In the first part of this meditation, I outlined the reasons I did not vote for any candidate in the last election, and why I will continue to withhold my consent to be governed by candidates going forward unless we collectively change the way in which we approach government and politics in The Bahamas. In this part, I want to look at some of the topical issues that arise when we continue to accept, rather than challenge, the status quo.
The Oban deal is, we’re told, a scandal of colossal magnitude, the kind of scandal that could assure the downfall of the current government and the re-election of the PLP, unthinkable as that might sound today. It might well bring about the downfall of the prime minister, (and he should be aware that his advisors might well have that in mind as they appear to support it (we’re myopic like that)).
It is so suspect that it cannot masquerade as much other than corruption or scam. The promises made are so grand that it seems to me that a moment’s reflection should raise red flags––should at least inspire the idea that it is too good to be true. Contrary to newspaper ads, hot air in the House, and promises as big as the Second Coming, it does not actually have some grand vision to bolster it.
(A quick aside. For those people who may have been impressed by the recent Oban ad which quoted so liberally from Julius Caesar, it might be a good idea to consider the whole play. Virtually every quotation was taken from the persuasive speeches of Cassius, the lead conspirator against Julius Caesar. The play does not turn out well for any of the conspirators.
But of course, the people who wrote the ad, the Oban executives, and our leaders who signed the inherently non-binding heads of agreement, are all, all honourable men.)
The Oban “deal”, very simply, is an exercise in desperation. The FNM has given itself a mandate to “fix” Grand Bahama but it has absolutely no real plan how to do so, and so has taken refuge in the first big option that came its way. Development by foreign investment is not development at all. It is exploitation, and it is high time that we and our governments accept that fact.
Attorney Fred Smith, writing for Insight, has outlined in detail the dangers and the disadvantages of the deal; read it here. It is a deal which is reminiscent of the much pilloried LNG proposal being forwarded by Leslie Miller in the mid 2000s, without the attendant benefits to Freeport & the wider Bahamas. I too am of the opinion that if it is allowed to stand, the front men will depart with more Bahamian profits, more Bahamian wealth, leaving an environment that is further devastated (like the devastation wrought by the Ginn project in the west), leaving us and Grand Bahama worse off. Much will be lost and nothing will be solved for the northern Bahamas.
But the Oban deal is exactly what happens when we elect people who are fundamentally unprepared to govern, as we have been doing for the past 15 years. Ignorance and insecurity, when coupled with inordinate power and the responsibility for a whole nation, are fatal. I do not fault the impulse to seek a quick fix for Grand Bahama; but I do fault the idea that it is possible to do so, and that falling in bed with suspect investors is the only option open to us.
Which brings me to the blacklisting of The Bahamas and our scramble to “fix” that. Once again, the reaction to this instance––which has been inevitable for all sorts of reasons that go far beyond our own existence in the world––has been panicky and ill-conceived. Our governments, and Free National Movement administrations in particular, are so dependent on the inheritance of the past and so bound to what worked in the 20th century that they cannot conceive of a world in which that model cannot function. But the Stafford Sands model of economic prosperity, ahead of its time in the 1940s, became the global standard in the 1990s and has been supplanted by other ways of being in the 2010s. Our leaders should be aware of the historical and global context in which we stand, and have plans for a different future.
Alas, they do not. Their plans for recovery, their economic decisions, are uninventive and misinformed. Blacklisting is inevitable because offshore tax havens are inconvenient for wealthy nations. There is no principle at stake here. There is no concept of fair play. Wealthy nations want to repatriate their taxes one way or another––to keep their tax havens within their territories. They do not want their taxes being shifted to sovereign nations over which they have less sway. Switzerland, Luxembourg, Jersey––these territories are rarely on blacklists, but we are. This is the reality of the situation. We need to think our way out of the situation, change the ground we stand on––not struggle to hold on to what has already passed.
Any government I support from here on in will demonstrate that it has given this thought, and have invested in research, and have a step by step programme to address it.
The Glass Window, Hospitals, & Family Island Development
Allow me to move on to the Glass Window Bridge. It is a symbol of the things we need to be expecting in the future. We live in a world in which climate change is affecting sea levels, with the result that coastal erosion is going to be a constant reality for our archipelago in the years to come.
(An aside to fundamentalist eschatologists: save your breath here. Even after the Lord has called you up to heaven in the Rapture this issue will be on the table for those Left Behind, so we might as well talk about it now.)
The $30 million price tag for the repair to the Eleuthera road is necessary and conservative (remember how much it cost to repave and build New Providence roads? $30 million for Eleuthera seems almost an insult in comparison, given the necessity for the fix). And it must be multiplied across the nation. Rising sea levels and coastal erosion will impact every island in our nation. This is the real challenge for any government we elect. Our country is NOT JUST NEW PROVIDENCE. 98% of our land is elsewhere––and with it 98% of our potential. We can solve any problem if only we think about how to deal with our rural landscape, how to serve the Family Islands.
This is why the discussions about hospitals in the Family Islands, among other things, is critical, and must be removed from the partisan. The Free National Movement was absolutely correct to build the Exuma hospital; the Progressive Liberal Party was absolutely irresponsible in its inability(?) to make it a reality. Without a hospital in the southern Bahamas, people will die for simple things, like appendicitis, infected teeth, broken bones, post-partum complications. Without a hospital in the southern Bahamas, retirees who want to go home to Inagua or Long Island or Crooked Island or Acklins or San Salvador cannot, because as they age their health needs intensify and increase. But we need populations to move home. We need to create economic opportunities for the southern islands. We need hospital(s), strategically placed; clinics do not meet the need.
There is a false economy that we have inherited from the 1980s and that is still considered received wisdom. It is this: it is too expensive to duplicate infrastructure around the archipelago when we can have it all in Nassau. In the 1980s, this made some sense; the infrastructural demands on the new nation were enormous. But it is no longer true. Nassau is overcrowded and toxic, both physically and socially. It has reached and passed its carrying capacity, and the focus on New Providence is no longer smart spending but a drain on the public purse. Strategic expansion of populations around the archipelago can be a source not only of expenditure but of revenue. Four or five cities can generate four or five times the amount of taxes over time. But there are no quick fixes. The expansion must be organic. Anchor projects and foreign investor proposals are not designed to benefit locals.
Bahamians are creative, and when we go elsewhere we succeed. We do not succeed in our country because the laws and policies that govern us favour outsiders and penalize locals. If we flipped the model, offered the kinds of concessions we offer to Oban and other speculators to Bahamians who have gone abroad and have money and ideas to invest here, we could blossom beyond our wildest dreams. The next government I support will understand this, will have articulated it, and will pass those incentives into law.
Any government I support from here on in must, must have a vision for the development of the whole Bahamian archipelago. This vision needs to be broad-based and involve a devolution of power. In other words, any government I support from here on in must recognize that it must be the architect of a loss of its central power. Sounds paradoxical, but it has happened elsewhere in the world, where nations were governed by individuals of principle, courage or vision. It is a question of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.
End of Part II – stay tuned for Part III, coming Wednesday