, ,

Culture Clash: Why VAT rise hits hardest for the people who can least afford it

Bahamians tuned in to the Budget Communication in Parliament last week Wednesday with great interest. After laying out a number of supposed benefits to the Bahamian people, Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest showed the price tag. The FNM administration intends to increase Value Added Tax (VAT) by 60 percent, taking it up from 7.5 percent to 12 percent on July 1. It expects this tax hike to increase revenue by $400 million in the next fiscal year.

In a press conference, Turnquest suggested this is the best way to pay off arrears left by the former administration of approximately $360 million. He insisted that the government is doing the right thing by being honest with the Bahamian people as opposed to presenting a misleading budget and delaying pay day.

Under-budget or increase taxes. These are clearly not the only options. This administration is depending on us to play into the stereotype of “lazy” and “D-average” so it can do as it sees fit with little to no pushback.

Even if VAT is the best option for The Bahamas, it would have been more transparent — a term the FNM enjoyed using before May 2017 — and shown a commitment to more participatory governance to share the details of its financial concerns with the people before this point. It would have been easier to understand this decision if we had been provided with this information before the Budget Communication and had the opportunity to offer ideas. The people sitting in Parliament are, after all, our representatives and not a collective dictatorship.

Flip-flop

Over the past few days, many people have quoted the 2016 version of Dr. Hubert Minnis who said, “I don’t believe in increasing taxes, I believe in decreasing taxes and increasing opportunities. Increasing taxes is a lazy way out. When you don’t want to think, you just tax.”

In 2013, Dr. Minnis said the PLP should share its economic studies and analyses as well as alternatives it considered with the Bahamian people. Today, the Bahamian people are making the same request. We want to know how this administration came to the conclusion that a 60% increase in VAT is best for the country. We also want to see the other options that were under consideration, why they failed, and how the administration arrived at this conclusion. Hearing from the Prime Minister on his change in position would be welcome as well.

VAT and Customs Duty

In the Budget Communication, it was announced that Customs exemption would be increased from $300 to $500, twice per year. There is also a reduction in Customs duty on new small cars and excise duty on new electric and hybrid cars under $50,000 in value. Neither of these benefit the poor.

We learned that VAT will not be applied to bread basket items. These include rice, flour, grits, cheese, butter, cooking oil, milk, evaporated milk, soups, and mustard. Concerns have been raised about the lack of healthy options on the bread basket list, and Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands suggested more items, including fresh produce, will be added. VAT is also being waived from electricity bills below $100 and water bills below $50 impacting 30,000 and 43,000 people respectively — close to the 40,000 reportedly living in poverty. This measure, clearly meant for the poor, still does not bringing balance when we are looking at 12% VAT on everything else. The 2013 Household and Expenditure Survey showed 12.8% of the population in The Bahamas is living in poverty — on less than $5,000 per year.

What is poverty?

We need to understand what it means to be poor. Poverty is not the inability to purchase a particular brand of cellphone. It is not making the decision to attend a community college instead of a well-known university. It is not driving a 2010 Honda Civic. It is not being a college student and living with your parents. It is not a situation you can see your way out of at any given time. It is not a decision or series of decisions you consider prudent or responsible. It is having $5000 per year, and being unable to make decisions that do not fit that budget. Poverty is not a choice, and it is not about choices. It is not the result of working less, or working less hard.

Poverty is a systemic issue, and a monster we continue to feed with unilateral decisions like VAT and VAT increases and discriminatory practices. It is an issue we trivialize and makes jokes about when we hear about VAT going up and declare ourselves “poor” because we may not be able to go to crossfit any more. Not being able to benefit from the elimination of duty on airplanes does not make you poor, and jokes about it are lazy and D-average. Dine on the Line — an awareness campaign in which participants spend $4 on food every day — was last week, and maybe we should we have an exercise of doing everything else on the line for a month. Can you live on $11.64 per day? And no, 12% VAT is not likely to force many of us below the poverty line, but think about what it means for those already living in poverty. The reality of the over-burdened Bahamians living in poverty is not a punchline, and we do not need that kind of comic relief.

Equal, but not fair

The general conversation about the increase in VAT has revealed what we do and do not understand. It has been made clear, repeatedly, that the privilege some of us enjoy helps us to ignore or be completely unaware of the challenges other people face.

