INTERVENTION BY SENATOR FRED MITCHELL

ON THE BUDGET FOR 2000/2001

THE SENATE

27 JUNE 2000

 

          Mister President, I sat next to the Minister of Finance at the funeral for Patrick Erskine Lindop on Saturday 17 June at Lyford Cay. And as I sat there I thought to myself a penny for his thoughts as he sees at the end of his time as Minister of Finance his preciously developed reputation as a master of finance come crashing down all around him, and he does not even know it.

          To say that the Opposition is alarmed about the recent turn of events in this country with regard to our offshore sector is perhaps the understatement of the year. We have been asking for months to get regular briefings from the Government with regard to the current state of affairs in The Bahamas on trade and a number of foreign affairs issues.  The Minister of Finance has been resolutely unresponsive.  The Minister of Foreign Affairs prefers to play petty politics and threaten ambassadors into silence than work with the Opposition.

          And so were it not for the fact that the country suffers because of the arrogance of the FNM : its Prime Minister, its Minister of Finance, its Minister of Foreign Affairs, we would leave them all to their own devices, but now is the time for statesmanship, the time for bi-partisanship.  But statesmanship and bi-partisanship can only work if the Government itself is interested in forging a consensus.  For example, there are people that we may know that you do not know.  There are contacts that we may have that you do not have.

          The PLP wants a concerted effort to solve what is nothing short of a crisis in the offshore sector.  I said in this place not two weeks ago that the private sector must share some of the blame for this as well.  Until Ian Fair, the Chairman of the Financial Service Board spoke up some two weeks ago and suggested some bi-lateral negotiations to work out this problem, the private sector could well be classified as a bunch of cry babies.  Virtually, the only response to events was: look what they are doing to us.

          We suggested from this quarter that there ought to be a national think tank with the remit to advise on ways in which we ought to respond if the worst case scenario developed and our second most important industry was shut down. Again, silence from the Government.

          Now according to The Tribuneís business report of 27 June, the Prime Minister is no longer going to have an early recess to Parliament.  We are to remain in session through the early summer as he rushes through legislation to amend the IBC Act; Legislation to Amend the Money Laundering Act; and Legislation to Amend the Mutual Legal Assistance Act; the Trustee Act; the Bank and Trust Company Act; the Central Bank Act and the Mutual Legal Assistance Act.

          Mr. Ingraham has also promised that action will be taken to address delays in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the processing of requests under the provisions of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties.

          The bottom line Mister President is that the Government has been caught flatfooted again on this question which has such grave importance to the Bahamain people.

          I wonder if there has been sufficient consideration given to these issues?  If the passing of legislation is not what I like to call Government by knee jerk for which Mr. Ingraham and his colleagues are famous.  He never thinks anything through, rushes to judgment and rushes to act without thinking.  He runs the Government with the largest percentage of oops factors of Government in the history of this country.

          I predicted when we did the last set of bills that the Government would be back within weeks to correct some mistake or something that they did not think about. And lo and behold, the Prime Minister is saying that we will again be dealing with an amendment to the Money Laundering Legislation.

          All of this has implications for the revenue of this country, grave implications. And I would have thought that the Government would take this matter even more seriously given this idle nonsense and propaganda that they have been spouting about a balanced budget. I want the Bahamian people to know that this Senator thinks that the claim of a balanced bugdet is an elaborate hoax that will not stand the test of time.

          The Minister of Finnace comes to this Parliament, supported by all the troops, marching in lock step to have us believe that next year this time, the budget of The Bahamas will be in the black by one million dollars.  Canít happen.  In a budget of a billion dollars, you can make a mistake in the addition or subtraction and be off by a million dollars.  In a billion dollar budget, one million dollars is petty cash, pocket change. Nothing to talk about and certainly nothing to brag about especially when it might not even be there.

