions to reduce expenditure on several key projects throughout the Family Islands.
These projects include site works at the Exuma International Airport; the Long Island International Airport at Deadman’s Cay; the North Eleuthera International Airport and upgrades to the Leonard Thompson International Airport at Marsh Harbour.
In a bid to finance repairs to the critical infrastructural projects, the prime minister said officials will be looking at different creative alternatives such as public-private partnership (PPP) programmes.
Responding, Mr Cooper called the decision “concerning” and “surprising” considering the fact that Dr Minnis had recently noted the works as part of his administration’s plans to help boost the economy due to COVID's impact.
“This came also as a surprise given that the prime minister had touted these projects as a part of his economic recovery plan to get the economy going again. This has happened over a period of weeks and months and most recently in Exuma three weeks ago when we opened another infrastructure project,” he told reporters Friday.
“I should point out that the funding for this project had been arranged in January 2017 under the Christie administration. This is why this was most concerning given that we anticipated that groundbreaking would be happening rather than an announcement of delay. It (also) speaks to a lack of plan by the Minnis administration and we’ve spoken often about the ad hoc seat-of-the-pants type of style of this prime minister, now minister of finance.”
The MP said while the PLP understands that tough times sometimes calls for tough measures, the government must still ensure that its decisions are well thought out and strategic, especially in this current COVID climate.
In islands like Exuma and North Eleuthera where there is much tourism activity happening, the deputy leader added that the government should’ve used the opportunity to directly invest in those islands instead of seeking to do the actual opposite.
“Cuts in capital expenditure only serve to strangle the economy, especially when it comes to critical infrastructure like the airport at Exuma and North Eleuthera in particular,” he said.
“…You would be well aware that Exuma and North Eleuthera are significant hubs and a significant part of the tourism product. You would also be aware that over the holiday season, these airports were buzzing with private jets in particular, high end tourists and they are really the spark that can drive tourism and the economy.”
“So, a wise and strategic plan would spend in areas that can generate revenue and inspire economic growth for the economy and not cut as this would be the case in both Exuma and North Eleuthera.”
Mr Cooper said part of the reason why the country faces so many economic woes today is due to bad decision making by the government, pointing to the government’s recent purchase of the Grand Lucayan resort as an example.
“The reality today is that we’re spending additional funds on the hotel in Grand Bahama without any meaningful structure plan to restore tourism on the island,” he said
“So, we spend some 150 million dollars on the Grand Lucayan resort against better advice from professionals in the opposition and then we cut spending that’s already been funded, plans already put in place, we cut those spending in places like Exuma and North Eleuthera, places that have the potential of really helping to drive the economy and drive the recovery.”
He continued: “So, we are alarmed, we are concerned, the people of Exuma in particular are very disappointed given that these plans have been in place for four years, the funding has been provided by the Christie administration four years ago arranged with the IDB and it’s only left for the ground breaking to happen.”
“The prime minister said himself that the bids had gone to the IDB only a few weeks ago and only required approval. So, the prime minister, the minister of finance must be truthful in his utterances. This will help to inspire confidences and trust in the economy and help to speed up the economic recovery.”
Mr Cooper was also critical of Dr Minnis’ announcement of his government’s intention to implement a Sovereign Wealth Fund, saying the move shows the government is looking for political “campaign points”.
The fund, according to Dr Minnis, will enshrine an accountable and transparent means for Bahamians to ensure that national assets are deployed and developed for the benefit of the entire country.
“The Prime Minister is looking for likes on social media,” he replied when asked about his thoughts on the matter. “This has been a plan that has been laid in the works for quite some time. There is a piece of legislation for sovereign wealth fund, passed by the Christie administration and there has to be some review.’
“We recommended in April that this be expedited and now leading into an election, the prime minister is looking for campaign points and this is one of them. We support a sovereign wealth fund. We believe that it has significant importance and development of our country in the management of our natural resources to allow this fund to not just collect royalties, but also to aggregate the national resources of our country.”