Saturday, May 14, 2016

This Week in The Bahamas: 9 - 13 May 2016

By Elcott Colbey

PM CHRISTIE CONCLUDES MOU WITH GRAND BAHAMA PORT AUTHORITY
The House met on Monday the 9th May 2016 through Wednesday of this week. On Monday Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. Perry G. Christie updated the House on the agreement his government reached with the Grand Bahama Port Authority on a comprehensive tax regime, specifically “real property tax, real property levy, personal property tax, capital levies on taxes on captioned gains or capital appreciation and a zero tax regime in respect of the earnings of the Grand Bahama Port Authority (“GBPA”) - the earnings of Port licensees” according to Prime Minister Christie.
Sweeping reforms affecting the governance and ownership of the GBPA and a strategic economic development plan for the city of Freeport going forward also formed the Memorandum of Understanding between the GBPA and The Bahamas Government.

The Prime Minister pointed out however that “the main broad tax concessions such as customs duties, export taxes, excise taxes, certain stamp taxes granted for a period of 99 years under The Hawksbill Creek Agreement in 1955 (almost sixty-one years ago), remain intact and will not expire until the year 2054.”

A broad summary of the objectives and opportunities contained in the MOU framework include the following:
  1. Immediate investments in strategically important industries;
  2. The commitment of the GBPA to seek an injection of new equity capital into its Group of Companies through new globally respected shareholders or equity partners and project specific investors who will further the development of Freeport and Grand Bahama and to explore the same with Hutchison Ports Bahamas Ltd. and Mediterranean Shipping Company, SA;
  3. Historic changes in the governance, transparency, and regulatory framework that govern Freeport;
  4. Government ownership stakes in prime landholding companies which will allow for enhanced public/private development;
  5. A commitment to social and infrastructure improvements to enhance quality of life
  6. A new framework for performance-based development concessions that will replace the expiring tax concessions of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement;
  7. A focused and collaborative strategy to reshape the approach to attracting, retaining, and expanding investment in Grand Bahama;
h.    A commitment to resolve longstanding issues related to Government deficits in Freeport in a way that protects the Government’s rights but creates a path forward in Freeport.

According to Prime Minister Christie, some of the capital injection includes the expansion of the Freeport Container Port through Phase V and VI, to commence later this year; expanded cruise operations; home porting; a container repair facility; a logistics center and creating a maritime training center. These ventures will expand employment and job training opportunities for large numbers of Bahamians as Grand Bahama “is poised for significant expansion as a hub for cruise operations” said Mr. Christie.


TRANSPORT MINISTER RESPONDS TO AUDITOR GENERAL’S REPORT
In response to the tabling of the Auditor General’s report on the operations at the Road Traffic Department on Monday, the Transport and Aviation Minister the Hon. Glenys Hanna-Martin promised a police investigation into reported instances of malfeasance and alleged fraud at that department during a House communication.

“The Road Traffic Department will, as the facts are in hand, move to deal with any such perpetrators,” said Mrs. Hanna-Martin where the controller will collaborate with the police to investigate the findings of fraud and lay criminal complaint where warranted.

The audit report which covered the period July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2015 cited an under recording of motor vehicle license revenue by at least $10 million and an under recording of license plate revenue by some $234,000.

The Minister told Parliamentarians that over decades these acts have been linked to “wider and more serious activities ranging from car theft rings and what I believe even to murder.”

Addressing some of the causal factors, the Minister pointed to paper intensive, manual and antiquated operational features of the department that have caused systemic weaknesses.

She also said that between 2002 and 2007, the Christie administration completed much of the ground work necessary to cause for the full automation of the department but the Request for Proposal (RFP) process and the selection of a vendor from a field of eight were rejected by the incoming FNM administration.     


BILL TABLED TO UPGRADE BUILDING REGULATIONS
The other significant business of the House was the passage of an amendment to the 1971 Buildings Regulations Act.

In broad terms the 2016 amendment sought to “provide for an increase in the penalties that may be imposed (by the Minister) on summary conviction for any breach or contravention of rules...”

