Enemy of Our State – “ACCORDING TO ME” TRIBUNE COLUMN

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When governments identify a citizen who they allege has committed crimes against the nation, that person is referred to as an enemy of the state. Well for this column I invite you to broaden your scope of thought about that term of reference, because in a different sense here in The Bahamas, many of us are identifying the enemy of our state – our state of being, that is.

The government of The Bahamas, through a series of actions, is making itself an enemy of our state of being, because its actions are depriving us of ownership in our economy (BTC), weakening our border protection (Defence Force redeployment) and threatening our livelihood down a sloppy road of implementing Value Added Tax (VAT).

BTC and Cable & Wireless

It can be difficult to wade through all the dung in the public domain about BTC. After all, we have a Prime Minister whose charade about “getting BTC back” rivals cirque du soleil, an Opposition that appears lost about the details of the privatisation its own government undertook, at least one media house’s principal who was part of the infamous shell company Blue Water and a remaining press corps that generally remains in the mode of presenting stories without balance and context.

That being said, when it comes to what’s best for Bahamians regarding the privatization of BTC and the very necessary full liberalisation of our telecommunications sector there are two key things we need to remember – the current government voted no to Bahamian ownership in BTC, and has hinted at its desire to keep sector liberalisation away from you, if it dreamily means getting control of the one cash cow whose milk cannot currently be pillaged.

Each day online, I interact either directly or indirectly with thousands of Bahamians, and what I find is that many Bahamians do not understand what ownership truly means. So let me break it down: if at the end of the day, money isn’t showing up in your bank account from a company’s profits – you have no ownership. If at the end of the day, you don’t get a personal report from that company on how your stake is performing financially – you have no ownership. The only way either of those two scenarios can happen for you, is if you own shares in that company.

Enter the enemy of our state. Do you know what one of the government’s first decisions on BTC was when they won? To cancel the previous government’s plans to offer shares of BTC to you and me. That’s right, their first vote on BTC was “no” to Bahamian ownership. You and I were supposed to have the chance to buy shares of the 49 per cent of BTC that the government owns. But the government said no, we aren’t giving the common man a single thing – this chunk of BTC is for us, not them.

The enemies of our state decided that not only were they going to strip Bahamians of the chance to truly own a piece of the BTC rock, they were going to distract the media with foolishness about Cable and Wireless so that the Bahamian people would forget to ask the government what it is doing with the 49 per cent of BTC that it still owns.

BTC is making much more money now than when it was 100 per cent government owned. Has the government told you what they have done with all those profits from their 49 per cent ownership in BTC? They tell you BTC is for you, yet you don’t see a dime of the profits and don’t know what’s happening with those profits.

Then, the Prime Minister – because he is not as daft as people like to think – floated the now heavily reported “possible extension of cellular exclusivity” line to the press as part of his pretension about the “fight for BTC”. I read the stories and laughed. Say what you want about the PM, but he knows how to get certain headlines going – sometimes.

Long story short, Mr. Christie at the very least suggested that he had no problem with you and me not being able to enjoy a fully liberalised sector any time soon – the kind of sector that allows for competition, that necessitates improvement of service for all customers if competing companies want to survive and be profitable, and that spurs job creation through the entry of new companies and upgrades by existing companies.

Our state of being here is better service, new telecommunications options, new domestic and foreign investment possibilities and Bahamian ownership in the golden calf (BTC). The government has aptly proven itself an enemy of that state.

Removing Defence Force Officers

When National Security Minister BJ Nottage recently said he wants to move as many as 150 Defence Force officers to the streets to fight crime, this wasn’t a new move by him.

Last year, scores of Defence Force officers were removed from post to suddenly become police officers.

How is The Bahamas supposed to remain viable in fighting drug, human and gun smuggling, poaching and illegal migration at our borders if so many Defence Force officers are removed from their post? Who stands to gain if our borders have less protection – the country and law-abiding Bahamians, or foreigners and Bahamians involved in the illegal activities aforementioned?

And why does the Minister feel the need to redeploy Defence Force officers when his government last year – in the midst of rising violent crime – removed hundreds of police officers from the streets fighting crime to be babysitters in schools, cream and bread toters in Urban Renewal and to form record legions of bodyguards for government Ministers?

