FROM the questions we are being asked about recent political events we realise that much is missing from the education of Bahamian students as to the history of their country and the political system under which they live.
“Have we lost our freedom of speech?” some have asked, and “are our representatives now being told how to vote in parliament?” others want to know.
The agitation is the result of the recent Budget debate in which the controversial VAT tax was increased from 7.5 percent to 12 percent without first having had a discussion with the Bahamian people. The next question about freedom of speech arose because three of the four government parliamentarians, who in addition to their seat in parliament, held government-appointed positions, lost those positions because of their “no” vote.
The comment by Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller indicates that either he doesn’t fully understand his political position or having understood it was willing to suffer the consequences by voting against his government on the Budget. Following his termination as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Social Services as a result of his “no” vote, he told a Tribune reporter that he voted against the VAT increase because he believed the people should have been consulted.
Travis Robinson, the popular MP for Bain and Grants Town, who also voted against the government in the VAT debate, lost a $45,000 annual salary, a government car and cell phone when he was fired as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation. However, as an MP he still makes a salary of $28,000 a year. Many of his Bain and Grants Town constituents, who fully support him, told our reporter that Mr Robinson owes his success to them, not to the party. Therefore, his “no” vote against the party was justified.
Yes, and no. Yes as an ordinary MP, but “no” in special circumstances when the “whip” — the disciplinary arm of the party — is put on and solidarity is expected of all government members. The Budget was one of those occasions.
If these gentleman had understood the system of which they were now a part, firing would not have been necessary. Like the gentlemen that they are they would have quietly resigned.
This is the correct procedure under the Westminster system of government, a system that has gone through periods of trial and error over the centuries, and if fully understood makes sense in the end.
The Budget is a government’s financial statement for the year outlining the nation’s finances and the proposed taxation, in our case VAT. According to Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis his administration deliberated on the need for the VAT increase to pay off the crippling debt inherited from the Christie administration, considered the need for a 15 percent increase, but decided against 15 percent because, although needed, it would have been “too much pain” for Bahamians to bear. His government settled on the 12 percent increase.
Under the Westminster system of government — the system inherited by the Bahamas — the Budget is a state secret until the Chancellor — in the case of the Bahamas, Finance Minister Peter Turnquest – delivers it in his speech to parliament.
There was a celebrated case in England of the consequences of breach of that secrecy. In 1947 Chancellor Hugh Dalton was forced to resign when on his way to the Commons he told a reporter a few of the key details of his proposed Budget. The reporter rushed it to print before Dalton had a chance to deliver it in parliament. That ended Dalton’s career as Chancellor.
One reason for the Budget secrecy is to prevent “insider trading”, in other words a person with the knowledge of future taxes could adjust his own affairs to his own advantage ahead of the rest of the population.
“You don’t have the right of free speech that every MP generally has, as parliamentary secretary,” Attorney General Carl Bethel explained in the Senate. “Your voice is your own as a member of Parliament. You are elected by your constituents to represent them on the floor of the House of Assembly and say whatever the Lord lay on your breast to say, but your vote is mortgaged to the governing party. The party on whose ticket you (were) elected. If the whip is on, you must vote according to the whip.
“If the government,” he said, “determines that there is a question, that is a question that is properly a question of conscience and says, ‘The whip is not on, everybody may vote the way they wish to, vote according to their conscience.’
As Mr Bethel rightly said: “If you don’t have a system of rules, you have chaos.” These rules prevent that chaos.
The Westminster system is a system of unwritten laws and constitutional conventions.
A major consequence of a Budget defeat could be the fall of a government, because the finances would not be there to continue governing. Imagine being thrown back to the PLP, the creators of the financial chaos from which this government is struggling to save the country.
Over the weekend, Finance Minister Peter Turnquest who was attending the Galilee College’s 2018 graduation had to face VAT hecklers. He tried to explain that the situation was being misrepresented by the party’s detractors, and asked his audience if they had listened to his Budget presentation in parliament.
He told his listeners that the country has a $7bn debt, but is only making $2bn a year. Every year, he said, we earn $2.5bn so we have a deficit every year of over $600m. And every year the debt keeps growing. “This year,” he said, “we are going to spend $381m on interest, and to bring that into context, that is 14 cents of every tax dollar that you put into the Treasury that goes to pay for interest.”
“We care ‘bout dat?” a woman from the church pew shouted. “These poor li’l children” another moaned.
No, Mr Turnquest, the people do not understand this language. They have to be told the brutal facts of our dilemma in language that they can grasp. Tell them how the PLP didn’t pay National Insurance contributions for Government workers for years. Tell them what happened at National Insurance after the businessman the Ingraham government brought in to sort out the problems from the previous Christie government was removed. Despite the good job that he was doing he was dispensed with when the Christie government was returned to power. Why? Tell the people what has happened to their insurance since then. And tell them how the Central Bank said the PLP government spent $234m in the run up to the election – with $90m in contracts for health clinics days before the election – but couldn’t repair the PMH roof after Hurricane Matthew destroyed it in 2016.
And, tell them about a contract at the Public Hospitals Authority when millions were spent with nothing yet to show for it — only misinformation and confusion. No qualified lawyer could have possibly vetted and approved that contract. Apparently, it was approved by the former Board during Mr. Frank Smith’s tenure, and, signed off by the PLP Government based on the claim that it had been recommended to the PLP government by a well known and highly respected foreign firm.
The Tribune, incredulous that such a respected firm would lend its name to such a contract, decided to call the firm for verification. A spokesman for the firm denied ever recommending the contract to the government. In our opinion this is one contract that not only needs thorough investigation, but the PHA should engage a firm to provide it with options on the way forward. It is a disgrace.
As we have said before in this column, the time for protest is over. The Bahamian people have been fooled for too long. Instead of creating political unrest for something that can only be changed through unity and hard work, they should now unite — if only for the sake of “these poor li’l children.”
The VAT increase is what we have to pay for being politically asleep at the wheel for too long.