Commentary by Elcott Coleby
This week in Parliament
The Bahamas Parliament met on Wednesday of this week and as expected Parliamentarians provided updates on the restoration efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Additionally and at long last the Public Accounts Committee tabled its report on the Urban Renewal Small Homes repair program.
Prime Minister Christie focused his House communication on the restoration efforts in Grand Bahama.
“While various social and humanitarian programs are being implemented” said the member for Centreville, “Government, at the same time in consultation with the private sector is taking the necessary steps to rebuild, repair, reopen and expand the many businesses and public infrastructure which have been severely impacted by the Hurricane. This is in addition to assistance which is being made available for the restoration of so many homes which have been damaged or destroyed.”
From a policy and legislative perspective, the Prime Minister communicated that his government thought it “both expedient and necessary to effect amendments to the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investments Incentives Act 2016, to allow more time for licensees to avail themselves of the opportunity to apply for concessions available under that Act.”
Some of the proposed legislative amendments are as follow:
- A proposed amendment to section 15 of the Principal Act to extend the application time for concessions from six months to ten months (as of the 4th May 2016).
- Circulate draft regulations to support the structure and functioning of a One Stop Shop that is “intended to optimize the process for approving new business in the Port Area by harmonizing the agencies required for investor outreach and business development.”
- Under section 14 of the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investments Incentives Act 2016, existing companies will benefit from the concessions set forth in the Act for a period of twenty years.
- Add affiliated companies of The Hutchison Group to the applicable Schedule thus allowing those affiliates to benefit from concessions under the Act.
Labour Minister and Hurricane recovery Coordinator the Hon. D. Shane Gibson provided an update on recovery efforts nationally. He told House Members that 10,000 customers now have power in Grand Bahama, BTC had restored mobile communications to 99.5% of New Providence customers and restored fixed line services to 94% of its customers. He also revealed a colour coded voucher system designed to facilitate the distribution of repair materials in New Providence, Grand Bahama and North Andros.
“We feel that the use of vouchers will prove to be a more efficient, cost effective and accountable process. The vouchers will be color coordinated by island in denominations of $100, $300 and $1,000 and redeemable at approved establishments that have agreed to participate in the program” said Gibson.Commenting on the Exigency Order, Minister Gibson revealed that to date, the Government has received almost $1.4 million worth of applications submitted by persons seeking to utilize the exigency order. The 180-day exigency order, declared effective from October 7, allows residents affected by the storm to import certain items into the country duty and tax free.
Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) the Hon. Hubert Chipman tabled the long awaited report that focused on Urban Renewal’s Small Homes repair program; it was the majority report. The report indicated that the financial and operational procedures “suffered from a host of functional deficiencies.” It pointed out a lack of “appropriate record keeping and filing systems” and highly questionable quality control standards where staff “failed to maintain even minimal levels of oversight.”
Delivering the minority report was the Hon. D. Shane Gibson who slammed the entire process, pointing out that at no time did the Auditor General invite co-chairs Cynthia Mother Pratt and Algernon Allen to examine the findings of the Auditor’s “leaked report.” He also criticized the fact that former Parliamentary Secretary the Hon. Renward Wells was never interviewed by the PAC. Mr. Wells had oversight of the program in 2012 and 2013. Gibson also criticized the Auditor General’s decision not to include the response by Permanent Secretary Diana Lightbourne, dated 17th February 2015. He characterized this omission as an “exercise not to discover truth or fact in the said audit of the Urban Renewal Commission.”
In addressing the letter about the emotive proposed agricultural development plan, Agriculture Minister Gray had this to say.
“Mr. Speaker, the letter I wrote was to the Bahamian Ambassador to China; I never spoke to any Chinese…The Bahamas Ambassador presented me with a few initiatives that he was considering and he was approached by investors and he wanted my permission to discuss those initiatives that he had for investment in The Bahamas, and we gave him the permission to discuss it.” The letter authorized the Ambassador to initiate discussions with the Chinese Embassy and relevant Chinese government agencies “in order to produce a comprehensive report on the viability of the proposed initiative.” This explanation followed a statement Mr. Gray released earlier in the week calling the newspaper report on a $2.1 billion Chinese partnership in agriculture “utterly false,” denying that the government of The Bahamas was considering the lease of 10,000 acres of land or the grant of crown land as stated in the newspaper article.
State Minister of Finance the Hon. Michael Halkitis told House members that the Government is seeking to borrow $28.3 million from the Caribbean Development Bank to improve the access and quality of water in The Bahamas. He tabled the resolution for the loan on behalf of the Water and Sewerage Corporation to fund the Water Supply Improvement Project at a total cost of approximately $41.8 million.
Attorney General Senator Allyson Maynard-Gibson held a press conference on Tuesday of this week to announce further digitalization of the Registrar General’s Department, effectively improving the ease of doing business in The Bahamas.
