THIS WEEK IN THE BAHAMAS BY ELCOTT COLEBY

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THIS WEEK IN THE BAHAMAS (22 – 26 MAY 2017)

COMMENTARY BY ELCOTT G. COLEBY 

THE SPEECH FROM THE THRONE PART ONE: THE LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

Amid the excitement, pomp, pageantry and high fashion that have come to define the Bahamian culture surrounding opening of the Bahamas Parliament, HE Dame Marguerite Pindling, Bahamas Governor General, delivered the Speech from the Throne, outlining the legislative agenda of the next parliamentary session in addition to the articulation of key policy initiatives proposed by the incoming Minnis administration. 

In the interest of time, the budget debate begins next Wednesday, 31st May 2017 and the debate to thank the Governor General for the Speech from the Throne has been deferred to a later date on the parliamentary calendar. At that time this column will comment on other policy aspects of the speech. 

In part one of a series of commentaries on the Speech from the Throne, a list of proposed bills and regulations with short descriptions are presented below in bullet form for ease of reference by our readers.     

  1. Enact and enforce anti-corruption legislation for all Parliamentarians and Public Officers.
  2. Hold a referendum to establish an Independent Electoral Commission and Boundaries Commission, introduce term limits for Prime Ministers and introduce a system of recall for non-performing Members of Parliament.
  3. Enact legislation to establish the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
  4. Enact legislation to address the conditional release of offenders into society through a Parole and Probation of Offenders system.
  5. The Office of Ombudsman will be created to provide a direct source of relief, where people have legitimate grievances due to the actions or inactions of government or any agency of the government.
  6. Certain functions now performed by the Attorney General, such as the power to issue a Fiat authorizing the commencement of legal actions in sensitive matters or a Nolle Prosequi, will be transferred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
  7. Create a Bureau of Investigations to investigate matters referred by the Auditor General, the Ombudsman or the public.
  8. Put forward legislation to establish and strengthen the independence of the Office of the Auditor General, allowing it to function properly and without government imposed constraints on its finances.
  9. Amend the Public Disclosure Act to broaden the scope of application to include campaign finance reform and to make provision for direct referral to an independent prosecutor.
  10. Improve the efficiency of the Judiciary by enacting a Court Services Act to remove the Office of the Judiciary from the Public Service, and we will require all new Magistrates and Judges to attend the newly created Justice Training Institute.
  11. Seek to introduce an audio-visual digital recording system to reduce the need for manual recording of evidence by Magistrates.
  12. Amend the 82 years old Magistrates’ Rules of Court 1934 which govern proceedings so that Magistrate Court summonses will no longer have to be served by police officers only.
  13. Enact legislation to establish a Ministry of the Environment to coordinate all national and international environmental obligations and activities.
  14. Enact legislation to provide for a “rent-to-own” programme to facilitate home ownership.
  15. Review legislation to ensure that adequate provisions exists for the protection of homeowners with respect to foreclosures and mortgage protection.
  16. Create tax free economic zones in these areas to encourage business growth and spur job creation in the redevelopment phase and beyond and will enact legislation which allows duty free concessions on all construction materials and building supplies used in the construction of business premises and new and/or refurbished owner occupied homes in these zones.
  17. Introduce Public Procurement Regulations under the Financial Administration and Audit Act.
  18. Introduce legislation to allow the government to meet its international obligations with respect to financial regulation and supervision.
  19. Advance legislative initiatives to benefit the domestic financial sector.
  20. Legislation will established for a credit bureau and strengthen the oversight of domestic and international financial institutions.

    OPPOSITION LEADER RESPONDS TO SPEECH FROM THE THRONE

    At a press conference in the opposition committee room shortly after the reading of the Speech from the Throne, Opposition Leader the Hon. Philip Brave told the media that the Speech from the Throne was an acknowledgement of the “transformative foundation” laid by the Christie government that the Minnis government is proposing to build on. 

    “…the Speech from the Throne is an acknowledgement of the transformative foundation already constructed by the Progressive Liberal Party Government” said Mr. Davis as he listed some policy areas where both sides found common ground. 

    “We are encouraged to hear that the Government has embraced essential job related skills training and specialized programmes for youth unemployment. 

    “We have already laid the foundation for wider access to justice. We created the Public Defender’s Office and the statutory ability to appoint more judges. We reduced the time it takes for cases to come to trial.”

    Davis singled out “Customs and Treasury reform” as part of the Christie government’s thrust to modernize the administration of public finances and the implementation of the primary phase of National Health Insurance (NHI) as important components of this policy foundation. 

    “It is reassuring to see that the FNM is going to continue the work on NHI. 

    “So the foundation is there, set by the PLP but the devil is in the details” said Mr. Davis. 

    Davis again reiterated that the Opposition “will support any policy which protects the poor and the vulnerable” in addition to “any policy in which the national interests are protected and promoted.” 