If the government was not acting as an enemy of our state of being in the crime fight, it would never have taken all those police officers from that fight. Just as easily as it did so, it can and should put those trained police officers right back where they belong – on the streets working to make this country safer from violent crime.

But speaking of safer, I don’t know how much good more Defence or Police Force officers might do after Deputy Prime Minister “Brave” Davis announced to the country and the world that no one in The Bahamas is safe from crime.

What a tragic announcement for Bahamians and The Bahamas whose number one industry is tourism and whose largest economic driver is foreign direct investment. If none of us is safe, according to the Minister, then no foreigner in our country is safe either. So why should they want to visit here and do business here?

Yes, the Minister of Urban Renewal – the celebrated antidote for crime in Nassau – became so shaken up by the regrettable armed-robbery shooting of his bodyguard that he actually allowed himself to betray himself and his government’s propaganda about crime.

What’s the matter, Minister Davis? Now you’re starting to feel like the rest of us who don’t carry legal firearms in addition to having legions of armed police bodyguards as you and your other Cabinet colleagues do? Now for you crime isn’t “down”, it’s so up that all of us need to hide in our homes and pray for the rapture because in your words, “none of us are safe”?

It’s always ironic when life forces the truth out of someone in spite of himself. If the government did not insist on being enemies of our state of mind by lying to us about the state of violent crime, Mr Davis’ politically and socially amazing comment may not have been so amazing.

Put our trained police back on the streets, let our Defence Force officers defend our borders and get some crisis counseling for Mr Davis who has clearly been shaken out of himself by the kind of crime that isn’t “down” anywhere in Nassau – armed robberies.

Value Added Tax

If Value Added Tax is not implemented properly in The Bahamas, it will probably be the biggest single threat to our livelihood that this administration would have wrought upon us.

To simplify, Value Added Tax (VAT) is similar to sales tax, in that you and I would pay the regular price for goods and services plus an added tax. Businesses would also pay extra via that tax to operate.

The government claims VAT will bring in so much money that they will be able to balance the budget in two years – even though it says that VAT, after reducing customs duty, won’t result in an overall rise in taxes/cost of living. So then how will VAT give you more money with which to balance the budget?

Let’s look at two aspects of revenue collection under this administration thus far. The government says it had a total revenue shortfall this current fiscal year of $170 million. It also says it projects about $102 million less – not more – in general import duties and excise tax collection in its fiscal year beginning July 1. Now. The economy is growing – so why the large shortfall for 2012/2013, and why is the government saying it expects customs duties and tax for 2013/2014 to be about $102 million less than its projected intake for its previous budget?

I don’t recall anyone questioning the government on why its projected shortfall on customs duties is so high, but the point it drives home is this – if the government is not collecting projected customs duties in a system of taxation that has existed for decades and where it is the sole collector, how does it expect for us to believe it will be able to collect VAT, where private companies will become the tax collectors at point of sale and where the system is completely brand new to us?

As a point of successful reference, Barbados took several years from the point of initial talks to legislation to implement VAT. This time period included rigorous public education so the country and its investors would understand what VAT would mean for business and cost of living.

Compare that to our government, that has not even tabled its draft VAT legislation yet for consultation with the public. It claims it will do so before Parliament’s summer recess, but claims that even when it does table the draft it will not include the regulations that will govern its implementation. Minister Michael Halkitis told reporters the regulations would come “later” – but the regulations are precisely what businesses and the public need to see in order to know exactly what is going to happen.

Yet the government claims it will implement VAT next year. No infrastructure in place for the collection of VAT. No public education and informed consultation on an actual Bill. No timeline for regulations governing VAT’s implementation and how it will specifically affect customs duties. But in less than 12 months, The Bahamas is supposed to be fully ready to dive head first into a new system of national taxation.

Only an enemy of our state of livelihood would attempt to rush and haphazardly dive into a brand new system of taxation, even as it is failing to collect taxes via frameworks that have existed for decades – just as such an enemy is blocking paths to Bahamian investment and ownership, risking the weakening of our borders and announcing to the world that The Bahamas which is supposed to be “better”, is not safe for mankind.

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