PM Davis closed debate on Mid-Year Budget Statement…

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Prime Minister Davis in Parliament.

CLOSING CONTRIBUTION TO THE DEBATE ON THE MID-YEAR BUDGET STATEMENT BY
PRIME MINISTER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE HON. PHILIP DAVIS, QC, MP IN THE HONOURABLE HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
THURSDAY 17th MARCH 2022

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Both at the beginning of my presentation of Mid-Year Budget Statement, and in opening the ensuing debate, I made a point of clarifying the role and purpose of the Statement.
It is worth saying again:

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

The Mid-Year Statement provides the Bahamian people with information about the government’s fiscal performance, against the budget targets ,at the mid-point of the fiscal year.

It is not a Budget Statement.

It is not an announcement of new policy positions.

It is not future-focussed to the extent that it must necessarily set out how the government has been performing during the period being reported.

And so I say again:

The Mid-Year Budget Statement provides the Bahamian people, with information about the government’s fiscal performance, against the budget targets at the mid-point of the fiscal year.

The period covered by my Statement runs from July 2021 to December 2021.

The previous administration was not ejected from office until September 16th, 2021, and so the reporting period covers some of their time in office.

I also repeat the point, that this year’s Statement is particularly noteworthy, because it is the first time in several years that it is being produced without the constraints of the Emergency Orders.

Given that the previous administration refused to give any credible account of their spending during the past few years, the Statement takes on greater import and urgency.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker:

The Mid-Year Budget Statement is not merely a courtesy.

The Bahamian people have a fundamental and legal right to know how their money has been spent.

They have a right to know what the government has said and done in their name.

And they have a right to know how far those actions are in line with what the government has promised.

Therefore, it is profoundly regrettable, that members of the Opposition, have had so little to say in reply to the many, many questions which were raised in my Statement and during the debate.

They have uttered barely a word in defence of the many, many questionable practices, which were undertaken by their administration, including and especially those of the Member for Killarney, who acted as the sole Competent Authority since March 2020, cheered on with the full support of his team, whose evident spinelessness still beggars belief.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

The abuse of the Emergency Orders was the original sin.

Under the Emergency Orders, the government was required to submit a report detailing expenditures, but the FNM government NEVER complied.

They NEVER complied!

We had a Prime Minister spending the Bahamian people’s money outside the procurement process, picking favorites and throwing millions around without having to detail or debate or defend his decisions.

The right question is not HOW he was able to avoid following the law — that’s easy — he had a compliant Attorney-General, and a weak and complicit Cabinet.

The right question has always been WHY — why was he so determined to operate in the darkness?

The answer is, that a party that must have used the words “transparency and accountability” a million times in their sanctimonious statements, wanted to shield themselves from those very things.

What were they so ashamed of?

If they were doing so well by the Bahamian people, why were they not proud to proclaim it?

They seemingly spent many hours devising regulations governing the minutiae of the lives of the Bahamian people.

Their aggressive incompetence, that often resulted in chaos and confusion, made the experience of the pandemic MUCH worse than it had to have been.

We well remember the crazy surname-lettering system, that led to crowds of people named Rolle and Smith lining up for hours outside the food stores.

Some elderly people collapsed in the heat.

We well remember the heartless closing of the borders to Bahamians, while foreigners seemed free to be able to travel to bury their dog, or to do whatever.

We well remember the reckless opening of the borders in August 2020, that led to the worst Covid-surge that the country had experienced, with the number of hospitalizations and deaths sky-rocketing.

And we well remember, how ordinary Bahamians were arrested, fined and in some cases imprisoned, for even the tiniest infraction of an Emergency Order, while FNMs and their rich friends partied at weddings or wherever they felt like.

We will never forget the heart-breaking way that young man was treated for getting water from the pump, to clean up after his grand-father.
Mr. Deputy Speaker:

And then, last August, we had a situation in which an FNM government was going to the Bahamian people to ask them for five more years.

And yet they would not come clean on their spending during the pandemic.

In their wisdom, the Bahamian people made an obvious inference: the FNM administration would not reveal the details of that spending because they were ashamed to reveal the details of that spending.

And now we know why.

If we wanted to see them in their best light, the best that could be said about the FNM’s handling of pandemic spending, is that it was aggressively incompetent.

Incompetent, uncompassionate, and, whenever faced with a choice, they chose to benefit themselves and their wealthy friends over ordinary Bahamians.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

The behaviour was systematic and intentional, which is why it raises so many questions.