    GOVERNMENT SENATORS SWORN IN

    Former Consul-General and Parliamentary Secretary Mrs. Kathleen (Kay) Forbes-Smith will preside over the Senate while humanitarian Dr. Mildred Hall will serve as Vice President in a move Prime Minister, the Hon. Dr. Hubert Alexander Minnis, explained “reflect the diversity of our Commonwealth.” 

    These leaders were among six ladies to make up the Senate on the government side. 

    Other Senate appointments included the Hon. Juanianne Dorsett; the Hon. Jasmine Turner-Dareus; the Hon. Jennifer Isaacs-Dotson; the Hon. Sharon Annafaye Ferguson-Knowles; the Hon. Jamal Moss; the Hon. Ranard Henfield and the Hon. Dwight Sawyer. 

    Prime Minister Minnis also announced that the Hon. Carl Bethel, Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, will serve as Government Leader in the Senate. Minister of Labour, the Hon. Dion Foulkes and Minister of State for Grand Bahama in the Office of the Prime Minister, the Hon. Kwasi Thompson will also serve in the Senate. 

    The Government Senators were sworn in at Government House on Monday, 22nd May 2017 

OPPOSITION SENATORS SWORN IN

Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition the Hon. Philip Brave Davis said as the Opposition, the Progressive Liberal Party will cooperate and support the newly elected Government of The Bahamas “generously and in good faith.” 

He delivered remarks at the swearing-in ceremony at Government House, May 23, 2017. 

The new Senators are: the Hon. Fred Mitchell, former Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister, who will serve as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate; the Hon. Dr. Michael Darville, former Minister of Grand Bahama, will act as the voice for Grand Bahama; the Hon. Clay Sweeting, businessman and former PLP election hopeful from Spanish Wells, will serve as a voice for the people from the Family Islands; and attorney JoBeth Coleby Davis, who represents a new voice in politics but comes from a family of persons who have served their country in the political arena. 

54TH HOUSE SPEAKER LAYS DOWN THE GAUNTLET

“As a body, we are servants of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and as individuals are the servants and representatives of our constituents and as such have a moral obligation to those constituents. 

“We have a moral obligation to treat them with respect. We are here to work on their behalf and we are to conduct their business in a timely fashion. In other words, we have a moral duty not only to show up for work, but to show up for work on time and be prepared to do the work when you arrive.” 

These were the admonishments issued by the 54th Speaker of the House the Hon. Dewitt Halston Moultrie as he addressed Parliamentarians at the opening of the House on Wednesday, 24th May 2017. 

Assuring all that the Chair will ensure that Parliament is free to carry out its constitutional mandate on the floor and through its various Committees, Mr. Moultrie said standing parliamentary committees are an extension of the institution and play a very important role in our democracy. 

“I wish to remind Honourable Members that these Standing Committees are an extension of the institution. Parliament is not properly constructed until they are appointed. They play a very important role in the overall functioning of the Legislative Branch of our democracy.” 

Warning House Members that punctuality will be enforced and that the business of the House will be conducted “in an atmosphere of respect,” the 54th House Speaker charged that once appointed, standing committees are to execute their mandates without any interference either from the Chair or otherwise. 

MINISTER CAMPBELL OPENS REGIONAL OIL SPILL WORKSHOP

Extolling the virtues of the maritime industry as ‘particularly critical’ to The Bahamas and its economy, Minister of Transport and Local Government, the Hon. Frankie Campbell, welcomed delegates to the regional Oil Spill workshop on Sunday, May 21 at SuperClubs Breezes on West Bay Street. 

The event was sponsored by the Government of Malaysia under the theme ‘Sub-regional Level III Workshop on Oil Spill Preparedness and The International Maritime Organization’s Guidance on the Implementation of an Incident Management System.’ 

Other regional partners included the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Information and Training Center Wider Caribbean (RAC/REMPEITC-Caribe). 

Acknowledging that the maritime industry is ‘critical’ to the global economy with over 90% of goods transported by sea, Minister Campbell pointed out that maritime and aviation “are essential engine drivers of our economy,” 

“In the maritime sector, the Bahamian brand is supported by a successful ship registry, active cruise ports, a lucrative fishing industry, steady yacht calls, busy container ports and many industrial operations.” 

He said that this follow up workshop to the December 2016 meeting would ‘greatly’ assist both The Bahamas and regional partners in developing policies and procedures, which protect and preserve the marine environment. Each participating country’s national oil spill plan was assessed at that December workshop. 

MINISTER HENFIELD GIVES STAFF MARCHING ORDERS

The new Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Darren Henfield, has been conducting a series of staff meetings across offices of the Ministry to familiarise Foreign Service Officers and other Ministry professionals with his vision for the function of the Ministry in representing The Bahamas in its outreach to the wider world. 

The Minister, a retired acting Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and an attorney, formerly in the office of the Attorney General, is an expert in security studies, strategy and planning. 

Minister Henfield has been speaking with Foreign Affairs staffers with a view to improving the contribution that the Ministry’s widespread expertise in neighbouring and other foreign countries can bring to The Bahamas Government’s efforts in international affairs. 