VAT is paid by all, but our experiences are not the same. We are not all in the same situation. VAT is a regressive — as opposed to progressive — tax. It is not higher for people with higher income. VAT is flat, so everyone pays the same rate, but it is not equitable. Middle class and poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in taxes through VAT. Though everyone is paying the same tax on individual items, the effect is different.

There is a popular pair of images used to show the difference between equality and equity. There are three people of different heights trying to watch a game over a fence, and there are three boxes they can stand on. In the first image, they each get one box. The shortest person still cannot see the game at all while the other two can. That is equality. In the second image, the tallest person does not get a box, and the shortest person gets two. In this image, they are all able to see and enjoy the game. That is equity.

What if taxation was equitable? What if the government found a way to alleviate the burden that has always been on the poor? What if we, as citizens, cared enough to look for alternatives to the quick fixes our representatives find and implement?

What we need

Fiscal responsibility is critical. We know the government needs money to provide services, from education and health care to road repairs and waste disposal. None of this is free, and the government needs a source of revenue. It does not, however, need to disproportionately burden the poor to meet its needs. It does not need to keep financial records and decisions out of our reach.

This administration needs to recognize that while the people did not necessarily vote FNM as much as it voted anti-PLP, there were expectations. Expectations of accountability. Transparency. An understanding that the Bahamian people are not interested in being blissfully unaware of the government action and inaction. We expect to be involved, and to have the opportunity to contribute, critique, co-create the systems and programs we need and demand.

We need to have a conversation about wages. Over the past few days, many have talked about the need to increase minimum wage, but that comes with its own effects. Even so, it is time to talk about a living wage so every working person can afford adequate food, shelter, and other physiological needs.

VAT is in the spotlight. No one wants to hear about taxes, much less increased taxes. We can agree on taxes, bills, and poverty. We do not want them, but they exist. Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other and not only these issues for ourselves, but use our power as a people to call on our representatives to stand with us, regardless of class or color.

Published in The Tribune on June 6, 2018.

, ,

Culture Clash: Resistance to Outside Influence

The U.S. has been a major influence on The Bahamas for a long time. Proximity and tourism are not the only reasons. “Foreign is better” has been a dominant idea for decades. Imported apples are redder, U.S.-based network television is more entertaining, and flown-in consultants are more knowledgable. We’ve grown accustomed to looking elsewhere for what we want, whether it’s because of cost, quality, or status, real or perceived. At the same time, we complain about the side effects of these decisions.

Small businesses are suffering, creatives struggle to get financial support, unemployment is high, university graduates accept offers elsewhere, and the country stagnates on various levels. We don’t listen to our own experts, and our governments engage people from all over the world, paying obscene amounts of money to tell us what we — at least some of us — already know. We are outraged when we hear about it, and not just because of the money. Even while we discredit and ignore our own, we are deeply insulted by even the suggestion that someone who does not live here could know or understand anything about our condition or potential better than us. We are compelled to resist “outsiders.”

Who’s Afraid of the UN?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s visit to The Bahamas and declaration that marital rape is the most pressing gender-based issue in the country drew vitriolic response. Dubravka Šimonović was invited to The Bahamas to make an assessment, particularly in light of our bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It is her job to objectively look at the country and its laws, engage with civil society, and report on her findings.

Ms. Šimonović’s visit was not to force new legislation or amendments, and her position does not afford her that right. Her comments, however, helped to spark a necessary conversation spanning several topics including rape, rape culture, marriage, and religion. It was a springboard for organizations and individuals, and drew attention to an overlooked issue. No matter how we validate her position or explain her visit, Ms. Šimonović is continually regarded as a UN operative, seeking to control The Bahamas and Bahamians.

Religious beliefs and commitment to the protection of patriarchy certainly influenced the conversation, but so did fear. Are we so opposed to external influence that we willingly refuse to acknowledge — or outright reject — statements of obvious truth and recommendations of merit?  It seems as though nationalism as a principle and pride as a restrictive, selfish value prevent us from participating in the processes necessary for growth and advancement as a country. Fear of being dominated or losing ourselves convinces us to dig our heels deeper into the mire that is our current and persisting state. Are we so weak that we could be controlled by mere conversation and suggestions of non-Bahamians?