Large sums unaccounted for, running at least into hundreds of millions of dollars of the Bahamian people’s money;

Unqualified and inexperienced individuals chosen to run organisations, departments and projects;

Spectacularly unqualified people awarded big contracts, sometimes for work of questionable value, and sometimes for work which appears never to have been done; Record-keeping which was completely absent, or messy;

And structures set up completely outside of the public service, with no level of reporting or accountability to anyone.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Bahamians are right to be worried about sins worse than incompetence.

Because there is a common-sense question that sits at the heart of this: if the spending was so defensible, if the work done was so laudable, why didn’t the FNM administration disclose and defend it?

Then we all could have joined in and sung their praises!

And we would not be having these conversations today.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Their shyness may also have had something to do with the flimsy and laughable excuse offered for why they didn’t need to comply with the law.

The same government that recited the words “transparency and accountability” as many times as they could, said they didn’t need to report spending details.

They said they could avoid the ordinary procurement rules, although they never actually made an Order that they be avoided!

And the whole time not a single person in the Minnis Cabinet, including the current Leader of the FNM, had the courage, the testicular fortitude, to stand up on behalf of the Bahamian people and say what was obvious: that what they were doing was wrong.

It wasn’t moral, it wasn’t legal, it was wrong!
Mr. Deputy Speaker:

During this debate, their deafening silence continues.

If there are innocent explanations to be made, they would have been provided.

But neither the former Prime Minister, nor the Leader of the Opposition denies the facts. Don’t mind all the huffing and puffing.

Making noise ain’t the same thing as making an argument.

Notice what they DIDN’T do:

They didn’t deny the failure to disclose their spending. They didn’t deny any of the relevant facts.

In respect of the Food Assistance Programme: they have not sought to answer anything about how $53 million of the Bahamian people’s money was spent.

No more flimsy excuses about ‘accounting errors’:

Who received funds?

Who were funds passed on to?

Where is the proof of what was spent on food for hungry Bahamians?

How much were people being paid in salary and expenses?

Why was the public service and every other experienced major organization excluded? I remind you: we wouldn’t be having these conversations if they had done what they were supposed to do.

To compare the almost $5 million dollars in ‘Administration Fees’ to that paid to large NGOs and other established organisations is laughable.

The Chairwoman of the Food Task Force, Mrs. Susan Holowesko Larson, was being paid a salary in addition.

Her only member of staff was an Assistant, who was also being paid by the government.

Their expenses for car and phone use were also being paid for by the government

They weren’t running a building.

They didn’t have large overheads.

So what happened to the almost $5 million they in ‘Administration Fees’?

The relevant facts in respect of the other schemes highlighted, also stand.

Who decided, after a friendly chat, that Kanoo should be awarded the Travel Health Visa Contract?

Who decided to open a separate bank account for them?

Who allowed them to hang onto approximately $35 million of the Bahamian people’s money for six months so that, as the Auditor put it, “errors, fraud, and or irregularities could possibly go undetected”?

As I said in the House yesterday, “we only have their word for it that they’ve handed over all the funds.

This may well be the case, but we have no evidence in support of that assertion.”

Mr. Deputy-Speaker:

Many unanswered questions remain in relation to this Health Travel Visa Scheme, especially in relation to the millions given to an insurance company.

For now, we will leave that for another day.
But soon enough, the truth will emerge of what transpired, so that we know just how friendly those chats were.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

The slush fund that was being run out of the Parks and Beaches Authority is already starting to unravel.

Even since my Statement in the House last week, several memories and consciences appear to have been pricked.

Some people seem to recall signing documents in other people’s names, and others seem to remember not having done any work for contracts they were awarded.

I must confess, that I still haven’t quite recovered from the Member for Killarney’s stunning admission yesterday, that he regularly uses three different signatures when signing documents.

As the erstwhile Prime Minister, Minister of Health and Minister of Finance, I shudder to think of the proliferation of signatures on public documents.

I hope that this does not cause him difficulty in the future, when he may be asked to say more about this unusual and pioneering practice.
Mr. Deputy Speaker:

For members of an administration which has so little to show for their 4 years in government, they remain amazingly incapable of shame or regret.

Crying in front of one’s own supporters is not enough.

Telling the poor people of this country that you would’ve looked out for them next time is not enough.

