Saturday, April 16, 2016

This Week in The Bahamas 11 - 15 April 2016

By Elcott Coleby


Prime Minister Christie delivers State of the Nation address

Prime Minister and Minister of Finance the Rt. Hon. Perry Christie said that, in its scope and detail, the State of The Nation Report gives much food for thought and presents a unique opportunity to "fundamentally transform" The Bahamas for the better.
Prime Minister Christie was delivering his response to the State of the Nation Report by Felix Stubbs, chair of the National Development Plan Secretariat. The Prime Minister’s presentation entitled "Planning for a New Bahamas" was delivered at the College Of The Bahamas' Harry C. Moore Library, on April 11, 2016.
The State of the Nation Report is the result of the diagnostic phase of the overall National Development Plan implementation process.
The report outlined a number of challenges facing The Bahamas from its administration of public finance and the lack of economic diversification to performance challenges in our education system, access to affordable health care, the high rates of crime, security, income inequality and the country’s growing poverty rate. 
Acknowledging the myriad of national challenges, Prime Minister Christie issued a series of challenges to stakeholders present on how best to address these deficiencies as the country secures its future “among the leading countries of the world.”
"What is the biggest, boldest, most ambitious Vision we can set for ourselves, so that we are not just surviving, not just doing better, but marching towards that common, loftier Goal that will secure our future among the leading countries in the world, for the rest of time?"
He added: "In respect of education: what can we do to ensure that we are the best-educated, most highly-skilled population on earth? What can we do to become the healthiest, ‘most well’ people on the planet? How soon can we free everyone from poverty? How can we build secure, crime-free communities, where our relationships with our families, friends and neighbours can thrive in an atmosphere of mutual respect, civility and social tranquility?
He further asked the following questions: "How do we ensure that our country is one of the best in the world in which to live, work and play, able to withstand and mitigate the effects of climate change? How do we build an Infrastructure that will serve us well into the 22nd Century? How can we maximize economic opportunities for everyone, to build long-term wealth and prosperity for us all? How best to govern ourselves so that the contract between the People and the Government is one based on mutual trust and respect?"
Prime Minister Christie said that, in answering those questions -- in seizing this moment to establish a bold vision for The Bahamas -- all Bahamians can work towards an almost unimaginably bright future.


Escaped Cuban nationals recaptured
Five Cuban nationals escaped lawful custody at the Carmichael Road Detention Center on the evening of Saturday, 9th April. Within forty-eight hours, all five of the escapees were in lawful custody at the Carmichael Road Detention Center. It was reported that one turned himself in and that one was captured near the detention center and led officials to the others. The Department of Immigration released the following statement Monday afternoon:

“The Department wishes to announce that a force under the command of Chief Immigration Officer Kirk Neely with the support of the Royal Bahamas Police and Defense Forces, this morning (11th April), recaptured the five Cuban nationals who escaped from the Detention Centre on the evening of Saturday 9 April.

“The Minister for Immigration, the Hon. Fred Mitchell congratulated the team for their joint work in that effort; praising the corporation between the uniform branches.
The captured detainees will be brought before the courts as quickly as possible.”


Gender Equality Referendum date set: 7th June 2016
“On Tuesday, June 7, Bahamians will be asked to vote yes on four common sense changes to our constitution, so that Bahamian men and women are able to pass citizenship to their families in the same way, and so that it will be impossible for any future parliament to pass laws discriminating against either men or women.” With this pronouncement by Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. Perry G. Christie, the countdown to the referendum on gender equality via the ‘Yes Bahamas’ campaign began.

The ‘Yes Bahamas’ campaign was launched at the Harry C. Moore Library on the campus of the College of The Bahamas on Sunday, the 10th April 2016.   

The Prime Minister said that the proposed constitutional changes are not radical, but are to make sure that “the Supreme Law of the land reflects our values and our commitment to fairness.”

