Leader Of The Opposition Accuses The Government Of Negligence

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Senator Fred Mitchell with Leader of the Opposition Philip Davis, MP Picewell Forbes, Senator Michael Darville at the press conference of the Leader of the Opposition 24 September 2019

Statement by the Leader of the Opposition
On the Government’s post Hurricane efforts and announcements
For Immediate Release

24 September 2019

To date, three weeks after the passage of Hurricane Dorian, our message has not changed. From the beginning we called for bipartisanship in the planning and execution of this national effort that must be led by the Government. 

Throughout this process, we have sought to bring to the public’s attention the concerns expressed by persons on the ground and by many affected by the Hurricane who are genuinely concerned for the welfare of our brothers and sisters and by extension, our country.

We will continue to speak out for Bahamians. We are unapologetic and there can and will be no backing away from this.

I personally reached out to the Prime Minister on several occasions during this process by phone and in writing. We maintain that this national effort is a governance issue and since the Opposition is a constitutional arm of the government, Opposition Parliamentarians have a role to play.

We called for the recall of Parliament in the immediate aftermath of Dorian which we believed would have provided a free and democratic platform and forum where all citizens or stakeholders could have a voice in charting the way forward.

One reason for doing so for example, is that weeks after the storm, there is no reliable count or estimate of the dead. It is said that some 1300 are missing. The figures of the dead said to be in the hundreds. We just don’t know. The authorities have been painfully slow. But given what we know about the challenges with identification, the existing law states that you must wait some 7 years before a missing person can be declared dead. In these mass circumstances, unique circumstances, the Parliament could be convened to address these issues by statute or at least in a Parliamentary Committee to engage the stakeholders on how we deal with this.

The PLP maintains that functional and structural reform or transformation of NEMA is necessary and will immeasurably improve the country’s capacity to deal with national emergencies of this nature.

As for the announcement of a new Ministry, we believe that in a national emergency and crisis, the Prime Minister takes the lead nationally and he must do his job, therefore it is unhelpful for him to pass off this primary responsibility and by extension the political fallout, the heat and criticism to a junior minister. It’s called passing the buck and insulating himself from criticism and culpability.

What administrative infrastructure and institutional capability would another Ministry have that does not currently exist? I cannot think of any. We currently have a chief accounting officer who is the Permanent Secretary. We have the political head who is the Prime Minister and we have an entire department, fully constituted by an act of Parliament, dedicated to national emergency management, NEMA. 

Another Ministry fails to add value to the process – it only adds to the expenses of the government. It is a waste of public resources, financial and otherwise. What we need is structural and functional reform of NEMA. That entity must become an autonomous and fully resourced corporate sole entity.

This new Ministry is nothing more than an additional layer of bureaucracy that will cause more and longer delays thus deepening the frustration, anger feelings of hopelessness among our already distressed people. This will no doubt intensify the criticism of the Prime Minister, his policies and his government.

Insufficient details and information were shared during the Prime Minister’s press conference to persuade the Opposition otherwise.

My guess is that the Prime Minister is under enormous political pressure and created this Ministry in direct response to these internal political challenges. This new Ministry insulates the PM from the problems and public backlashes associated with his administration’s handling of this post Hurricane relief and restoration effort.

At the start of this crisis, the Prime Minister could not stay out of the press. Now he has essentially placed poor, but well intentioned, Iram Lewis on his back to absorb much of the public backlash intended for him. Mr. Lewis is now the new ‘Dorian whipping boy.’

In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s political decisions have come under public scrutiny and heavy criticism.

How did relief supplies that were supposed to be handled by the government’s principal management agency, NEMA, end up at the FNM Headquarters for distribution? 

For example, to comply with government policy, the PLP was forced to turn over to NEMA, relief supplies consigned to us from our international partners only to see these supplies distributed at the FNM Headquarters by FNM operatives. This is unacceptable.

Additionally, how did the co-head of the legislative branch of government and a divisive political figure end up working for the executive branch of government as a storm coordinator? This is a blatant violation of one of the fundamental principles of governance which is the separation of powers. The initial intent, the spirit and the letter of the law must be followed by all at all material times. 