“It is now possible, as we speak” said Maynard-Gibson, “for persons to view the list of Marriage Officers on the Registrar General Department’s (RGD) website, www.bahamas.gov.bs/rgd, and the list of Justices of the Peace on the Office of the Attorney-General website, www.bahamas.gov.bs/oag. By the end of the year, the list of current Notaries public will also be available on the Office of the Attorney-General website and it will be possible to obtain a notary license entirely online, without human intervention—all to fulfill our mandate to make doing business easier in The Bahamas” said the Attorney General.
According to the Minister, licensed marriage officers can log on to the online Civil Registry Information System through the Registrar General’s Department website and update a marriage record with the marriage date and place of marriage, and the names of witnesses free of charge. Further, RGD also has the capacity to initiate applications for marriage licenses through its website, similar to that of the recently instituted Maritime Marriages Programme.
Over 150 youth complete Citizen Security and Justice Program
On Thursday of this week, over 150 young people completed the Citizen Security and Justice Programme’s (CSJP) first-ever At-Risk Youth Employability Training under the supervision of the National Training Agency in partnership with the Ministry of National Security (MoNS).
“Increasing employability and employment of at-risk youth is one of the major priorities of the Citizen Security and Justice Program” said National Security Minister the Hon. Bernard j. Nottage, delivering the keynote address. “Our youth are more likely to be both the perpetrators and victims of crime; so it is essential to address their needs if we are truly seeking to positively impact the crime rate in a lasting way. Employment often functions as a stabilizing force within the lives of youth and gaining the skills necessary to be a productive member of the work force is the first step towards gainful employment.”
The Employability and Employment Training Program is just one of the four components of The Bahamas’ innovative $20 million IDB-funded Citizen Security and Justice Program. The training is free of charge to all eligible youth between the ages of 15 to 29 who live in lower-income and/or high crime areas of New Providence. Completion of the four-week training program qualifies the successful students for placement into one of the various technical and vocational training programs provided in phase two of the training program. This group of 150 at-risk youth is just the first in a five year process that will train over 2,600 youth for employability and employment.
Nearly one year after Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. Perry G. Christie led a Bahamian delegation to Paris for the historic adoption of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, this landmark agreement came into force on Friday of this week.
“Today, this landmark Agreement which accelerates universal climate action comes into full legal effect” said Environment Minister Kendred Dorsett at a press conference at his ministry on Friday morning. “This means for the first time, nations are bound to curb their carbon emissions with their agreement to limit global warming to well below 2˚Celsius acknowledging that some nations will experience the adverse effects of global climate change at an increase of 1.5 ˚Celsius. Indeed, SIDS continue to advocate that we need “1.5 to stay alive”” said Mr. Dorsett.
This week the Road Traffic advised the public that the distribution of new Vehicle License plates and other Vehicle Registration assets continued this week at the Kendal G.L. Isaacs Gym. Individuals whose vehicles were licensed during the period October 21st through 28th should collect their documents between the hours of 8am and 8pm.
Required documents include the Road Traffic receipt as proof of payment and a Passport, Driver’s License, Voter’s Card or NIB Smart Card as proof of identification.
The Hong Kong conglomerate in talks to purchase the Baha Mar resort on Monday refuted assertions that it was “unsuited to invest in the country”, stating that it never applied for a casino license in the US jurisdiction and defended its commitment to integrity and good governance in business operations worldwide.
The DNA leader has pledged to reform the Business License fee if elected to office, so that companies do not pay more in taxes than they earn in profits. Branville McCartney said that the World Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ report had exposed as “a fallacy” the notion that The Bahamas was a ‘low tax’ or ‘no tax’ jurisdiction when it came to conducting business.
Attorney Alfred Sears must provide answers on why the main events of the Caribbean Muzik Festival have still not happened more than a year after the government gave organizers $650,000 to help put it on, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe said. Sears has said he resigned as a festival director in December 2015, two months beyond the date the main events were to take place.
PLP Chairman Bradley Roberts and FNM candidate for Montagu Dionisio D’Aguilar exchanged political blows this week, with Roberts accusing D’Aguilar of having a conflict of interest in his role as a politician and his former role as director of Baha Mar, and D’Aguilar accusing Roberts of being silent in the face of a reported conflict of interest in his own party.
The DNA ratified five candidates for the next general election:
o Business owner Kendal Smith – Fox Hill
o Engineer Ethric Bowe – Southern Shores
o Accountant Claire Basden – North Abaco
o Real estate broker Rudolph Dean – Golden Gates
o Celi Moss - Centerville
Hurricane Matthew restoration coordinator Shane Gibson accused FNM Deputy Leader Peter Turnquest of deliberately attempting to undermine the Government’s storm relief efforts to gain political points; Gibson was responding to charges by Mr. Turnquest that the government was not transparent in its handling of hurricane relief donations. Mr. Gibson claimed that the East Grand Bahama MP is intentionally raising the alarm about the Government’s spending on hurricane recovery to sway international donors from giving money to a restoration fund.
Asue Draw & Spin, one of the eight web shop companies granted a provisional license to operate in the country last year, has opted not to renew its provisional license, effectively exiting from the sector, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe confirmed.