The previous administration left the country with the level of suffering among the Bahamian people at an unprecedented and all-time high:

• Their shock increase in VAT by 60% in 2017 placed enormous pressure on Bahamian individuals, businesses and households.

• Before Hurricane Dorian, and before the Covid-19 pandemic, Government borrowing and interest payments had sky-rocketed which led to a tight squeeze on government spending; Debt was at 100% of GDP, which is to say

• Unemployment had risen, with the consequent rise in misery;

• There had been no major investment in the economy, and a number of historically bad deals meant that the government was losing millions of dollars on white elephants such as the Grand Lucayan Hotel;

• Many families and businesses continued to suffer from the impact of Hurricane Dorian; very little relief had been provided to those who had lost so much, and the Disaster Reconstruction Agency appears to have been a disaster;

• Citizens, businesses and employees continued to suffer from the stranglehold
placed on them by irrational government policies and measures in response to
the COVID- 19 pandemic; and

• Public infrastructure was crumbling with not a single new major road, school or
clinic, not even a house constructed or built.

Since the Member for Killarney places such great store by quotes in The Nassau Guardian Newspaper, I am happy to quote an extract from the paper, published just yesterday.

The Nassau Guardian of Wednesday 16th March 2022 printed boldly in black and white:

“For the avoidance of any doubt, we will state categorically our opinion that Minnis was the worst prime minister in this country’s history; his refusal to accept responsibility for his bad decisions eclipsed only by his penchant for pettiness, paranoia and igniting ire.”

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Shall I quote it again?

“For the avoidance of any doubt, we will state categorically our opinion that Minnis was the worst prime minister in this country’s history; his refusal to accept responsibility for his bad decisions eclipsed only by his penchant for pettiness, paranoia and igniting ire.”

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Compare this to some of the things that our New Day Administration has achieved in just six short months:

We have reduced VAT to 10% on EVERYTHING

We have removed the punishing cost of the Travel Visa for Bahamians;

We have introduced FREE testing for Covid;

We have distributed hundreds of thousands of Free medical-grade Masks;

We have expanded capacity at the hospital by hiring additional nurses and doctors;

We have introduced public reforms, and settled outstanding promotions and regularization of contracts;

A Ministry of Education Task Force has been established to address learning loss of our young people during the pandemic.

We have successfully re-opened schools;

We have become more compliant regarding our obligations concerning climate change, and signed onto international agreements that will enable us to access more support to make our country more resilient;

We have made a $500 lump sum pandemic payment to unemployed individuals;

We have increased pensions for members of the Public Service;

We have launched a Virtual Visitation Program at the Department of Corrections;

We continue to hold weekly press briefings and cabinet briefings for the media;

The Department of Immigration has recruited 175 young Bahamians, which is the largest recruitment exercise in the history of the Department;

We opened a new airport terminal in Ragged Island;

We signed a Memorandum of Understanding between The Government of The Bahamas and United Arab Emirates (UAE);

The Government has partnered with the private sector to offer cash incentives for Covid vaccinations;

We signed a new Head of Agreement for $200 million resort for Cotton Bay Holdings in South Eleuthera, to create 500 jobs;

We have re-opened the Straw Market, for the first time in nearly 20 months;

We have launched industry discussions on implementing a national trade policy;

We have broken ground for new Housing communities in New Providence and Abaco;

And we have signed over $1 billion in new investments for the country.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: All this we have done.
And, Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Here’s what we’re working to produce in the short-term:

To build affordable housing and provide options to rent-to-own;

To launch the RISE programme to support those in need;

We are making progress on increasing the minimum wage;

We intervened to stop BPL from raising prices, and are continuing to work to keep energy prices under control;

We will continue to ensure enforcement of price controls;

We will centralise the importance of BAMSI and food security; And we will introduce new tools in the fight against crime.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Despite the early signs that the measures that we are introducing will have a positive effect on the economy, wider forces in the global economy are likely to present challenges.

The inflationary pressures caused by the squeeze on supply chains, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are uppermost in our minds.

We note some of the measures which are being introduced by other jurisdictions to tackle the global macro-economic challenges.

For example, while countries such as Barbados have introduced relief measures, they have also raised corporation and income taxes.

We do not propose to take the same course.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

The Mid-Term Budget Statement is an accurate, true and fair reflection of the current state of the public finances.

I am grateful for and proud of, the work of the many public servants who have supported us in its production.

And I commend it to the House.

END