I. Chester Cooper MP, Exumas & Ragged Island,
Speech to thank Her Excellency the Governor General for the Speech from the throne
I rise to thank God for the opportunity to once again address this great House of Assembly, on behalf of the wonderful people of Exumas and Ragged Island who I represent in this place. It gives me great honour to thank Her Excellency the Governor General for delivering the speech from the throne.
Let me say though that the timing of this resolution to thank Her Excellency is incredibly bad form.
Her Excellency, radiant, eloquent and gracious, read this speech in the precincts of Parliament four months ago.
She braved the hot May sun to deliver this voluminous tome and this House has failed to conduct itself with the decency that should be afforded her office by waiting until the end of summer, for some unknown reason, just to say thank you, let alone debate its contents.
We call that “no manners”, “no manners” Mr Speaker, that’s what we call it in Little Exuma where I come from.
We must do better next time.
In any event, it has been more than four months and most Bahamians, like myself, are probably still waiting to hear what the plan is from this administration to grow the economy, create jobs and solve our national challenges like crime.
Having said that, it has only been four months, and while I would have hoped for more, I acknowledge it takes time to accomplish much in government.
So, I’ll try not to judge my colleagues too harshly despite my gut feeling and disillusionment that there really isn’t a plan to move the country forward. You see Mr. Speaker, as a Newbie Member of Parliament I came eager to work. I listened to Minister after Minister talked about how the country is in free-fall; so what do they do – they took a 10-week vacation. To add insult to injury we return to very little legislative agenda, no real Bills presented to create jobs, grow the economy or address the national challenges facing the Bahamian people.
Regarding the speech from the throne, Mr. Speaker, I don’t have the time required to go through all of it promise by promise, as there are scores of them, so I’ll stick more closely to the things that concern my portfolio as shadow minister for finance, financial services & industry and what affects more specifically the Family Islands; The Exuma and Ragged Island in particular.
I counted nearly 80 promises in the speech from the throne. Some good, some quite vague, some are bad ideas, and some I don’t get, because I’m pretty sure they already exist, and others that given all that has been said in this place and outside this place since May 24th , I fail to see how they can be accomplished.
For instance, Mr. Speaker, the government says it will endeavour to establish mechanisms to include and engage the Bahamian Diaspora in the fulfilment of our national interests and development. This is a good thing.
They’ve repeated it often; haven’t really said how they’ll do it, but if they can accomplish it even a little, it will be a positive step forward in starting to stem the brain drain the country is experiencing.
Let’s look at another good thing in the speech. Don’t look so surprised, my critiques are coming, but you have a few good ideas in here. I like you all, you know? I want you to do well for the Bahamian people. I’m trying to help.
Another good thing in the speech is the promise that this administration will provide for a portion of the revenue collected by the Islands to be used to address local needs. Now that, Mr. Speaker, is a good idea. Exuma collects tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue for the public treasury yet only gets a local government allocation of $400,000 per year.
Again, no one has said how they will do this, or when, but if they do it, it will truly assist Family Islands like Exuma in their development. And I’m also ready and willing to give my input when the time for planning comes. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.
So those were a couple of good things.
Now let’s talk about some of the stuff that doesn’t add up and seem like empty promises.
This administration says in the speech it will strengthen the sales and marketing team in our network of Bahamas Tourist Offices across the United States, Canada and Europe. Now, to me, and I do stand to be corrected, that has not happened. I seem to recall the government reducing staffing in these areas and closing some offices.
Now if, by strengthening, you mean hiring a foreign firm to do what Bahamians were doing, then OK. I don’t agree with it, but OK.
But I have a better idea than this. How about someone, anyone, display some focus on attracting Foreign Direct Investment to our shores? Where is the attention to this? What has been done in the past four months? Perhaps we can get a communication of some sort on FDI?
I also have an issue with the lack of initiatives for Family Islands.
I see where the government says it will launch the rebound of the island of Grand Bahama in accordance with the template of a master strategic plan designed for Grand Bahama.
Is this the plan where a major hotel on Grand Bahama was supposed to be renovated and the government was going to take a stake in it and it was going to be open and providing jobs by now?
That plan? Because we still don’t have any update on that and I know the hotel isn’t open or being renovated, despite what the prime minister said in his national address.
