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The final lap

What will Perry Christie’s legacy be?
  • Prime Minister Perry Christie.

CANDIA DAMES
Guardian News Editor
candia@nasguard.com

Published: Sep 23, 2013

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The night of May 2, 2007 was undoubtedly among the saddest and most agonizing for Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Leader Perry Gladstone Christie.

Five years after ascending to the highest elected office in the country with a resounding mandate to bring help and hope to an electorate thirsty for change, he had crashed into the political ashes.

He was bruised and bloodied, paying a heavy price for multiple scandals and missteps that tarnished the legacy he had attempted to build during his only term in office.

Voters in large numbers had bought into the Free National Movement’s message that Christie was slow to act and had too high a tolerance for wrongdoing and governmental abuse. They delivered a wholesale rejection of the PLP, making the Christie administration the first one-term government since majority rule.

The tide had turned, and as is usually the case with new opposition parties, the PLP was in trouble.

A few short years later, the party and its leader have clawed themselves back to the top with an ambitious agenda in hand.

While in opposition, Christie told The Nassau Guardian that if re-elected, he would not serve a full term.

Later confronted with the import of that declaration, he assured voters on the grueling 2012 campaign trail that he intended to stay the full five years to complete that agenda.

Christie has said this is his final lap. For him, it is now about legacy building.

He has promised tax and energy reform, economic empowerment, mortgage relief, doubling the investment in education and the solutions to crime.

He once said his legacy will be Urban Renewal and the benefits it will bring to a country ravaged by crime.

So far, the program has failed to yield the kind of results Christie envisioned.

He is now burdened with unrealistic campaign promises made by the party and by individual members during the height of the campaign. He is faced with the pressures of a demanding public that is not as patient as the government would like.

Save for the successful efforts at job creation in Bimini with the Genting project, the government’s only real immediate hope for lowering the level of joblessness in the country is the Baha Mar project.

True and widespread economic empowerment for Bahamians does not appear to be high on the government’s agenda, however. It has been the one consistent failure of every administration since majority rule.

While the Progressive Liberal Party achieved political empowerment early on and the Pindling government focused on widespread public education, economic empowerment remained an elusive concept.

The focus today is still on the creation of large numbers of jobs in tourism — the waiters, maids etc. — but there is a lack of focus on creating more Bahamian owners and investors.

Governments have traditionally reserved the warm welcome and royal treatment for the foreign investor.

Substantial concessions continue to be given to major hoteliers to sustain their current employment levels.

The level of concessions granted under various economic incentives legislation remains alarmingly high.

Following a precedent set with the signing of the Atlantis agreement, the government has committed to spending $20 million over the next two years to market the Baha Mar development at Cable Beach.

The country’s largest industry, tourism, remains primarily in the hands of non-Bahamians.

Economic empowerment for Bahamians will likely not be Christie’s legacy. A focus on job creation is important, but it does not equate to wealth generation and ownership in the economy.

 

Promises

The list of unrealistic campaign promises is long.

The mortgage relief program, even in its watered down state, was a flop. The government now says it is introducing a new plan. It would be hard to find many people who have faith in a re-engineered plan.

Real mortgage relief could only come from getting people back to work.

The declaration by Philip Brave Davis, the now deputy prime minister, that the government would create 10,000 jobs within its first year was nothing more than that — a declaration.

Another standout pledge — the promise to take back two percent of The Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) from Cable and Wireless Communications (CWC) — appears to be headed in the same direction as the pledge on mortgage relief.

The expectation is that Christie will have to face the reality that this effort was a failure.

Christie bungled the poorly organized and executed gambling referendum in January, and unless he avoids rushing the promised constitutional referendum in November, he could get another political black eye. Christie has already delayed that referendum from his originally stated target date of June.

With November now about five weeks off, the government has not yet started a debate. It must not repeat the mistakes of the January referendum.

It must not be guilty of what it accused the Ingraham administration of back in 2002 and that is, confusing the process that led to the first constitutional referendum for The Bahamas.

For Christie, the pressures are mounting.

He has said repeatedly that he is optimistic about turning the economy around. He meets regularly with prospective investors and he is hopeful the results will be worthwhile.

With a shortage of government funds, he would likely have to struggle to define the positives by which he will be remembered.

There is now a sense that the government is following the old mold for governance established decades ago. There is not a fresh approach to doing anything.

