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Bahamian Politics Last Updated: Nov 5, 2019 - 12:29:17 PM

Senator Clay Sweeting contribution on Disaster Readiness Amendment Bill
Nov 4, 2019 - 9:05:19 PM

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Sen. Hon. Clay Sweeting

Shadow Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources and Local Government

Madam President, thank you for recognizing me and allowing me to speak for a short while on the compendium of bills today.  As always I thank God for the strength he has afforded me to once again stand up and contribute in this place.

Before I begin, I would  like to take this opportunity to extend heartfelt condolences to the family of the late Calsey Johnson and to Mrs Florence Scavella. The two were like biological siblings and both decsended from Hacthet Bay, Eleuthera.  They were freedom fighters who never wavered and remained loyal supporters of the Progressive Liberal Party to the end. They both served our party as stalwart councillors and Dr. Calsey Johnson, in these hallowed halls, served as a Senator.  Dr. Calsey Johnson was a broadcaster extraordinaire and many across this country loved the sound of his voice.  These two leaders of the Bay firmly believed in our party’s people centric philosophy and was steadfastly committed to our commonwealth, people and Eleuthera.

May their souls rest in peace.

Madam President, as I stand to contribute today, I wish to start with Hurricane Dorian Replacement of Government Issued Documents Exemption from Fees bill 2019. As outlined by our parliamentary team in the other place we fully support waiving the payment of fees to assist residents who were impacted by Dorian to replace lost documents. This bill not only reflects the Christian principles in which our country is built upon but it is simply the right thing to do. It is my understanding that the government has already activated the exemption of payment and with the passing of this bill it will become legal which we fully support.

Madam President, today we are also here to debate the Disaster Preparedness and Response Amendment  Bill, 2019

At this time I would like to express my sincere condolences to every person affected by the passing of Hurricane Dorian and especially to those countless Bahamians who have lost their loved ones in the horrific storm and to those who are still agonizing over the whereabouts of loved ones not seen since before the storm.  It is nerve wrecking to have lost your loved one and have absolutely no closure. Our hearts go out to the many displaced persons who have sought temporary or new beginnings in various family islands, the challenges of relocation are real; my family and I continue to keep these people and those that are continually volunteering in our prayers. 

In the same spirit I would like to also join my colleagues on both side of the political divide in thanking all the NGO’s both local and international, rescue volunteers, the private sector support and the hundreds of government workers who sacrificed much to make a difference in the lives of many affected by this devastating storm.

Madam President,  I have had the opportunity to; along with my fellow citizens from Spanish Wells to bring urgent aid to our neighbors in the North immediately after the all clear was given. Having survived the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Andrew we in North of Eleuthera know, understand and empathize with the Abaconians, and Grand Bahamians who lived through this devastating ordeal.  If you have not been there Senate Colleagues, I urge you to go to the affected areas and touch the people. See them for yourselves and try to understand what their needs are from the source. No doubt Madam President it will enable each and every person to review this bill from a new perspective and truly make the recommendations that can bring the assistance needed to Hurricane prone zones, before and after a disaster.

That said, I want to touch on areas of the disaster preparedness and response amendment  bill, 2008. Madam President chapter 34 A Part II Section 3 sub-section 4  of the bill speaks specifically to the establishment of a NEMA office located on the Family Island. Sub-sections 5, 6 and 7 speaks to the establishment of committees of persons from various communities on the island with the responsibility for assisting the Director in formulating measures for disaster preparedness and in discharging the functions. It further stipulates that such plans be reviewed by the 1st of June each year.

Every year we know and understand that we live in the Hurricane Zone,  others live where Tsunami's, Typhoons, Sand Storms, occurs frequently,  some where there a snow storms, others are impacted by Landslides and Earthquakes.  No matter where in the world you reside, a disaster of natural occurrence is likely. 

For us, we brace every year for Hurricanes. Yet every year we are unprepared and caught with our proverbial pants down. Here we are unfortunately again, to debate an amendment to a bill that had certain measures that was already initiated in 2008 yet it seemed to have caught dust on the shelf and was overlooked by this current administration.

As simple as assigning committees in communities on the family islands these things have gone undone. I make note of this point for a few reasons:
1. If a committee of ordinary citizens on the family island are engaged, they will have firsthand knowledge of which shelters are truly secured and can make recommendations to improve said structures. Further, the use of inadequae school houses makes you wonder if this government is serious about the safety of its citizens in the event of a Natural Disaster and we also wonder if this bill before us is just a PR stunt?