So, not only is this fantastical plan, that I can’t locate, for Grand Bahama not happening, our Family Islands have no tangible plans laid out by this government either.
Now, just a reminder, I have an eVision 2030 plan for Exuma already all laid out. You don’t have to do anything but help me implement it. I’ll provide each member of this place with a copy to peruse. I don’t mind it becoming the blue print for family island development because I truly believe that the future of the Bahamas lies in the Family Islands.
The Exuma Int’l Airport Mr. Speaker is not only a national disgrace but it’s an impediment to further development on the island. Major international developers committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars are delaying investment in Exuma as a result of lack of action. I am advised that the previous Gov’t left funding in place for Airports at Exuma, North Eleuthera and Bimini. We ask the Gov’t to get on with it, as this is also an opportunity to create jobs.
While we’re at it, I note where the government says it will also review and give consideration to the ownership of taxi license plates by persons who have been leasing those plates for many years. This is weak tea. Sure it will help some, but on Exuma, for example, we need new taxi plates, new SD plates. There’s an entire economy waiting to blossom. Entrepreneurs not looking for any hand-out from the government waiting to get into business or expand their business to better the lives of their families and improve the tourist product. Remember, eVision 2030. It’s a solid plan. I’ll send copies.
The government also says it will repeal and replace the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investment Incentives Act 2016;
It says it will focus on the development of Freeport as an off shore technology hub;
It says it will promote Grand Bahama as a primary location for the local and international film and television industries;
It says it will create incentives to establish a financial services centre in Grand Bahama.
Grand Bahama, Grand Bahama, Grand Bahama.
Now, I like Grand Bahama, a lot, and it is in desperate need of recovery, [I listened to the cries of Pineridge yesterday] but I have to tell you, the number of mentions about Grand Bahama and the lack of mentions of Family Islands has some of us feeling a little left out.
Although this government does say it will renew the Family Island Incentives Act to promote inter-island trade. Pretty vague, and nothing new, but I’m listening whenever someone wants to start talking about it.
Mr. Speaker, the government says it will establish a One-stop-shop to improve the ease of doing business in The Bahamas for entrepreneurs. Like they say in the commercial, “there’s an app for that”. The previous administration already had a plan for a small and medium size enterprises development agency. Just go implement that. It already had built in provisions for ease of doing business on Family Islands as well. SMEDA, go check it out. You’ll see that all this waiting around just isn’t necessary. We need action, people are hurting across our Bahamaland.
The government also says it will grant tax inducements or incentives to Bahamians comparable to or in line with those given to foreign investors. Is there some discriminatory practice in law in this regard that I’m not aware of? Bahamians aren’t getting these now? This is one I need help with.
The Minnis administration says it will enact legislation to ensure that there are standards applied to import products that Bahamians consume as well as to products manufactured here.
Again, I don’t get it. A Standards Bureau already exists. Are we going to create another one? Just for fun? Why would you do that?
My time is limited, so let’s talk about some of things that I was actually looking forward to that were promised but have, by now, apparently been abandoned. Or, let’s use a gentler term – indefinitely delayed.
• Pre-school learning for all two and a half year olds – abandoned, I mean, indefinitely delayed
• Ensure the availability of adequately staffed and equipped pre-school facilities in all Family Islands where practicable – abandoned, I mean, indefinitely delayed
• Enhance the provision of Specialty Education to ensure equity in education and employability of students with special needs – abandoned, sorry about that, indefinitely delayed
• Implement a pilot program for single gender classes at the Junior High School Level – abandoned, I mean, indefinitely delayed. Basically, are we doing the last five points by laying off educators, getting people out of the education system that we still need?
• Provide easy and affordable health care throughout The Bahamas – abandoned, I mean, indefinitely delayed
• Extend the focus of NHI to secondary and tertiary health care – abandoned, I mean, indefinitely delayed
• Oversee the incremental implementation of a progressive and functional National Catastrophic Health Insurance Program – abandoned, I mean, indefinitely delayed
The promise to institute Urban Development by revitalizing inner city communities – this one I don’t get. I don’t want to say it’s abandoned because Urban Renewal already exists. But if you were talking about an all-new program – then we’re going to have to put that in the indefinitely delayed column.
• Create tax-free economic zones – we all know that hasn’t happened and of course, no mention of elimination of VAT on bread basket items. I wonder if this is an oversight since it was such a popular talking point during the campaign. But abandoned and indefinitely delayed.