By amending section 19 of Chapter 200, the penalties, fines and punishment to building code violators increase from a maximum of six (6) months to a maximum of two (2) years imprisonment and the imposition of a fine from five hundred dollars ($500) to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

The sponsor of the bill which began debate on Wednesday of this week was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Works and Urban Development, the Hon. Philip Brave Davis.

The opposition’s chief concern was the government’s will to enforce this new law. The amended bill was passed unanimously in the House on Wednesday night.
 

NATIONAL SECURITY MINISTER REPORTS ON REFERENDUM
National Security Minister the Hon. Bernard J. Nottage updated the House on the upcoming June 7 referendum. He said the budget was $1.57 million, the current register would remain open until May 25 and the advance poll will take place on 31st May 2016.

The Minister also read the four referendum questions as they would appear on the ballot. The questions are as follow:

QUESTION #1
Do you approve of the constitution amendment number one bill, 2014? Under this proposed change to the constitution, a child born outside The Bahamas would, after the coming into operation of this amendment, become a Bahamian citizen at birth if either its mother or father is a citizen of The Bahamas by birth.  

QUESTION #2
Do you approve of the constitution amendment number two bill, 2014? Under this proposed change to the constitution, a foreign spouse of a Bahamian citizen would, after coming into operation of this article, be entitled to apply for and obtain citizenship subject to satisfying, one, existing national security or public policy considerations and two, new provisions guiding against marriages of convenience.  

QUESTION #3
Do you approve of the constitution amendment number three bill, 2014? Under this proposed change to the constitution, a Bahamian father of a person born outside of wedlock, after the coming into operation of this amendment, would be able to pass his citizenship to that person subject to legal proof that he is the father.

QUESTION #4
Do you approve of the constitution amendment number four bill, 2014? Under this proposed change to the constitution, it would be unlawful to discriminate based on sex, which will be defined as being male or female.

Dr. Nottage quashed all rumors to the effect that the questions will appear in another order. As the bills are debated and passed in Parliament and discussed throughout the country, is the same order in which the bills will appear on the ballot.

“There will no change” said Dr. Nottage.


CITIZEN SECURITY AND JUSTICE PROGRAM LAUNCHED
With $20 million in IDB funding and technical support, The Government of The Bahamas launched its much anticipated Citizens Security and Justice Programme on Monday, 9th May at the Hilton Hotel.

Ministry officials say this program is designed to address “every single issue driving crime in The Bahamas.”

Some of the vexing issues to be tackled are conflict resolution skills, youth unemployment and training, an overwhelmed justice system with a huge case backlog and the introduction of a comprehensive parole system to govern reintegration of ex-offenders while strengthening a deficient rehabilitative correctional process.

These are some of the primary drivers of crime said Minister of National Security the Hon. Bernard J. Nottage as he officially opened the seminar.

“This investment goes beyond supplying new arms to police officers or building more prison cells for incarceration. These are important steps, but they do not address the primary drivers of crime in The Bahamas.

“Instead, through social interventions for non-violent conflict resolution, youth employment and training, the strengthening of the Public Employment Services, the continuation of the successful work of the Swift Justice Initiative, and through a focus on the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, we are employing a wide-ranging, strategic approach to ensure the safety of our citizens” said Dr. Nottage.

Dr. Nottage said the Government has already begun to address a number of the issues identified as the driving forces for crime within The Bahamas through initiatives already implemented or about to be implemented in a cross-section of ministries.

These ministries include the Ministries of National Security, the Ministry of Social Services and Community Development, Ministry of Legal Affairs and the Ministry of Labour, National Insurance and the Public Service.


CITIZEN SECURITY AND JUSTICE TO AUGMENT WORK OF THE OAG
“The Citizen Security and Justice Programme Loan represents a commitment to continuing this work because there is more to be done” said Bahamas Attorney General Senator Allyson Maynard-Gibson at Tuesday’s opening of the programme’s seminar at the Hilton Hotel.

The work of the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to which Mrs. Gibson referred included a reduction in the backlog of cases by over 100 in 2015; a doubling of the rate of conviction from 31% to 63%; a significant improvement in concluding cases from 118 to 228 cases; the operation of ten new criminal courts and bringing 7 murder cases to trial within one year. She believed these were steps in the right direction.  

