Front Porch: We Need Good Ideas More Than Ever – And The Pm Knows That

NEAR the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis presciently convened a National Economic Recovery Committee (ERC). The ERC was charged with offering his administration recommendations to help the country’s recovery during and after the pandemic.

The pandemic led to the worst downturn since the Great Depression, causing the collapse of tourism, record unemployment, the unprecedented slashing of government revenue, the need to feed approximately 100,000 Bahamians on a regular basis and other massive economic and social dislocation.

The committee, co-chaired by Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson and noted businessman Ken Kerr, was designed as a public-private committee to offer advice on economic reform and recovery measures during the worst public health crisis in a century.

Individuals like Securities Commission Executive Director Christina Rolle, who has an impressive record at the Commission, and well-known businessman Franklyn Butler, younger thinkers in their 40s, helped to populate the ERC.

The committee also had a number of subcommittees. One member of the Creative Economy Subcommittee, a cultural entrepreneur, noted to this columnist how excited she was about the work and recommendations of her subcommittee.

In his House of Assembly Communication tabling the ERC Report on October 20th, the Prime Minister noted:

“I also thank those who served on the various subcommittees, as well as the general public and the many stakeholders who offered their enthusiasm, ideas and specific recommendations.

“In addition to virtual town hall meetings, there were many written submissions from citizens, union officials, general contributors, businesspeople, experts in various policy areas and leaders of non-profit agencies.

“The committee harnessed a number of ideas from the collective wisdom of the Bahamian people.”

Dr Minnis also stated:

“The committee has proposed a broad range of reforms. They are intended to seed new industries and economic opportunities or to expand existing ones; make The Bahamas more attractive for domestic and international investment; and to make certain bureaucratic systems more efficient and less burdensome for citizens and businesses.

“There are many other policy changes and initiatives contained in the report that can be implemented and that will help to make our recovery and our country more resilient, dynamic, inclusive and sustainable.”

Like Dr Minnis, other heads of government around the world similarly asked the public and private sectors for ideas and measures to boost economic growth after the collapse of most economies caused by the virus.

Dr Minnis quoted the Trade and Industry Minister of Singapore, who stated: “The world has changed irrevocably” and that there will not be a return to “the familiarity of the old normal.”

Many leaders recognised that in addition to longstanding national plans, there was a need for other measures because of the pandemic emergency. From China to Singapore to Canada, governments asked the public and private sectors for ideas for economic stimulus, including updating existing ideas.

In Barbados, Prime Minister Mia Motley proposed a series of immediate and medium-term measures to help dig her country out of its economic malaise, which was further exacerbated by the virus.

In criticising the ERC and its work, here at home, some immediately indulged in the typical light-minded and unserious false equivalence that is the comfort of those often incapable of holding several propositions in their minds simultaneously.

Ideas

Some said that the ideas proposed by the Committee are not “new”, yet another cliché. There are often ideas that may not be “new” but which may not have been developed or implemented in a country or jurisdiction.

By example, while there is legislation for the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund, such a fund has not yet been realised in The Bahamas, and the legislation needs updating, which is apparently now in the works because of the work of the ERC.

Moreover, there are novel and innovative ideas on how a small island developing country like The Bahamas may capitalize such a fund in contrast to more developed nations which often capitalise such funds utilising their reserves from income.

Some critics, with a penchant for knee-jerk criticism could not see beyond their petty grievances and lack of insight to appreciate that the world is changing and that there is a need to go beyond and update previously proposed ideas.

One commentator breezily and simplistically opined: “Although the Prime Minister could have continued to follow the recommendations of the National Development Plan, which was his initial intention, he chose instead to pursue the half-baked proposals of the Economic Recovery Committee replacement. These appear to have led nowhere.”

What is half-baked is the analysis of some who long ago traded serious reflection for clichés and who often swipe with generalisations. Such analysis is unreflective and unserious.

The Prime Minister did not conceive or state that the ERC was a replacement for the National Development Plan, which was initiated before the pandemic. It is not an either/or proposition. It is both/and. Recommendations and ideas from both the NDP and the ERC may be utilised.

The ERC was designed also to complement, augment and prioritise ideas from various plans, which could be fast-tracked. Indeed, members of the ERC studied a variety of plans.

In discussing the ERC’s proposals, one could have gone into some detail about them, critiquing various ideas put forward, including: a new domestic and foreign investment process, a hemp industry and more thinking on small business development. One could propose additional ideas for economic recovery.

But a sweeping and half-baked indictment of the good work of the many well-meaning and talented Bahamians who offered ideas for economic recovery and structural reform, and the many other people who offered suggestions during numerous consultations, is unfortunate, unbecoming and sad. It is also disingenuous.

Work

This past Sunday, the Prime Minister, who is now also the Minister of Finance, signaled that the work of the ERC is going somewhere and indeed much further than some critics may have imagined.

He stated in his National Address: “To help guide our economic recovery, I will be guided by an economic team that will continue to consult widely with business, labour, religious leaders and civil society.”

The Prime Minister spoke of “structural reform and bold ideas for diversification, the ease of doing business and the ongoing transformation toward a digital economy”.

He said: “We are committed to the implementation of a number of the recommendations of the Economic Recovery Committee, including rolling out a new and more nimble domestic and foreign investment process to get more money flowing into our economy.”

The Prime Minister appointed Nathaniel Beneby as a “Special Advisor in the Office of the Prime Minister, who will help to drive the recommendations made by the Economic Recovery Committee and to focus on the ease of doing business.”

The new Minister of Finance noted: “My economic and financial team will meet regularly to help chart and guide our economic recovery.

“We will augment this team as necessary with individuals and expertise from across the economy, including various members from the Economic Recovery Committee.”

Returning as head of government of Malaysia in his then early 90s, former Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad warned his party of the need for new thinking and the evolution of plans depending on the circumstances of the day.

Responses

A number of the suggestions from the ERC are responses to the great circumstance of the times that is the COVID-19 pandemic, which will be with us for many more months.

The Bahamas needs as many good ideas and recommendations as possible to restore our economy, whether these arise from the NDP or the ERC or elsewhere.

We should be grateful for the work of both, and for those who make helpful suggestions unlike those who are mostly given to bitter complaint and little sense of hope for the future.