On a daily basis we are bombarded with news, phone calls, messages and pictures from teachers, parents and students depicting the conditions of their schools on Eleuthera and throughout the country... (Refer to pictures) these are the conditions that students have to endure. If this is November 2019, and these are photos from a school on Eleuthera which is designated as a hurricane shelter, which committee reviewed this building and reported that it is safe to be a shelter? Consider now that we have 26 more days in the Hurricane Season and no repairs have been implemented to secure these schools which are designated for shelters.  Some communities doesn’t even have a designated hurricane shelter.

2. If a committee that is designated by the Director fails to provide the relevant information and the same is proven unfit during a natural disaster is the Director and his team then not liable? As instruments of the Government we must be very careful when exercising the authority to ensure that first and foremost the priority is the safety of the Bahamian people.

3. When it is necessary for the Prime Minister to declare by Order an evacuation,  there are several considerations to be made
1. What means or mode of transportation is provided for the evacuation of these citizens?
2. Is there a register in place to account for the evacuees that is accessible to authorities at the Central Command Center?
3. We must ensure that the provision of adequate shelters equipped with independent utilities and communications systems  are established and we must ensure that these are established in "safe areas"
4. We must provide adequate safe spaces on neighboring islands to accommodate evacuees for both short and long term needs.

Madam President and Senate Colleagues,  we are no longer living in times where we can place a bandaid on a problem and pray it goes away. We must implement strategic solutions that are beneficial to the majority of Bahamians. We must be overzealous in our attempts to be the leaders in creating a real and implementable plan for disaster management. There is no room to cut corners on such an important piece of legislation.  We as Bahamians can see with our own eyes that Climate Change is a reality.  Seasons are changing. We must adapt to the changes in our environment and build accordingly.

Madam President

The economies of Grand Bahama and Abaco have been severely impacted by hurricane Dorian and reports have indicated that both economies account for some 25 to 30% of the country’s overall GDP.

The elimination of VAT in the affected areas until June 2020 is a step in the right direction. We feel this should be extended for at least 3 years and the items outlined as VAT free to businesses and residents should be expanded upon.

The $10 million allocated to jump start small and medium size businesses is a drop in the bucket because in order to prime these local economies we must put some real money on the ground.

We note for the record a concern that is being raised regarding the fact that many of the established businesses in the affected communities were owned by older persons who have simply opted to accept cash settlements from their insurance companies and not rebuild or if they choose to use their insurance proceeds to rebuild will downsize the scope of their operations.  Yes, this would make way for new entrepreneurs but it would take time.

Then there is the issue that about 70% of the homeowners who sustained flood damage as a direct result of hurricane Dorian did not have catastrophic insurance and they are looking to the government for assistance. I can tell you first hand that the situation on Grand Bahama and Abaco is dire because people are unemployed and yes, concessions are good but the home owners need money to purchase building materials and professional construction labour in order to meet the appropriate building code.

Madam President

Post hurricane Matthew the then Government, the Progressive Liberal Party, received severe criticism from many on the side opposite and yes, the prime minister had much to say about what a competent FNM government would have done under his leadership. WOW

 Actions speak louder than words, because when he was tested, he simply buckled at the wheel. It’s sad because we saw it, the international media confirmed it and I wonder if some in here will try to convince yourselves that the government did a good job.

Madam President 

The government must realize that constructive criticism helps improve governance and as members of her majesty’s loyal opposition it is our responsibility along with the many  NGO’s operating in the affected areas (who by the way, in the absence of government presence are playing major roles in the current recovery efforts both in Abaco and Grand Bahama) to highlight our frustrations with the government’s disaster preparedness protocols and their failures in the execution of their constitutional responsibilities.

Yes, Madam President

The prime minster as leader of NEMA must stop dodging, blaming and delegating his legislative responsibilities. He must come to the realization that the buck stops with him and all of the successes and failures with the handling of hurricane Dorian must fall at his feet.

We are not criticizing only because of politics, we do so because real people are hurting and they need real attention and assistance.

The restoration efforts in Grand Bahama and Abaco are moving at a snail’s pace.  Many of these communities are still finding it hard to repair homes because they cannot get supplies.

I know, I’ve been there.