Bullied by Big Brother

The President of the United States reportedly referred to African nations, along with others such as Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole countries.” A xenophobe and a racist, his sentiments were clear before this incident, but it demands a response. Governments, organizations, and individuals have rebuked his statement and made it clear that he is not welcome in their spaces. CARICOM condemned his statement, calling it “unenlightened” and “unacceptable.” Since then, the Caribbean People’s Declaration, with 200 signatories, deemed the U.S. president “persona non grata.” It declared that he is “not welcome in any territory of the Caribbean” and confirms that any visit will be protested by Caribbean people with “demonstrations designed to prevent President Donald Trump’s entry into any portion of the sovereign territory of our Caribbean region.”

The Bahamas has not made such a statement and, based on social media posts and comments, many believe our silence is necessary. What would it mean to be on the bad side of the U.S. and its president?

We need to spend more time thinking about ourselves in relation to our Caribbean counterparts. We have been comfortable with a self-aggrandizing narrative, seeing ourselves as superior to the people of other Caribbean nations. Our GDP inflates our egos. We are proud of our proximity to the U.S., pre-clearance, and ease of access to the tourist market. We argue about whether or not we are a part of the Caribbean, often failing to acknowledge the shared history that binds us. In our minds, there is more that separates us from the rest of the Caribbean than connecting us. Contrary to what many Caribbean people believe and often express, we know we are not American, but in many ways, we aspire to Americanness, and it is often our closeness to American values and ways of life that excites us. We do not want to jeopardize it. That said, when issues of rights and freedoms are raised, opponents are quick to accuse advocates of “bringing American issues here,” so we are only interested in certain parts of Americanness.

This commitment to being U.S.-adjacent — not just geographically — often keeps us silent. While Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis criticized the lack of response from the current administration, Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield would only say The Bahamas is part of CARICOM and “we speak with one voice,” suggesting the CARICOM statement is sufficient. Whether or not we believe cowardice is necessary, this is certainly a shameful silence.

Neighborhood Watch

On Friday, January 5, the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana held a town hall meeting to get a sense of the Bahamian public’s opinion on the decriminalization of marijuana. The announcement of this event was like a piercing, loud alarm for those against decriminalization. Without even fully understanding the purpose of the event, furious typing and fast-dialing into radio talk shows ensued. People warned against decriminalization and all manner of impending doom that would result. While there may be valid arguments against decriminalization or, more likely, issues to be considered, accusations against CARICOM were wholly unnecessary and completely inaccurate. Listening to the fearful and the conspiracy theorists among us without seeking accurate information, it would be easy to believe CARICOM is forcing legislative changes on The Bahamas.

That a conversation could scare us is more worrying than being shunned by the U.S., or the decriminalization of marijuana. That we are happy to accept frivolous, seemingly inconsequential imports like clothing and media, and determined to reject expertise or even the facilitation of information sessions is cause for concern. We do not have to accept everything — or anything — being offered. We can demand that Bahamians experts are called first. We can have differing points of view. What we cannot afford is to close ourselves off from the rest of the world, convinced that everyone wants to take something from us or force something upon us. There is nothing wrong with learning from other countries, receiving recommendations from international bodies, or standing in solidarity with sister countries in the face of fascism. These decisions are up to us. Our fight should not be for restricted access to knowledge, perspective, and dialogue, but for seats at the table and participatory governance. We need every engagement opportunity we can get.

, , , ,

Culture Clash: Where Next For Legislation On Gender Equality?

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced last week the current administration will amend legislation in order to allow Bahamian women to automatically transfer citizenship to their children at birth in the same way Bahamian men already do. At present, children born to Bahamian women and non-Bahamian men outside of The Bahamas must apply for Bahamian citizenship between the ages of 18 and 21, and registration as a Bahamian citizen is at the discretion of the Minister.

The Bahamas Nationality Act — not the Immigration Act — speaks to the acquisition of Bahamian citizenship which, in many cases, must be granted by the Minister. By use of the word “automatically” in his statement, it appears Minnis means to amend the Bahamas Nationality Act so there is no application or, at the very least, no interference by the Minister. It is not clear how he intends to do this or the form the new process will take, but it is not “overturning” the referendum vote. Minnis has proposed a completely different action which will not have the same effect as a constitutional amendment.

