Friday, April 12, 2019
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas’ chief WTO negotiator yesterday said the concerns expressed by Rupert Roberts are based on “illusion and fiction”, adding: “We are doggedly pursuing the country’s best interest.”
Zhivargo Laing, responding to the Super Value owner’s vehement opposition to The Bahamas becoming a full World Trade Organisation (WTO) member, said it was “challenging” to reply to someone whose mind was seemingly made up based on “matters that are simply not true”.
Reiterating that “free movement of labour” will not occur upon joining the WTO, Mr Laing said he found Mr Roberts’ position particularly “absurd” given that there was “not a possibility that the Commonwealth of The Bahamas” will open up his retail and wholesale sector in the accession negotiations.
He added that himself and The Bahamas’ negotiating team were “keenly sensitive” to the need to protect Bahamian manufacturers and farmers, who currently rely on import tariffs and other forms of protection, in the accession process to ensure they remained “viable” under the WTO’s rules-based environment.
The Bahamas’ chief negotiator also compared Mr Roberts’ fears that the VAT rate will be raised to 25 percent to compensate for lower import tariffs to “me saying if you put a cube of ice on the sun it will not melt” - meaning the two issues are not connected.
While agreeing that valid WTO concerns needed to be raised and discussed, Mr Laing argued that they needed to be based on fact. He added that he was especially disappointed that Mr Roberts and other critics appeared not to have assessed The Bahamas’ initial goods and services offers, as these provided information that may have allayed their fears.
The Super Value principal, in an interview with Tribune Business earlier this week, said he was opposed to joining the WTO and will never change his mind even if studies determine “it’s the greatest thing for The Bahamas”.
“I’m not sold on WTO,” Mr Roberts told this newspaper. “I oppose it. I’m afraid that with WTO we’re going to have to reduce duties, and if we reduce duties to 15 percent we will have to raise VAT to 25 percent, and that creates problems for us with consumer dissatisfaction. We would have to face that.
“I feel that no matter what they [the government] say, no matter what they promise, no matter what they negotiate, that we are going to have free movement of labour. All the banks in the world will be coming in, all the supermarkets in the world will want to come in.
“I think it will be a free for all, and not fair to Bahamians and not work for Bahamians. Yes, I oppose it, and I think there’s members of the chamber that oppose it.”
Mr Laing, in reply, told Tribune Business: “I don’t know how to respond to someone who says their mind is already made up, and no one is changing their mind.” Pointing to Mr Roberts’ promise to reject even the findings of the Chamber of Commerce’s Oxford Economics study on whether WTO membership will be beneficial for The Bahamas, he added: “What can you say?
“I can’t imagine, if everyone in the country takes that position on every issue, it helps us in the discussion but they’re entitled to take that position for sure. It is unfortunate to me that his mind is made up about matters that are simply not true and fictional about how the WTO works.”
Acknowledging that it was natural for persons unfamiliar with the WTO and how rules-based trading regimes work to have concerns, Mr Laing added: “I can understand that, but to have opposition based on illusions, based on fiction, is challenging to address.
“Not only does that [free movement of labour] not occur, he is insisting that no matter what the Government says, no matter what the reality is, that will happen. We are expected to live in an informed world where there are empirical means to verify things we are faced with and concerned about.
“If we are convinced something will happen no matter that there is no basis for that conviction, it becomes a challenge to address.”
Mr Laing added that Mr Roberts’ own industry, the retail and wholesale sector, had been “reserved” in The Bahamas’ WTO offer and was not even “on the table” for negotiation with the status quo remaining in place.
“You can look at the offer and see it’s not mentioned in the offer,” he told Tribune Business. “I can say as a lead negotiator there is not a possibility the Commonwealth of The Bahamas will open up wholesale and retail trade in the way Mr Roberts fears. I find it amazing there is this kind of passion for a thing that is not a worry.”
While conceding that The Bahamas’ final WTO accession terms still have to be agreed via negotiations, Mr Laing confirmed that despite the need to reduce average tariff rates to 15 percent the Government still had the flexibility to maintain or increase existing rates to protect domestic producers and manufacturers.
“Those of us who are in the negotiations are keenly aware of the sensitivities in our market in respect of manufacturers and farmers, and we are keenly seeking to ensure there is viability for those industries; keenly aware,” he told this newspaper.
“If Mr Roberts is intending to be helpful as we have done, he would participate in the consultation process so, just as we have done when we go to Geneva, we have positions that are adopted and have been discussed with the sectors.
“There is no sector in The Bahamas that can come out and say you have reduced import tariffs so low we cannot survive because the fates are in the offer, which they can see.”
Mr Laing, though, said he remained willing to meet Mr Roberts and discuss his WTO concerns, noting that the Super Value owner has changed his positions before - most notably with respect to VAT and the New Providence Road Improvement Project.
“I understand every man has to look after his own interests,” he told Tribune Business. “As a government and as negotiators we have to look out for the interests of the entire country and we very focused on that. Very focused.
“I can say without fear of contradiction, notwithstanding Mr Roberts and notwithstanding his very strong conviction, we are doggedly pursuing The Bahamas’ best interests....
“I am not opposed to people with concerns about the WTO. Society ought to have the right to express its convictions, and when they’re legitimate they have to be taken on board. It is very difficult to do anything about concerns that are fictional.”