Responding to comments from former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham lambasting and calling for amendments to the Commercial Enterprises Bill, 2017 (CEB), Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest said yesterday the government is “mindful” of the criticisms being made.
Ingraham told The Nassau Guardian yesterday that the bill, which essentially acts as a legal guarantee for work permits for foreign investments with a minimum investment of $250,000, is a “fundamental departure” from what has persisted in The Bahamas.
He said the $250,000 threshold is too low, noting that, “We are not bottom feeders”.
“We ought not to be putting ourselves in a position to be competing downmarket to people who are looking for investing $250,000,” he said. “That is below our pay grade.”
He also noted that the bill will act to the disadvantage of other businesses in The Bahamas.
Speaking to the media outside Cabinet on Ingraham’s comments, Turnquest said, “I think he has some concerns like a lot of Bahamians have some concerns.
“Certainly we have to do a better job of educating the Bahamian public to what it is we are trying to accomplish here.
“Again, there is no mystery in this bill; there are no secrets or back room dealings with respect to what we are trying to accomplish.
“As the bill outlines, we are trying to make The Bahamas more competitive, so that we can attract these niche-type industries, that are either underrepresented or do not exist in the country.
“And I think that’s where Bahamians are getting a little confused, and there’s a lot of political spin around this; and we understand that, but I think we have to focus on what it is that we are trying to accomplish.”
The bill seeks to “liberalize the granting of work permits to an enterprise that wishes to establish itself in The Bahamas and requires work permits for its management team and key personnel”.
Many believe that the bill will disenfranchise Bahamians, insisting that it appears to be geared toward foreign investment.
“We have to recognize that we have not had any significant growth, and in fact we have had negative growth over the last five years,” Turnquest noted.
“It is unsustainable.
“When we talk about disadvantaging Bahamian investors, the truth of the matter is that if we could do this by ourselves, we would have done it.
“We cannot grow this economy by ourselves. We need foreign direct investment.
“It is fact because we are an open economy.”
The former prime minister said yesterday that he understands that the government is under tremendous pressure to create jobs for Bahamians, and that is what may be driving this push for the bill.
He said, “I think the government recognizes the current immigration procedures and policies do not instill adequate confidence in the investment community, financial services and others; and in some respect [they] act as a deterrent to investment, and that there needs to be a bit of certainty on the part of businesses as to what talent they can access and employ.
“And so, to that extent, I understand that, that is probably what is one of the motivating things that’s driving them.
“… But such a shift requires a careful balance and a national consensus.
“The immigration policies and procedures in The Bahamas need to change; there is no question about that.
“It can only be changed if both major political parties sign on to a change.”
Asked about Ingraham’s concern that the bill does not address a cap for work permits per enterprise, Turnquest said, “Again, we are attracting a new industry.
“I cannot sit here and tell you, for the sake of argument, in a biomedical firm, how many people they need to bring. I don’t know.
“But any investment is going to have to go through the regular investment process, where the business plan will be produced; they will have discussions with the BIA (Bahamas Investment Authority) about what they require.
“They will have conversations with immigration about what they require and what is available, versus what is not available on the island, and those decisions will be made.
“Again we are all entitled to our view, but we must not try to sensationalize to read into this bill things that don’t exist.”
Ingraham added yesterday that it is his hope that the government will not seek to pass the bill into law without further consultation.
“Otherwise [the government] is going to find that [the bill] is going to be ineffective, and there will be tremendous resistance to it, and it is not going to be to the benefit of The Bahamas as it is now,” Ingraham said.
Asked whether the government is considering tweaking the bill following ongoing criticisms, Turnquest could not say.
“I really can’t answer that question at the moment,” he said.
“I think that certainly we are mindful of all the comments that have been made, and I’m sure we will look to see whether we feel the concerns are already addressed in the bill or whether there ought to be any amendments.”
Opposition leader Philip Brave Davis has said that a Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) administration would repeal the bill and warned potential immigrant investors to “think carefully” before accepting its benefits.
Also chiming in on the discussion outside Cabinet yesterday, Minister of Financial Services, Trade, Industry and Immigration Brent Symonette called Davis’ comments regressive.
“What Mr. Davis, of the PLP, did was actually a very regressive move by threatening potential investors, which sends the message internationally that the PLP are against persons coming into The Bahamas to set up new businesses,” Symonette said.
“So he and the PLP, by their moves, have taken The Bahamas back, and I question their move, because obviously they don’t want Bahamians to succeed if they themselves as operatives cannot succeed.”