“Our goal is to mobilize the Public Defender's Office within the next 60 days.  We hope to continue to strengthen our partnership with all justice system stakeholders including the Defense Bar (whom I thank for their collaboration) and to focus on truly engaging the Bahamian public in the work of justice system reform” said the Attorney General.

She also promised more efficient production of transcripts; the effective use of technology, specifically the implementation of the integrated electronic system for case management, digital recording and scheduling; and to “design and support a pilot for a Restorative Justice (RJ) system which will include the drafting of a new Restorative Justice framework.” 

This pilot program, said the Attorney General, will be developed in conjunction with the work to propose a new parole and reintegration policy led by the Ministry of National Security.


SIR MICHAEL SUPPORTS REFERENDUM BILLS
Sir Michael Barnett, former Bahamas Attorney General and Chief Justice (from 2009 to 2015), publicly endorsed the four referendum bills currently before the Bahamian people. Sir Michael did so “without reservation”, telling Rotarians of East Nassau at their monthly luncheon meeting on Tuesday that, "I will vote ‘Yes' in the upcoming referendum to all four Bills.”

The YES BAHAMAS CAMPAIGN welcomed his support and issued a statement to that effect.

The YES CAMPAIGN statement said Sir Michael joined the growing chorus of legal experts working to combat misinformation about bill four, stating that nothing in the bills would change marriage in The Bahamas. Highlighting Section 21 of the Matrimonial Causes Act - which says that marriage must be between a male and a female in order to be legal - the statement quoted from the former Chief Justice’s speech emphasizing the following:

“The laws of The Bahamas presently prohibit same-sex marriages…That is the law of The Bahamas today and will remain the law of The Bahamas if the Referendum approves the Bill. Nothing in the proposed Bill changes that fact.”

Sir Michael did identify the benefits of Bill Four which is the prevention of Parliament from enacting future laws which would treat men and women differently.

“What the amendment does do is prohibit Parliament passing a law which fixes the minimum wage for men to be different than the minimum wage for women; or enacting a law which require or permits women to retire from employment, including the public service, at an age different from men or to receive national insurance or pension benefits at different ages,” said the former Chief Justice.


ROAD TRAFFIC CONTROLLER RESPONDS TO AUDITOR GENERAL
Controller of Road Traffic Ross Smith indicated that the multimillion dollar automation project for the department is scheduled for completion by October of this year. He was addressing the media on Monday afternoon in response to the Auditor General’s report tabled in the House earlier that day.

He told the media that he was reviewing the report and is prepared to involve the police where acts of criminality are suspected.

As for the Abaco office, Mr. Ross said that several new procedures have been implemented to mitigate fraud.

The controller believes that once implemented the new automation procedures “will take the department far in addressing concerns” cited in the audit report and create a stronger culture of accountability and transparency.


THE PASSING OF TRADE UNIONIST NELERENE HARDING
Ms. Nelerene Harding, President of the Airport, Airline and Allied Workers Union (AAAWU), the bargaining agent for non-management staff at Bahamasair and Nassau Flight Services passed away in hospital on Thursday, 12th May 2016 after a short illness. She was 52.

“It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of one of the stalwarts in the Labour movement” said former trade unionist and Labour Minister the Hon. D. Shane Gibson as he paid tribute to one his colleagues in the labour movement.

Gibson also hailed Ms. Harding as a skilled and knowledgeable visionary leader; a role model for young aspiring trade unionists and unwavering “in her pursuit of the rights for the workers she served.”

“On behalf of the Government and workers of The Bahamas, I offer condolences to her family - especially her mother, daughter and granddaughter, and to her friends and the workers that she boldly and resolutely represented and defended. The Bahamas has suffered a great loss” said the Minister.

A thirty year veteran of the trade union movement who specialized in employee benefits, Ms. Harding served as third vice-president in the National Congress of Trade Unions of The Bahamas; she was a past member of the Board of Directors of the National Workers Cooperative Credit Union and a Master Trustee of the International Benefits Association.

May her soul Rest in Peace.


BISHOP GOMEZ: SAME-SEX CLAIMS “UNWARRANTED AND MISLEADING”
“Unfortunately, some well-intentioned pastors have utilized the appearance of the word ‘sex’ in the text of (question) four to make an unwarranted and misleading insertion into the publicly released narrative thereby creating much confusion in the public domain.”  This was the criticism leveled by former Anglican Bishop Drexel Gomez of other clergymen who are advancing the ‘no’ vote based on question number four.