Co-chairs of the ‘Yes Bahamas campaign’ Senate President Sharon Wilson and former Senate President Lynn Holowesko urged Bahamians against politicizing this issue of gender equality.

Bill one deals with passing citizenship to a child born to a married Bahamian woman outside The Bahamas to a foreign husband. The second bill allows a Bahamian woman to pass her citizenship on to her foreign spouse, subject to certain conditions including national security issues. Bill three allows a an unmarried Bahamian male to pass his citizenship onto his child with a foreign woman subject to verification such as a DNA test and bill 4 makes it impossible to discriminate against a person on the basis of their sex or because they are male or female.

The four bills were passed in the House last month with near unanimous support.


Halkitis elected chair of the IDB & IIC board of governors
State Minister for Finance, the Hon. Michael Halkitis was nominated and elected as the chairman of the board of governors of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC). He delivered his address as incoming chair on Friday 9th April during the bank’s 57th Annual General Meetings of the IDB and 31st for the IIC held at the Baha Mar convention center in The Bahamas.

Some of the principal challenges addressed by Mr. Halkitis included climate change, energy reform, improved competitiveness, economic growth and labour productivity. These challenges in addition to gender equality were also addressed in the bank’s strategic plan adopted in March 2015.

According to Mr. Halkitis, net flows into the Caribbean region in the form of grants and loans totaled $588 million between 2011 and 2015; because of this, Halkitis felt that The Bahamas was fortunate to have a partner in the name of the IDB as the funding, research and technical assistance to regional countries assist those countries in adapting for economic growth.  


Freedom of Information bill enters consultation stage
The initial Freedom of Information Act that was passed into law in early 2012 was first assailed by stakeholders, amended, then scrapped and replaced with a newer and stronger version. That new draft bill has been vetted by stakeholders and now enters the public consultation stage.

Minister of Education, Science and Technology the Hon. Jerome Fitzgerald who has carriage of this legislation announced on Wednesday that public consultations on the draft will commence shortly as the government eyes November for tabling this bill in Parliament. He described the public consultation schedule as “aggressive” and will last one month where the consultation team will seek to communicate to Bahamians the objectives of the bill, especially as it relates to the reinforcement of fundamental principles underlying the country’s system of constitutional democracy.

“This bill seeks to reinforce and give effect to certain fundamental principles underlying our system of constitutional democracy; that is, governmental accountability, transparency and public participation in national decision-making by granting to the public a general right of access to public records held by public authorities, subject to exemptions which balance that right against the public interest in exempting from government disclosure in certain circumstances” said Minister Fitzgerald.  

The meeting schedule is as follows:
·         College of The Bahamas on 18th April 2016
·         Grand Bahama on 25th April 2016
·         Eleuthera on May 2nd 2016
·         Exuma on May 4th 2016
·         Abaco on May 12th 2016.

Online recommendations can be made at www.ministryofeducation.com


The continued public debate over National Health Insurance
A coalition of over 2,000 insurance and healthcare professionals calling themselves the United Healthcare Reform Alliance (UHRA) on Wednesday publicly rejected the current National Health Insurance model and in so doing, outlined what the Alliance is advocating for.  
“The UHRA is advocating for the preservation of customer choice, improvement to public care facilities, informed fiscal planning, a commitment to data protection and corporate governance that addresses the interests of all stakeholders” said the Alliance according to local media reports.    
In its response, the NHI Bahamas Secretariat expressed surprise at the position taken by the Alliance, but committed itself to continued consultations and dialogue. The Secretariat also addressed the issues raised by the Alliance.