Her political decisions have hurt the relief efforts in Grand Bahama. Bahamians and the international community have seen the long lines, excessive delays and the expressions of frustration and anger among our people. This is a management and leadership issue that the Prime Minister could have easily solved.

The first responders attached to the public service – who continue to do a remarkable job, are now visibly frustrated and complaining about their unmet needs and unaddressed concerns. I again call on the government to address this. 

Three weeks after Dorian’s departure, there are still serious concerns about security of property and public safety, especially on the mainland of Abaco and its surrounding Cays. This must be decisively addressed with urgency as opportunistic criminality prioritizes the need to maintain law and order. The narrative in the international press cannot be that the government has or is losing control of these areas and vigilante’s are taking over.

On the issue of tax concessions under the Special Economic Recovery Zones policy – during the last PLP administration, duty free concessions were extended to East and West Grand Bahama as part of our economic stimulus program so the overall blueprint, plan and administrative infrastructure for Grand Bahama was already in place and fully operational as a one stop shop at the Ministry for Grand Bahama. It is therefore important to point out that conceptually, these Special Economic Recovery Zones policy is nothing new – only new in name.

I further note that in the Port area only licensees benefit from Port concessions hence there is a need for the government to address residential property owners who have suffered loses to their homes and belongings. Clearly this is an important dialogue that must take place between the government and the Grand Bahama Port Authority.

We would be remiss not to mention the flooding damage in parts of New Providence, particularly in the Pinewood community. I toured that community immediately following the passage of the storm where I observed that a number of homes suffered flooded damage to the interior walls and furnishings. Needless to say, those affected residents must be included in the government’s assessment and relief efforts.

In light of the tax concession policy left in place by the PLP, I trust that West Grand Bahama and in particular Holmes Rock, Bootle Bay and West End proper qualify as Special Economic Recovery Zones as both residential and commercial properties in these areas suffered severe damage. I raise this issue specifically on behalf of residents and business owners there because the Prime Minister did not mention these areas by name during his press conference.

The issue of bonded warehouses is also nothing new and was also implemented by the PLP in Freeport post Hurricane Mathew and proved to be very effective in the issuing of building materials for residents and contractors in the very effective program designed with the assistance of the accounting firm KPMG.

As this system was structured to function out of the Ministry for Grand Bahama, I must question the role of that Ministry and its Minister in the restoration efforts in Grand Bahama. I caution the government against re-inventing the wheel and in duplicating efforts as this will only add to the delays and create more confusion.

As the management and accounting systems are already in place to facilitate this tax concession policy, the government need only tweak it, making it specific and relevant to the needs of the Abaco community. 

Concerning real property tax, there is no real property tax for Bahamians residing outside of New Providence, therefore the Prime Minister’s statement is confusing concerning the circumstances surrounding this exemption for foreigners who live, own property and businesses in the affected areas. This requires some clarification.

Given the extent of the damage sustained by businesses in Grand Bahamas, an allocation of 10 million dollars announced by the Prime Minister and earmarked to assist the business community is woefully insufficient and should be increased to at least $100 million if the government is serious about supporting Grand Bahama.

The PLP welcomes the commitment to review existing building codes and the establishment of a new and strong regulatory regime and body for Abaco and the remote areas of Grand Bahama to ensure that the appropriate building codes are enforced. We can say that during our tours of the affected areas, non-compliance to the country’s current building codes was quite evident and widespread.

I say again that it is necessary for the Opposition and the government to work together as our institutional knowledge and experience add value to this national effort. I say so in spite of the ill-advised remarks of Peter Turnquest in Parliament where he vowed from his feet never to seek or accept policy advice from the PLP. 

Over the past three weeks, the Prime Minister appeared too happy to pose for photographs on the phone with Prince Charles and in meetings with heads of governments and international organizations. While this is part of the job, I am constrained to point out again that unfortunately, a Public Relations strategy is not the solution to this crisis.

Sending out your surrogates to tell people to remain quiet and not critique the policies of the government amount to more Public Relations and fail to address the causal factors and root causes of the problems plaguing this post Hurricane effort.

In the midst of all of this, the Bahamian people await answers and a comprehensive plan from this government to address these myriad of challenges facing us in the aftermath of this storm.