• This Gov’t said that the PLP stole the VAT money. Then their Chairman said we know that was untrue. Then the Minister promised a report to this Parliament. BUT this administration promised Bahamian people a full report on where the VAT money gone. That seems to be indefinitely delayed as well.
I’d like to now turn to the economy, and I refer to communications in the house by my friend the Honourable Minister of Finance and Member from East Grand Bahama.
Recently in this place, we heard a lengthy presentation by the minister of finance, where basically the FNM administration patting itself on the back while giving a report on the IMF Article IV consultations and the Moody’s downgrade review.
Mr. Speaker, the communication was essentially a summary of the IMF and Moody’s recent assessments of the Bahamian economy and contains little or no indication of any concrete plans that are under consideration to stimulate economic growth and reduce unemployment.
There was no mention of the type of policy stimulus that is needed to jump-start our major economic sectors of Tourism, Financial Services and Construction.
For example, is there a need to re-focus tourism marketing in light of the hurricane impact on the south eastern U.S. states and the Caribbean?
Is there a need to adjust the financial services model in light of the recent decision of The Bahamas to adopt the multi-lateral approach to the Common Reporting Standards of the OECD? Perhaps some focused attention on streamlining and modernizing even more the services of the Registrar General, the Immigration Department and give focused attention to making the Bahamas a mid-shore destination rather than keeping the connotations of an offshore “tax haven” reputation. No such thing from the Minister. The OECD’s next big initiative is BEPS (base erosion and profit shifting). We must get ahead of this, be proactive and modernize our business license tax perhaps, leveraging the change to create incentives for real international business to domicile in the Bahamas. We have some work to do in Financial Services, Gov’t must provide the appropriate support.
By the way Mr. Speaker, the PLP does not support the implementation of income tax, and we do not equivocate or waffle on the subject. We do support a consolidation and maximizing and enhancement of efficiency of existing taxes and swift reforms to the archaic business license tax.
On page 20 of the Minister’s communication he seem to accept a link between his budget communication and the Moody’s review.
Mr. Speaker, I am a humble boy from Forbes Hill, Little Exuma but I am not so humble that I cannot throw in an “I told you so” when one is fitting.
I told the member for East Grand Bahama that his budget presentation was the wrong speech at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
And we barely escaped the downgrade, and only by promising to fire people and slash budgets.
So, I told you so.
Mr. Speaker, I want this administration to do well, and so let me say it again and again.
In order to get the Bahamas back on track, we must get the economy growing again. The government must outline and implement an aggressive economic growth plan.
And in an economy such as this, economic growth can be induced either by government intervention in the short term by expenditure on meaningful projects or, by allowing the private sector to spend on projects by providing the appropriate incentives and ensuring the availability of credit.
Unfortunately, to date, the government has not seen fit to pursue either path.
Finally, Mr. Speaker, let me close by saying a few words about my beloved Ragged Island.
The community was hard hit, but it is already on its way to recovery. Ragged Islanders are resilient people. You may agree that Ragged Island has produced more professional per capita than most islands of the Bahamas; when you consider names like Maycock, Munroe, Lockhart, Wallace, Wilson, Moxey, Curling, Pintard and Others. They are emboldened to rebuild – and quickly. Contrary to some information received by this house, I wish to emphasize that the clean-up including the removal of debris from public places and animal carcasses to date has be led and executed by Ragged Islanders, their families and descendants are emboldened to rebuild their homesteads. I commend the people of Ragged Island for taking initiative and their resolve. Residents and the Association are in fact interested and are actively charting a proposed master plan for the island in hopes of making it the model for recovery in the region. We look forward to collaborating with the Government, the Association of Descendants and residents to BUILD BACK BETTER. I assure the good people of Ragged Island that I will stand with them long after the cameras have left the scene.
In closing, I send a special shout out to the 59,000 thousand Bahamians who voted for the PLP and the thousands more who now wish they did. We only have 55 more months left so I say in the words of Isaiah: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint”. 55 months or less Mr. Speaker. 55 months or less.
I thank you for this opportunity, and though it took long enough, I support the resolution to thank Her Excellency the Governor General for delivering the speech from the throne. May God bless and keep her.
May God Bless Exuma, Exuma Cays & Ragged Island and May God Bless the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.