The National Health Insurance Secretariat has started the initial hiring process for individuals, as it prepares for phase two of NHI Bahamas enrolment, according to an official press release.
FNM Leader Dr. Minnis criticized Agriculture and Fisheries Minister V. Alfred Gray for “flip-flopping” about whether he gave the go-ahead for The Bahamas Embassy in China to have discussions with the Chinese government on a $2.1 billion proposal for an agri-fisheries project.
Before attending the House of Assembly on Wednesday, Prime Minister Christie launched the 60th Regular Session of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, a regional forum to discuss ways to combat both drug trafficking and abuse in the Western Hemisphere.
Veteran Bahamian trade union leader Jennifer Isaacs-Dotson has been elected as President of the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL), the regional trade union of national workers organization. She was congratulated by Labour Minister the Hon. D. Shane Gibson on behalf of the Bahamas government.
The second phase of the new $14 million-plus V3 system at the National Insurance Board (NIB) was initially scheduled for an April roll out. That date has now been pushed back to second quarter of 2017 according to NIB Executive Director Patricia Hermanns.
A year after the Christie administration issued a provisional license to eight web shop companies, Craig Flowers – Head of FML Group of Companies - one pioneer of the gaming industry said there is much to be concerned about, especially the “proliferation” of numbers houses. This is a common complaint from some Bahamians who feel that too many gaming houses have emerged within the last year.
A day after the tabling of the PAC report on the Urban Renewal Small Homes repair program, the commission’s Co-Chairs Algernon Allen and Cynthia “Mother” Pratt told the media that plans were underway to produce another report aimed at discrediting the work of PAC.
An investigation is underway to determine what caused an island-wide outage in the capital early on Thursday just hours after BPL admitted the corporation was experiencing generator challenges. According to a press release, the power outage occurred just before 5am and by 7am BPL said power was restored to more than 50 per cent of the island.
The Port Department has been blasted for failing to collect almost $5 million in fees with some of The Bahamas’ largest investors owing unpaid bills for long periods of time. A newly-released Auditor General’s report, which examined the agency’s accounts over a two-year period to end-June 2016, expressed “great concern” over “weak internal controls” and its failure to enforce the law.
The Central Bank of The Bahamas did present a mixed short-term outlook for the Bahamian economy post-Hurricane Matthew, predicting that employment may “slightly improve” even though the tourism industry will be “below trend” in the Christmas run-up. The banking regulator also indicated that Hurricane Matthew’s recovery costs will cause a deterioration of the Government’s fiscal position and apply additional pressure on the nation’s deficit.
The Government has agreed to borrow $25 million from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to help fund a new jobs initiative to increase workplace skills and improve employability among young people and adults who have had difficulty finding work.
Former Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Tennyson Wells yesterday said he saw no issue with a controversial $2.1 billion Chinese proposal for Andros, but admonished current Minister V. Alfred Gray for not being “upfront for the people”.
The $2.1 billion proposal for the development of agriculture and fisheries in Andros was pitched to the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources by the Government’s ambassador to the Chinese government or investors, according to Agriculture and Fisheries Minister V. Alfred Gray. Mr. Gray took steps to further clarify his ministry’s role in the proposal during an appearance on the radio talk show Off Air with host Andrew Burrows.
Mount Moriah MP Arnold Forbes has defended Prime Minister Christie after he admitted that he had not visited his constituency in Centerville following the passage of Hurricane Matthew.
Health officials have seen an increase in the Zika virus with 18 cases now reported.
Certain industries will be given “more flexibility” than others to raise financing from foreign sources if the Central Bank’s latest proposed relaxation to its existing foreign exchange control regime is approved, its Governor said this week. Governor John Rolle indicated that companies that play key roles in The Bahamas’ national development, and/or having significant potential to earn foreign currency will benefit.
Blue Diamond Resorts, which manages Memories Grand Bahama, yesterday blasted property owner Hutchinson Whampoa over “failed attempts” to finalize a reopening date in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
Baha Mar’s creditor payout committee on Thursday estimated that up to 200 Bahamian companies will collective between eight and ten million dollars, as it began cheque distributions to more “low hanging fruit” on Thursday, meaning the category of vendors that were owed under $500,000 by Baha Mar Ltd.
The Price Control Commission team, led by Chairman Ernest J. Bowe, visited several food stores on Thursday, November 3, 2016 where they found and pointed out instances of over-pricing.
Ninety-nine police recruits graduated this week and became constables in the Royal Bahamas Police Force at a passing out ceremony at the police training college. Delivering the keynote address was National Security Minister to admonished the graduates to adhere to the time honoured principles of honesty and integrity.
The Ministry of National Security issued a number of contracts on Friday in the amount of $300,000 for the refurbishment of nine community centers around New Providence. These centers will be used to bolster the ministry’s preventative crime fighting intervention in at risk communities.
This season’s documentary called Ordinary People, produced by media veteran Beverly Curry that airs on ZNS TV-13 was launched on Friday of this week at the Paul Farquharson Conference Center.