·         Choice: Bahamians can choose both their registered and certified doctor and insurance provider. They can stay with their current physician if they wish, or they can choose another primary care provider.
·         Continued improvement of public health care facilities: health system strengthening activities are ongoing throughout our islands and will continue indefinitely.
·         Data protection: we have been working hand in hand with the Data Protection Commissioner’s office to ensure that sensitive data under NHI Bahamas is treated and protected in the proper manner. All provisions in the draft bill are in line with international standards on data protection.
·         Prudent and realistic fiscal planning: the Government has done its own financial estimates for the primary care phase of NHI Bahamas, and this figure has been validated by KPMG Advisory Bahamas who continue to be engaged in rolling out the programme in a fiscally responsible manner, and assisting with costing for the full programme implementation.
·         Governance structure: the Government is in the process of finalizing the Programme Board as recommended by KPMG that will include private sector membership in an integrated governance structure. This mechanism is consistent with international best practices in governance.”

The Secretariat insisted that it has and will continue to incorporate industry Stakeholders “as active participants in the roll-out of NHI Bahamas as much as possible,” pointing out that the size of the Alliance can only produce “an enhanced governance structure.”


Sarkis Izmirlian makes an offer for Baha Mar
Mr. Izmirlian certainly seemed to have the support of the Bahamas Prime Minister to at least have his proposal to the China EXIM Bank considered equally with the rest of the suitors for the $3.5 billion stalled resort project.

“He (Sarkis Izmirilian) is certainly deserving of every consideration” said the nation’s chief as he spoke with reporters on Sunday at the conclusion of the ‘Yes Bahamas’ campaign at the Harry C. Moore Library.

Though conceding that he had not seen the proposal, Prime Minister Christie told the media that he wrote a letter to the president of the China EXIM Bank to express his views after meeting with Mr. Izmirlian about the offer and the way forward. Both men agreed to bury the hatchet and to work together. Christie also revealed that under the terms of the Izmirlian proposal, he is prepared to pay the bank dollar for dollar for the project so that the bank does not lose money in the deal.

Also commenting on the Sarkis offer was the receiver for the project, Raymond Winder.

“Mr. Sarkis is a part of the process; we welcome him. I mean he has a passion. He understands this project and we anticipate that he will have an offer, however, his offer will have to go through the receivers and not the bank and it will have to be – and it will be compared against all the other bids that we receive during this process. And at the end of the process we will make a determination as to which one provides the best opportunity in terms of value to the bank but also in terms of their ability to carry the dream forward.”

Mr. Winder said that he expects a buyer to be selected by June of this year.  


2015 Human Rights Report released
Released on Wednesday, 13th April 2016 by United States Secretary of State John Kerry, the 2015 Human Rights Report highlighted a number of challenges observed in The Bahamas over the last year and even made mention of the BEC bribery scandal which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said pre-dated the tenure of the current administration.

Below is a sample of the observations contained in the report:

At least one of the country’s public procurement processes was susceptible to corruption with no requirement to engage in open public tender.
The former BEC board member charged with bribery was also highlighted in the report.
Public disclosure by politicians was a cause for concern. There is no mechanism for independent verification of disclosures and the disclosures were vague, only taking place in an election year.
The report cited prison overcrowding and poor sanitation inclusive of inadequate access to medical care in maximum security. On the positive side, extension to the east prison block was ongoing and cells were outfitted with flushing toilets, bedding and television.
Poor living and working conditions were cited at the Carmichael Road Detention Center.
From January to October 2015, 157 complaints were filed against police officers.
Nine asylum requests were made but procedural shortcomings and trial delays created a problem for the courts.
Courts were also not able to keep up with criminal cases and the backlog of cases was growing because cases were mishandled.
The report praised The Bahamas for passing the persons with disabilities act but challenges still exist.
Commendations were given for the many freedoms people enjoy under the Bahamas constitution.

In its response the Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated that the report should “not give rise to undue concern by the Bahamian public” because the report is a legal requirement under US law and overall, the report is “not harmful.” The Ministry characterized some aspects of the report as “the sensationalizing of extracts taken out of context that may cause some concern.”   