The ideas are big: Christie, for example, has promised to break the Bahamas Electricity Corporation into two — an entity responsible for power generation and another to deal with customer service.

Christie has noted that the high cost of energy is one of the biggest threats to businesses in The Bahamas.

As an example, hotels in The Bahamas experienced a 24 percent increase in electricity costs last year over the previous year.

Average consumers are also burdened, and are eager for the government to deliver on its promise to lower the cost of electricity in the country. The Bahamas Electricity Corporation’s fuel charge has substantially driven up electricity bills.

At 28.40 cents per kilowatt hour in June, it was 5.3 percent over last year.

Businessman Dionisio D'Aguilar, the former president of the Chamber of Commerce, noted yesterday that many businesses are doing what they can to reduce energy costs.

He said, “You can’t wait for an inefficient government operated entity to address your high energy costs. So you better take matters into your own hands because by the time BEC gets around to it you’d be bankrupt.”

Reform of the energy sector is of course possible, but it remains to be seen how effective the government’s plan will be.

Unless the new power generation company can produce electricity much more cheaply, rates are bound to go up because the billing and transmission company would have to add a premium to sustain itself as it would not be able to generate profits on its own.

If Christie succeeds in effecting energy reform, it could very well be his crowning achievement given the widespread impact it is likely to have on improving the standard of living in The Bahamas.

However, Christie’s legacy could hinge on the much-dreaded implementation of value-added tax (VAT).

Businesses across the board have already expressed concern with how little information has been disseminated, particularly with VAT’s July 1, 2014 start date not as far off as it seems.

Some have warned that it could be destructive, and Christie has already flown on the defensive on the issue.

But it cannot be denied that VAT will be a tricky issue to maneuver and if not done properly, could cost jobs and weaken a sluggishly recovering economy.

If Christie achieves tax reform, he could be on the way to balancing the budget before the next election and chipping away at the $5 billion national debt.

However, the successful implementation and collection of the new tax would not necessarily mean the economy would be back on stable footing.

The government has already raised taxes on businesses and has yet to significantly cut spending as many economic experts have said is necessary.

Another major promise of the Progressive Liberal Party is the implementation of National Health Insurance.

Dr. Perry Gomez, while on the campaign trail, declared that within the first year of a new Christie administration, NHI would become a reality.

It was among the wildest and most unrealistic of the pledges made by PLPs ahead of the 2012 general election.

Although Gomez, now minister of health, has appointed a committee to look into NHI, there is no evidence that the plan will become reality anytime soon and there are no current means available to fund such a scheme.

Christie recently told reporters he wants to have “all of the facts” on NHI before the anniversary of his second year in office so the government can determine if the plan is feasible.

The former Christie administration said NHI could cost an estimated $235 million annually. Gomez said last year the cost will “undoubtedly” be higher than initially expected.

In 2012, then Free National Movement Senator Dr. Duane Sands predicted that it could cost up to $750 million to implement NHI. There are no recent estimations on how much a plan would cost today.

Promising NHI appeals to the most basic needs of voters, but its feasibility is up for debate.

While in office the last time around, the Christie administration passed NHI legislation months before the election.

No regulations were ever released and the plan died a swift death with the election of the FNM, which took another approach — the implementation of a National Drug Plan.

If Christie successfully achieves NHI before 2017, he would be a hero among the masses.

 

Future

Of course, the final determination on Christie’s legacy would have to be made nearer to the end of this term — assuming he stays on.

It remains to be seen whether this current term will shape up to be as disastrous as his last one, which started off strong, but quickly unraveled into a series of nightmarish episodes for Christie and the PLP.

To wash away the stench of his first term in office, Christie campaigned heavily with fresh, new faces and the promise of bold ideas and swift execution.

But in just over a year, those fresh new faces are lurking behind the scenes, drowned out by the same messages from the same characters of the first term.

Many of the people Christie promised to rely on or elevate, appear now to be supporting characters.

If Christie wants to effect major and meaningful change, he would take a more focused and deliberate approach to governance.

But no one, not even the loyal ones around him, expect a new direction from a political leader on his last lap.

Having dominated the PLP since his election to the leadership in 1997, Christie has failed to pave a clear path for future leadership, notwithstanding his claim to be the bridge to the future.

The wolves may already be circling years ahead of what many expect to be a bloody leadership battle.

But Christie still has quite a few blank pages left.

The script is not yet concluded and there is chance still to be remembered for something great.

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