          Then Mister Chairman, I am not sure that the Government of The Bahamas is any better off than the Red Cross or the Ranfurly Homes for Children when it comes to collecting money.  We are used to giving donations to the Red Cross and we are used to the Ranfurly Home For Children collecting donations.  But the Government of the Bahamas is predicting that it will have a surplus of one million based on some 5 million dollars in donations from the EU or European Uniion and other international agencies.  Under Head 26 Ė Grants Ė the Treasury Department is listing 2.9 million which it expects from the EU and other grants; another 1 million it expects to be given for the rehabilitation of the airport at Inagua; a further 1.2 million gift from the International Development Bank for a total in gifts of more than 5 million dollars.

So all one of those international agencies has to say is we are not going to pay you, and that million dollar surplus is more than wiped out.

          So this budget prediction is not one for which we should hold our breaths.

          We recommend what we have always recommended to solve this problem:

          1. Improved bi-lateral relations with developed countries through the use of our embassies abroad;

          2. The use of think tanks, research and development to predict what The Bahamas should do in tourism and financial services so that

we are ahead of the curve.

          3. A bi-partisan approach to foreign affairs and international trade.

        And I would also add a word of advice to the private sector.  They need to start talking to the Opposition and stop relying on the blandishments of the Government. We canít force you to talk to us, but I can assure you that it makes good sense to do so.

          The other word of advice I would give the Government is this.  Letís stop all this foolish talk about our sovereignty and foolish pride about our national interests being affected.  That may be good propaganda for the domestic market but it does not get us very far in international affairs.

          It seems to me that we ought to dispassionately recognize what the problem is.  The problem is that the developed countries do not like the fact that tax revenue is escaping their jurisdictions.  The IBCs allow for the vast evasion of tax revenue by the use of bearer shares, by the use of nominee directors and shareholders and by the absolute lack of regulation of the use of the accounts.

          That I believe is the main problem.  The adjuncts to that are money laundering and drug trafficking, but I am inclined to think that these aspects pale in comparison to the evasion of taxes in the developed countries. And The Bahamas profits from this avoidance of tax. And the distinction which we seek to draw between avoidance and evasion is increasingly ringing hollow in these developed countries.

          Is there someone in the US Government or in the Congress of the U.S. or in the Legislature or Government of the UK that the Government of The Bahamas can call to get a handle on all of this.  One gets the impression from the way they are all flapping around that this Government does not have a clue just what to do. They are hoping against hope that it will just go away.

          The French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius showed that the developed world is not kidding around with this stuff when he said that the blacklisting of countries like The Bahamas under the various OECD and G-7 proposals would lead ultimately to the banking system of The Bahamas not being able to do business with the outside world.  So this Government has to act fast.

         

But more importantly the advice to the Government is to get real. I often make the comparison of all this palaver we have about the one billion dollars we are going to spend in this country over the next year, when the school board in New York City has a budget which exceeds 8 billion dollars.  So we have to get real, what we are talking about is small potatoes as far as the world is concerned.  But while we have one billion to superintend our whole system of Government, you have hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars legal and illegal passing through The Bahamas, and we do not know where it comes from, how it gets here what it does when it gets here, and up to now we did not care to know.  In fact the very essence of our system is laissez faire. The Ingraham Government came to office preaching that doctrine.  And

that has benefitted greatly a handful of people: lawyers, real estate agents and accountants. The rest of us are suffering from land price inflation, and the excitement of a lot of money being in the sytem but so far that has only gotten our people neck-high in debt, being the object of predatory lending at exorbitant prices.

          And just when we thought it was safe to go back into the water, the American economy is slowing down.  Our savings are being depleted, and the offshore sector that is helping to create all the excitement threatens to come crashing down, if this Government does not act.

          What we are suffering from is greed, greed and more greed.  It has infected all the levels of our society, that canít get enough of the money that is flowing around. That is in part why we have all the crime. At the lower levels in society, you have young men who rob for a living because they have no education to make the kind of money that this society demands to live in.  That is not an excuse that is a fact.