Gomez accused some church leaders of failing to provide corroborating facts and evidence in law to support their assertion that the passage of Bill #4 somehow opens the ‘back-door’ to same-sex marriage in The Bahamas. 

The Bishop used the Matrimonial Causes Act to make his case which defines marriage as a union between a male and a female. This ancient 1879 law is saved by the 1973 Bahamas Independence constitution as an exempted pre-existing law.

The education department of the Constitutional Commission, proponents of the 4 bills and legal experts have long argued that the constitution currently empowers Parliament to legally legislate inherently discriminatory laws, but a ‘yes’ vote to Bill #4 prevents Parliament from doing this in the future, effectively closing the door on same-sex marriage. The ‘yes’ vote achieves the exact opposite objective that the vote ‘no’ campaigners are asserting.

 

BAHAMAS GOVERNOR GENERAL PROCLAIMS REFERENDUM
The proclamation and writ of a referendum by The Bahamas Governor General HE Dame Marguerite Pindling was delivered on the porch of the Senate building by the Provost Marshall, the Commissioner of Police Ellison Greenslade on Wednesday evening of this week. The referendum on 4 constitutional bills on gender equality is scheduled to be put to the Bahamian electorate for approval on June 7 and the current register remains open until May 25 for new voter registration. The advanced poll for referendum workers is scheduled for the 31st May 2016.   


In Passing…
Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. Perry Christie became an Honorary Member of the Bahamas State Association of Elks at their conference at the British Colonial Hilton, May 11, 2016.

Remembering the 36th anniversary of the sinking of the HMBS Flamingo by Cuban MIGS, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force held a memorial service at its Coral Harbour Base to mark the occasion. Governor General HE Dame Marguerite Pindling laid a wreath at the monument erected at the base in their memory.

On the 13th May 2016, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, the U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command North completed joint exercise MARLIN SHIELD. According to a RBDF statement, the exercise “provided the partner nations an opportunity to dynamically practice interoperability and bilateral operations through maritime and land-based training throughout The Bahamas.   

There was more Baha Mar commentary in the news this week. As you know, the bidding process for the $3.5 billion property is a closed one with more than twelve suitors vying for the right to own, open and operate this coveted property. Receiver-Manager Raymond Winder although silent on the identities of the bidders, did opine that if the China Construction America Ltd. Did in fact offer a bid, they would have a “better handle on what is needed to complete the project.” He also said that Izmirlian’s offer would have to exceed $3 billion to fulfill all promises.

The shareholders of the Freeport Oil Company Limited, FOCOL, approved the appointment of Bishop Neil C. Ellis as a board director for its 2016/2017 fiscal year at its Annual General Meeting (AGM).

Well the April 21 injunction handed down by Supreme Justice Indra Charles remains in place until the constitutional motion can be argued when the matter reconvenes 18th May 2016. This was the ruling of Justice Charles on Thursday when the court met on Thursday, 12th May to argue the constitutional motion on the independence and privilege of the Parliament. The ruling April 21 ruling prohibited commentary and dissemination inside and outside of Parliament of emails purported to be the private property of members of the Save the Bays (STB) environmental lobby group. PLP House members Fitzgerald and Mitchell have argued that the STB organization and the FNM are in bed together and the STB are seeking to destabilize a duly elected government while using environmental lobbying as a smokescreen to hide their political activism.

Labour and Public Service Minister the Hon. D. Shane Gibson told the media this week that the government is in negotiations with the owners of the Independence Shopping Center for its purchase to house Post Office employees. The shopping Center is located Tonique Williams Highway and Blue Hill Road roundabout.

FNM Senator Lanisha Rolle resigned her seat in the senate on Friday of this week. She was immediately replaced by former Senator Dr. Duane Sands.

The residents of Palmetto Point, Eleuthera can now boast of a brand new fire engine, thanks to international partners. On hand this Friday for the commissioning and handing over ceremony were Minister of National Security the Hon. Bernard J. Nottage, Acting DCP Ferguson and Fire Chief Walter Evans.

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