Our fellow Bahamians are counting on the government to make the right decisions that are in the best interests of the people. We have an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. Have we engaged urban planners and architects to develop a smart city in Marsh Harbour and surrounding communities on Abaco? I know the Green City in Ragged Island hasn’t started yet, but Is this still not an opportune time to revolutionize the modern Bahamas? We have an opportunity to tap into resources from around the globe to get it right, where are our chief negotiators? What have we done with Millions received in foreign aid thus far?
Amongst us, are trained and capable disaster managers. Have we implemented a university course to train and equip our citizens with the tools to prepare for disasters of any kind? Have we instituted agreements with universities abroad to offer scholarships for Bahamians in the areas of disaster management, and related fields? Now is the time to look beyond the bandaid. We say it's the people's time, I say its time this government act on behalf of the people

Madam President, now I would like to turn my attention for a brief moment on the Harbour Dues Bill, 2019.

The Minister for Transport and Local Government was quoted in the local dailies ( the tribune Oct. 31) saying "About $2.6 million in revenue is derived from various taxes at Prince George wharf, as it relates to annual expenditure, The Port Department and Ministry of Tourism spends approximately $2.5 million a year for port security, operations of their facility, capital expenditure and for repairs.  As a result of this, operations at the Prince George Wharf break even every year." As explained by the Most Hon Prime Minister on Aug 28th, the Bahamas Investment Fund will offer 20000 shares to Bahamaians at a rate of $1000 for Class B investors and $50000 for class A investors. If we have the capacity to raise 50% of the funding for this project through Bahamian Financial Participation why can't we raise the entire $250m and create a partnership with a  Bahamian management company? do we need an external management company to manage assets that are already belonging to the people of the Bahamas. The amendments that we are considering in this Bill not only gives the Global Port Holdings management control of all incoming revenue derived from the Port but the verbiage speaks to ownership.

There is no clear understanding of how the management company intends to be accountable to the Bahamian government or those who invest in the project.

Madam President and Senate Colleagues

As we have seen with the poorly negotiated BTC deal, 49% vs 49% does not mean ownership. Additionally, the question must be raised as to the 2% remaining  Who will be managing the YES foundation? How will we see the transparency and accountability for the use of funds collected?

I have noted that the Chairman of the board will be appointed by Global Port Holdings.  SO is that to say that really, GPH really manages the other 2%?

The Bahamian people want to know

Also, we have witnessed the repeated bad deals negotiated with the cruise industry over the last 25 years. Once a considerable asset to the revenue generation capacity of the Bahamas,  all Cruise Lines have become an entirely closed system finding more and more creative ways to hoarde all of the revenue from this industry for themselves. Some even go as far to issue warnings on the ships to deter guests from disembarking on our shores.

When listening to the Minister boast of the implementation of electric trams for transportation and other initiatives the first question to mind is who will benefit economically from these ventures. How will this impact the Many Bahamian taxi cab drivers and tour guides who make their living at the Prince George Wharf currently.  These funds seem to be under the direct collection of GPH and disenfranchises the people. Are we still of the mindset that Bahamians are incapable of conceptualizing this port, building the infrastructure and Managing this portfolio?

Likewise,  the addition of retail space in this new development will further solidify the closed network similar to that of the cruise ships. If you develop an enclosed utopia the guests will have no need to venture into the city. Plans for an amphitheater suggests that this company will bring the city and cultural experience to them in their controlled environment.  Undoubtedly,  this will disenfranchise the Bay Street Merchants, The Bahamian Straw vendors and braiders and other entrepreneurs and small businesses that are dependent on the daily influx of passengers from the ships.

How are we the Bahamian people assured that the opportunities to own/operate businesses in this port will be restricted to Bahamian investment only? Does management of the port by a foreign entity coupled with the Commercial Enterprise Bill open up completely the opportunity for foreign investment companies to compete with Bahamian businesses?

Also, when we review the partnerships of Global Port Holdings,  Arawak Port Development and Colin(CFAL) one has to point out the obvious conflicting interests of some of the principal investors in the APD company and ask why was this company chosen over the other two parties?

Madam President and Senate Colleagues I submit that while the redevelopment of the Ports of this country are a necessity to the improve the economic stability of our country's investments and the same is long overdue we must hold the government accountable and ensure that the negotiations of these deals are on favorable terms first and foremost to the benefit of the People of the Bahamas, not just a special interest group and certainly not the the advantage of foreign investors.

In 25 years my son will be 29. When he is 29 will the leaders of his day be pleased with the deals we have made today? Will these negotiations and concessions be of a significant benefit to them or will it prove to be another bad deal?

Madam President, thank you.

God Bless you and God Bless the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.

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