          Then we have in some sectors of the business community a complete lack of feeling for anyone who is poor, dispossessed or who even works for them.  The Government again with out thinking is proposing to amend the law on labour relations which if passed would effectively take away the lawful right to strike.  Trade Unionists would be foolish to support such changes in the law. The business community is up in arms because of the strictures that it will place on the ability to dismiss workers at will, so they do not want the laws to change.

          But as Opposition spokesman on Labour, I would advise the business community to think again about the general tone of their opposition to this legislation.  While I agree that the legislation is bad, they must come to accept that there has got to be some intervention in the marketplace to ameliorate the power of capital against the power of labour.  Without it, the law of the jungle will prevail.  And so the minimum wage must come, and so must unfair dismissal.  The business community must come to accept it.

          Further, we support the removal of any requirement for finger printing and especially the lie detector.  The lie detector is hocus pocus. The science is questionable, the results are inherently unreliable and are not worth the paper they are written on; neither are they admissible in a  court of law.

          Even in developed societies where many of the employers in this country came from, the laws are strict as it applies to workers and how you can dismiss them.  But we should not be surprised that many of the investors and their Bahamian friends take the positions they do because they have come to this country to get away from regulation and strict law enforcement.

          Now I say that because we have a body about which we know little called the Institute of Economic Freedom.  You see pieces from them in  in the press from time to time.  They are strict laissez faire capitalists. I believe that they are wrong, well intentioned but misguided. I refer them to the Pope who tells us all that unbridled capitalism is just as bad as socialism; that you can not have capitalism without a moral conscience; that the unseemly collection of wealth is wrong.  The Institute of Economic Freedom seems to promote an atmosphere of anything goes in the market, but that can only be a prescription for disaster.

          Prior to 1992, I think that the country went too far in one direction but clearly the group has gone too far in the other direction.  And the result is the kind of lawless, insensitivity to human suffering that is exhibited in public policy and in the private sector, for which there is no remedy yet in sight.

          The other thought that went through my mind is whether Bill Allen, born in Grants Town, raised right across the street from Our Ladyís Church has any feel for what poor people go through in this country from day to day.  I read his budget communication which I promised when he became Minister of Finance I would never do, and I read the intervention when he moved the matter in the House.  And all through both addresses was numbers, statistics and graphs.  The World Bank, the IMF and the Moodyís Ratings.  There was no feel for people.  He is a man of statistics and graphs, and dollar signs.

          Does the Minister of Finance still know how to find his way to Grants Town?  Has he any feel for what his constituents in Congo Town in Fox Hill feel about their life in todayís Bahamas? Does he even care?  My guess is that he does not give a hoot, and now that he has accomplished all that he thinks he must for the resume, he can go off into the sunset, claiming a job well done.

          His position is symptomatic of the FNM at its best, masters in the art of self-congratulation.

          It is clear, Mister President, that the private sector made up of the offhsore sector, those in the Institue for Economic Freedom and their supporters have much now to answer for in the face of this onslaught against our country.  They need to provide an explanation for the country.  Janet Bostwick said that crime would disappear when the PLP left office.  But not even in the darkest days of the PLP, just after the report of the Commisison of Inquiry on Drugs, was this country blacklisted by developed countries. Do your realize the enormity of this failure on the Governmentís part?

          And then too the Government must explain how it is that the Caribbean News Agency CANA as reported in the Nassau Guardian is able to say that the Financial Action Task Force was able to give Antigua and Barbuda a completely clean bill of health so that the Government there is happy.  We have always considered ourselves a cut above Antigua.  The Prime Minister roars out that we are not Antigua: what has he and his colleagues to say now that Antigua has a clean bill of health from the Task Force and we are on the black list?

          There is an intellectual dishonesty which pervades the FNM and its policy makers.  I describe it sometimes as silly season and in the midst of what should be sensible public policy by otherwise intelligent poeple you will hear stupid suggestions like executions for drug traffickers and money launderers.  Silly season indeed.