Recall the conversation about the constitutional referendum of 2016. The Constitutional Commission repeatedly made the distinction between the right to automatic citizenship and the right to apply for citizenship. While bill one — specific to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men being able to transfer citizenship to children born outside of The Bahamas — would have made citizenship automatic if it had passed, bill two — specific to Bahamian women transferring citizenship to their non-Bahamian husbands — would have allowed for an application process that would not have guaranteed citizenship. This is an important distinction to make and understand: the right to apply for citizenship is not the same as the right to acquire citizenship.

Constitution vs. legislation

Since 2014 when the constitutional referendum was announced, some insisted the same goal — equal rights to transfer citizenship to spouses and children — could be achieved through legislation. They insisted the PLP administration, if it was serious about gender equality in citizenship, should just use the Bahamas Nationality Act to get the same results as a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. They did not, however, acknowledge the difference between the constitution and legislation.

The constitution is supreme law. Article two states, “This Constitution is the supreme law of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, if any other law is inconsistent with this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail and the other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.” Legislation, such as the Bahamas Nationality Act, fits the “other law” category. This means what is written in the constitution overrides any legislation. That is why it was important to go through the referendum process, making an effort to change the constitution so gender equality in the right to transfer citizenship would exist in supreme law rather than in the Bahamas Nationality Act (which is superseded by the constitution).

What if the Bahamas Nationality Act is amended to allow children born outside of The Bahamas to Bahamian women married to non-Bahamian men to automatically access Bahamian citizenship? In theory, it would be great.

There would be no need for applications to the Minister, more paperwork going through Cabinet, or waiting for the age of 18. What if, however, there is a legal challenge? What if someone, or a group, decides it is not constitutional? If taken to court, based on Article two of the constitution, we know supreme law holds. This means Article nine — which says those “born legitimately outside The Bahamas after 9th July 1973 whose mother is a citizen of The Bahamas shall entitled, upon making application on his attaining the age of eighteen years and before he attains the age if twenty-one years… to be registered as a citizen of The Bahamas” — would carry more weight than any allowance made in the Bahamas Nationality Act.

No change the current administration makes to legislation is the final word. This is the reason the previous administration spent money and other resources on the constitutional referendum of 2016. Is it a step? Maybe. Is it a cure-all? Not at all.

Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

Many Bahamians were first introduced to CEDAW after the 2014 announcement of the constitutional referendum. CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and ratified by The Bahamas in 1993. Though we have signed the convention, The Bahamas has made reservations on some Articles including 2(a) on the elimination of discrimination against women in “national constitutions or other appropriate legislation”.

This reservation exists because while Article 26 of the constitution is on protection from discrimination, it does not list sex as a prohibited ground for discrimination and cannot be changed without a simple majority vote by Bahamian citizens.

Article 54 of the constitution states changes to Article 26 — along with many others including 8, 10, and 14 which relate to transfer of citizenship and were included in the 2016 referendum — can only be made following a vote of at least three-quarters of both Houses and a simple majority of eligible Bahamian citizens.

The Bahamas also reserved on Article 9 of CEDAW on equal nationality rights including the ability to acquire, change, or retain nationality and the same rights with respect to their children’s nationality.

Both CEDAW and The Government of The Bahamas recognise the constitution as supreme law and understand the process of changing it. This is at least a part of the reason for The Bahamas’ reservation on the two Articles mentioned here, the decision to go to referendum in 2016, and the response from the Constitutional Commission to the argument that legislation would get the good done just as well.

Power of the Houses

It is critical we understand democracy, governance, law, and power. It is difficult to participate in national discussions without an understanding of the constitution, legislation and how they can be changed. Legislation is being tabled and amended on a regular basis, largely without the public’s attention, much less understanding or agreement. We need to pay more attention to what our Members of Parliament are doing, especially if they are looking to increase their own salaries.

“The People’s Time” can’t just be a snappy slogan; it needs to be a way of life. The people need to set the agenda, supervise our employees, and actively participate in democracy.

It is easy to see Minnis’ announcement as a victory for those of us who wanted a ‘yes’ vote in 2016. It is easy to become distracted by seemingly benevolent actions and to be assuaged by convincing rhetoric. We need to ask questions. What difference will legislative amendments make?