MAYNARD-GIBSON: NOLLE PROSEQUI TRANSFER TO DPP “NOT NECESSARY”

In responding to the Speech from the Throne, former Attorney General and Minister for Legal Affairs in the Christie administration, Allyson Maynard-Gibson, said it was not necessary to remove the statutory powers of the Attorney General to issue a nolle prosequi and transferring that authority to an independent Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). 

She was responding to the government’s proposal to have “certain functions now performed by the Attorney General, such as the power to issue a fiat authorizing the commencement of legal actions in sensitive matters, or a nolle prosequi, will be transferred to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).” 

Mrs. Maynard-Gibson argued that “the law is very clear on the matter that it is the AG (Attorney-General) at the end of the day that exercises these powers.” She further pointed out that in exercising these constitutional powers, the AG “acts upon the advice of his/her advisors.” Since the chief advisor to the AG is the DPP, Maynard-Gibson argued that the DPP is already exercising these constitutional powers (through the Attorney-General).

 The former Attorney-General supports an independent Director of Public Prosecutions.    

 In Passing…

Two workers from the accounts department at the public power corporation Bahamas Power and Light Ltd were suspended on 15th May pending the outcome of an investigation by the police into a reported theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars by reason of employment.

Prime Minister Minnis denied any government involvement or “witch hunt” in a police investigation into alleged theft by reason of employment at the Bahamas Agriculture and Industrial Corporation (BAIC) involving some nine employees including the Executive Chairman Dion Smith. All employees have since been released pending the outcome of the investigation. Dr. Minnis said his government is ‘transparent’ and ‘honest’ and will not ‘interfere’ with or ‘obstruct’ the work of the police.   

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement this week on the bombing attack at a concert in Manchester, England. “The Bahamas High Commission, London, has reported that all staff of the High Commission, Bahamas Tourist Office and Bahamas Maritime Office are safe following the 22 May suspected terrorist attack at a pop concert in Manchester, England, reportedly resulting in the death of twenty two persons and injuries to many others. The Bahamas High Commission has also indicated that there are no Bahamians in the UK who have been impacted” said the statement.

Speaking at a service of thanksgiving at the Enoch Beckford auditorium on Sunday (21st May), Rev. Ranford Patterson told FNM supporters that if the Free National Movement is to remain in office, they must listen to the church. “The greatest mistake that you can make is to go up against God” said the former Bahamas Christian Council President.

Candy Kelly, Vice President of Super Value has recommended to the government that stores return to VAT exclusive pricing and let the merchants decide whether a sales item is VAT inclusive or not as is the case in New Zealand. The company claims that sales have dropped ten percent since its switch to VAT inclusive pricing and VAT receipts have correspondingly declined.

BIA President Emmanuel Komolafe said that the position of BIA on NHI remains unchanged and his organization is willing to work with the new government going forward. Plans are underway for a meeting with the Health Minister in the coming days. While the BIA fully supports the concept of Universal Health Coverage, it is fundamentally opposed to a public insurer.   

Transport and Aviation Minister the Hon. Frankie Campbell said that the current state of the public transportation system is “chaotic” and the voting public was dissatisfied with the manner in which the Christie administration handled the bus system. He did not say whether or not the FNM government would adopt the PLP model of a unified public transportation system, but admitted that the government is currently reviewing plans left in place by the former administration for a unified busing system. “Unified or not, order would be brought to the busing system in New Providence” said Mr. Campbell.      

“We believe that there needs to be a cohort of individuals, professionals, whether construction workers, architects, quantity surveyors that are attached to the Ministry of Education” said Education Minister the Hon. Jeffrey Lloyd as he articulated a major policy shift in the maintenance of over 170 public schools. The Ministry of Works will no longer be in charge of school repairs but a separate body attached to the Ministry of Education will perform that function said Mr. Lloyd. This new structure is more proficient and will reduce delays said the Education Minister. 

Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Senator Carl Bethel called for public patience on the big ticket item promised in the Speech from the Throne – a referendum on term limits for the Prime Minister; Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commissions; and a Parliamentary recall system. Mr. Bethel was unable to give a timeline for the holding of the referendum.  

The Education Minister also revealed this week that his Ministry will undergo an audit to ascertain how monies were spend and to determine if the government got value for money. The results could influence what changes need to be made to achieve this.     

Even though the Speech from the Throne called for a reduction in the VAT rate for breadbasket items, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance the Hon. K. Peter Turnquest said the FNM government is not changing its tune and still plans to repeal VAT on various items such as breadbasket items, healthcare services and electricity. 

Minister of State for Grand Bahama, Senator Kwasi Thompson, in giving a preliminary assessment of expenditure of hurricane relief funds on the island of Grand Bahama, suggested that the manner of the disbursements “were quite disturbing.” 

Opposition Leader and interim leader of the Progressive Liberal Party the Hon. Philip Brave Davis confirmed this week that he intends to offer for the post of Leader of the opposition PLP whenever the party decides to hold its national convention. He said this event is dependent on the party “resolving election issues.”