          Is there any wonder that we have to face the kind of national and collective sadness that we do this week wth the untimely death of Archdeacon William Thompson.  Mister President, as a member of the St. Agnes congregation, I know what this man has meant to me personally, what he means to me and a whole generation of persons in their twenties, thirties and forties.  With his death, a whole lot of school fees are going to go unpaid.  A whole lot of students wonít know who to turn to and what to do next.  A whole congregation will be at sea. And why is that: because one man is dead. 

          We have to carry on, on of course, and I am profoundly saddened.  Saddened because I cannot fully express my outrage at what has happened, and that I am not permitted freely to express what I believe the ultimate solution to these problems, but I have to listen to patent nonsense, passing for public policy.

                    Archdeacon William Thompson was relentless in his attack on sweet hearting and all that this breeds.  He believed that the fathers in the country had failed their children, and that we will continue to reap a bitter harvest until we are on top of that problem.  And further that we must stop using our African-ness as an excuse for profligate ways.

He went to his grave saying: righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a put back to any people.  He never used the Biblical word reproach.

          I had hoped that he would have his funeral service in the Cathedral but I see it is to be otherwise.  And I say that for a reason.  I am a traditionalist, and I believe that a prince of the church, an African who rose to the top of the colonial masterís church ought to be afforded last rites in the Cathedral.  But of course one must defer to the wishes of the family but clearly this prince of man deserves the Cathedral, and a burial within the church walls of St. Agnes beneath the floor.

          In 1967 when his predecessor died, I attended the funeral of Canon Milton Cooper.  I recorded the service, and decided then that journalism would be my field.  It is incredible to me that I should be around to bury yet another Rector of St. Agnes, and for what.  No good cause or reason.

          I venture this thought, and that is that the doctrine which he preached will ultimately prevail and this society will see much too late that his was the right way: compassion for people, a moral conscience; a forgiving spirit, and a refrain from vengeance.

          Indeed, when a parishioner of the Archdeacon pointed out to Dud Maynard in the Bead Shop that if Father were alive and his assailant was found, Father would say let the man go: Mr. Maynard responded, but we are going to string this one up before Father wakes up. That was Archdeacon Thompson compassionate to a fault.

          I am interested Mister President, in finding out who this shooter is.  I am interested in knowing what his sociological background is and his ancestral place of national origin. Because I am increasingly of the view without impirical evidence that the population of The Bahamas has profoundly been creolized; that the depth of our grief over these events is not shared by many of the people of this country.  Many of the people of this country who are from the larger underclass in the country, are not touched or are unaware about these events about which we are so sad and so devastated.

          The political scientists at the College of The Bahamas cal;ls our class, the present ruling class of todayís Bahamas; the George VI negroes; in more conventional terms, those whose social and political struggles in the 1940s fifties and 60s led to taking over the country in 1967 and our allies. 

          Below us I am convinecd is an underclass of persons who are migrants to this country who are fast outnumbering us, who we have no idea who they are, whose names we cannot recognise, who we disenfranchised through the constitution; who we have been unable to expel; and who are wreaking havoc in this society because it is a society to which they do not belong and which society apparently does not want them.

          The society should not then be surpirsed nor dismayed that their lack of resolution these matters causes us the kind of grief that we are experiencing today.

          This is not a question of money, which this budget tends to make us think is the solution to everything.  This is a question of leadership or the lack thereof by the Prime Minister who has let his side down badly.  This is a question of national will.

          We have an immigration policy which is wholly ineffective and for which no effective leadership at the political level is being presented. We cannot be surprised then at what happens all around us.

          Mister President, I have touched on the three areas that are my bailiwick: foreign affairs, labour and immigration.  It is clear that the Governmentís ineffectivenes is all around us.  And the blacklisting shows the paucity of their international policy.  So you will hear no pat of the table from this side for anything in this budget.

It is all inadequate: too little, too late.

          I would however like to address those issues raised by the Governmentís announcement yesterday that there is to be a new system of scholarships available through The Bahamas Government.

          First, it is long overdue that this country addresses the question of how it pays for tertiary education.  The most heart-rending thing is seeing talented people not get a start because they donít have the money to pay for their education.