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Tensions surface in Chamber of Commerce over duty issue

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Internal disagreements have flared up within the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce amid tension over members’ differing opinions on Government’s duty harmonisation proposals.

Paula Clarke, head of the Chamber’s retail division, said that fellow Chamber member Steve Thomson had issued “misleading statements” on the talks involving retailers. Mr Thomson denied the accusation last night.

Tension between members has surfaced after the retail division issued a statement last month proposing an across-the-board 25 percent duty rate for personal imports and goods brought in through the airport. Currently, rates on personal imports are lower, while the rate at the airport is 35 percent.

Ms Clarke said Mr Thomson had suggested that her division had been “negotiating” with Government and this was inaccurate. Last night, Mr Thomson denied ever having said there had been negotiations.

“We have made a presentation to Premier Cox to explain the value that the retail industry provides to Bermuda as a country,” Ms Clarke said. “But it is patently wrong to say that we were negotiating with Government.”

She added that Mr Thomson was wrong to say that there had been “emergency meetings” among retailers on the duty harmonisation issues. Mr Thomson said he understood some retailers were not happy with the retail division’s position on a 25 percent rate and that they had met to discuss this.

Ms Clarke said the division had held only scheduled meetings, not emergency meetings.

She added that she had voiced her complaints about Mr Thomson commenting on the activities of her division to the Chamber’s leadership, something that was confirmed by executive director Joanne McPhee.

The dispute “has no value to the Chamber or its membership”, Ms McPhee told

The Royal Gazette. “The only way we can survive these difficult times is by working together.”

Mr Thomson, owner of Mailboxes Unlimited, has campaigned vigorously against potential duty increases on personal imports most recently as spokesman of the Chamber’s Shipping Division.

A Chamber spokesman said late yesterday that the shipping division did not yet formally exist.

“A proposal has been received by the Chamber of Commerce to create a new Shipping & Courier Division,” the statement read. “In accordance with The Bermuda Chamber of Commerce Act 2000, certain processes and procedures have to be completed to create a new division.

“Until these procedures have been completed, it is premature for any member of the Chamber to refer to a Shipping & Courier Division.”

Mr Thomson said he had been given permission to set up the shipping division by Chamber president Buddy Rego, and that members of the prospective division had met, discussed the duty issue, and issued a press statement on February 9. Only later was he made aware that the division still had to be ratified by the Chamber’s board, he said.

Duty harmonisation is seen as a move that would help retailers by making goods purchased from overseas more expensive. Statistics on online purchases from overseas have not been published.

Ms Clarke said: “When the model for our duty system was built, there was not the dot-com industry that there is now. There is a loophole in the legislation and now I think Government are seeing that it’s not fair.”

She said the retail sector employed around 4,000 people and Ms Cox had listened closely to their proposals, since the Premier’s main concern was retaining jobs.

“If we don’t have a healthy retail sector, then Bermuda is in for a dismal future,” she added. “We wouldn’t be able to attract international business people. Who wants to live in a place where there are no bricks and mortar stores? That affects tourism too.”

Mr Thomson said a 25 percent flat duty rate would hurt ordinary Bermudians in difficult times by imposing tax increases on their personal imports.

He added that though it was clear that members had conflicting views on duty harmonisation, the organisation should take a position. “We should poll the divisions and see what position they support,” Mr Thomson said. “I think the Chamber is obligated to take a position.”

Chamber of Commerce retail division chair Paula Clarke
Mailboxes Unlimited president Steve Thomson

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Published February 15, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated February 15, 2012 at 6:53 am)

Tensions surface in Chamber of Commerce over duty issue

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