In Passing…
On Sunday, 10th April 2016 at the Balmoral Club a ceremony was held for the signing of a $1.75 million grant from Japan to The Bahamas government for equipment, maintenance and training connected to disaster risk management, disaster response and disaster restoration. Signing on behalf of The Bahamas government was Foreign Affairs Minister the Hon. Fred Mitchell and Masanori Nakano, Japanese ambassador to The Bahamas signed on behalf of the government of Japan.

At the presentation of the State of the Nation Report at the Harry C. Moore Library on Monday, 11th April 2016 was the announcement that New Providence was chosen by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to become the first “Smart Island.” This announcement was made by the union’s president Houlin Zhao.

In observance of child protection month, Governor General Dame Marguerite Pindling established the first pinwheel garden on the grounds of Government House on Mount Fitzwilliam. Minister of Social Services and Community Development the Hon. Melanie Griffin was in attendance and pinned the symbolic pinwheel on the Governor General. Child protection month is observed every April in The Bahamas.

Bahamian college basketball standout Jonquel Jones was drafted 6th overall by the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA on Thursday of this week at the Mohegan Sun arena. She was later traded to the Connecticut Sun. She played her college ball at George Washington University. Jones is a native of Holmes Rock, Grand Bahama.
Ms. Renee Davis was appointed to the post of Managing Director of the Bank of The Bahamas this week by the bank’s board of directors; she succeeds Paul McWeeney who retired in 2015. This public financial institution is 65% owned by the government and with 3,500 Bahamian shareholders.

Local Realtor Mario Carey, President and CEO of Mario Carey Realty became the first international partner of the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brand outside of the United States and Canada. Congratulations Mario.

Entrepreneur, philanthropist and sportsman Frank Hanna passed away on Thursday evening; he was 79. This colourful personality from Andros was the president of one of the largest janitorial services companies in The Bahamas and used his wealth and influence to advance Bahamian sports and culture, especially family island regattas. As many would say, Frank was a ‘good Andros man.’ May his soul rest in peace. 

The FNM delegates elected former MP, deputy leader and cabinet minister Sidney Collie to the post of chairman on Thursday evening at the party’s headquarters on Mackey Street. Collie defeated talk show host and social activist Rodney Moncur with a final count of 89 to 27.

The derelict vehicle site located adjacent to the New Providence public landfill became engulfed in flames on Thursday morning, spewing heavy plumes of thick black smoke into the air and forcing the early closure of the Meridian School. According to Walter Evans, head of the fire branch of the RBPF, his department received a call around noon and upon their arrival discovered as much as 300 derelict vehicles engulfed in flames and exploding. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Sloan Smith, Customs and Immigration Union chief claimed earlier this week that his membership was prevented by the Ministry of Labour from holding a strike vote, a claim denied by Labour Director Robert Farquharson. Supreme Court Justice Ian Winder on Thursday struck down a petition by the union to have overtime factored into the base pay of Customs and Immigration Officers.

About 140 employees at the Post Office Building staged a protest outside that building on Thursday of this week to draw attention to their unsatisfactory working conditions. 

According to the public service union president John Pinder, the work place is hazardous as the building is no longer structurally sound and unsanitary as it is infested with rodents. He noted that the plans to refurbish space in the Town Center Mall for relocation have stalled.

Some owners of Carnival companies were outraged this week at a decision by the government not to provide seed money to subsidize them for the Road Rage component of the 2016 carnival celebrations. They threatened to boycott the carnival’s road rage this year and go it alone.

The kick off carnival event in Freeport is in full swing with the semi finals of the music masters scheduled for Saturday. Rain did not dampen the junkanoo carnival spirit as the partying continued into the wee hours of the morning.

The Chris Brown Invitational is all set for Saturday at the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium as international track athletes will compete for cash prizes and bragging rights. Please come out and support this event.

Congratulations to Senator Joseph Curry as he becomes the newest District Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge of The Bahamas. He will be installed on Saturday night at the Melia Resort.

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