How is this administration acting to shift culture? Does the current composition of Parliament or the Senate reflect an interest in gender parity? How can we learn more about our constitution and existing legislation?

Who is the government, and who is responsible for protecting democracy? Where does the power really sit, and it is being used effectively? How have we contributed to the current political environment? Are we ready to change it?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 9, 2017

, , ,

Culture Clash: We Need Leaders We Can Trust And Who Share What We Want

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on October 13, 2017

Everyone is talking about leadership. While people battle for top positions in households, corporations, and countries we redefine and re-conceptualize leadership in response to community needs, mindset changes and shifts in power dynamics.

Quotes on leadership are endless. They say great leaders take less credit and more blame, lead from the back and lead with the heart. Leaders have the responsibility to turn a vision into a reality by uniting people with a common purpose and empowering them to act in ways that make transformation possible. For every vision, leadership is required to have and practise a rare combination of characteristics and skills, from emotional intelligence and influence to willingness and ability to serve.

Joanne Ciulla said: “Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.”

There was a time when supervision was seen as leadership, but there is a distinct difference. Supervisors give orders and ensure they are followed while leaders are involved in the process, and work to ensure others are also included in decision-making. Leaders are not obsessed with concepts of seniority or hierarchy. They are focused on the realization of a vision. They primarily concern themselves with the daily work of influencing others to give the greatest amount of effort possible to achieve a shared goal.

Today, leadership is contingent upon relationships built on trust and common ground. People are not interested in being led by anyone who shares nothing with them. There must be synergy. Have we come from the same place? Do we have the same values? Do we share a vision? People do not want to work with anyone who is set apart from them. We want to be able to talk to leadership and have confidence that they understand our experiences, capability, and needs. We want to know they are prepared to lead, and for the right reasons.

During election season, we have conversations about party leadership every day. We share ideas about party decisions and how we think they were made. In many of these cases, we excuse weak leadership choices with statements like, “No one else can do it.” No one rallied behind the FNM leadership team on its own merit, but as an alternative to an option they considered relatively worse for whatever reasons.

We settle for leaders we considered seasoned, based only on the fact they held the position before, refusing to address the problems with their methods and performance because we do not want to take the risk on a new person.

In some cases, the decision is made by the wrong people, too few people or compromised people. This is the root of the upset with the PLP leadership race where the voices of the average Bahamian citizen were not heard, and did not appear to matter. In some cases, leadership is relinquished and it is, most often, too late. Only time will tell what will happen with the stagnant, silent DNA which must now adjust to the resignation of its leader.

The FNM, PLP, and DNA all had — and continue to have — leadership issues. Why? Where do these issues come from? How can they be resolved? What needs to happen for political parties in The Bahamas to have better leadership teams? How can Bahamians get the representation we deserve?

We need to take a look at the motivation of leaders and potential leaders. Do they like to compete? Do they think they have all the answers? Do they like being in charge? Do they want to be well-known? Are they trying to get rich? Are they continuing a family legacy?

Do they see a gap and how to fill it? Do they want to serve? Do they share the vision and have the ability to encourage and motivate the community? Are they influencers?

Every person interested in leadership is not interested in community. They do not always want to work with others, or develop and maintain inclusive processes. They often want to undo or undermine the work of the previous leader. They may want to make their own mark. While leadership should be an act of servitude and evidence of commitment to a common goal, it is often used as a stepping stone to something else. Some people try to use it to build reputations, gain access to resources, expand networks, and increase income. While these can be benefits of leadership, self-aggrandizement should not be a primary motivator. A leader needs to believe in the project or task at hand because the role requires enthusiastic participation that cannot be faked.

As two political parties — PLP and DNA — work toward selecting new leaders, we need to be alert and as involved in the process as possible. While most of us do not have votes, we have tremendous influence. These parties intend to seek our support in the next election, and will look to us before the next general election to help them set their new agendas.

With every public statement they make in response to the current administration’s intentions, decisions, and actions, they affirm our power and prove their need to be heard by us. We can demand they listen if they want to be heard, and it is time to demand better processes and better leadership.

If faced with a choice between two evils, with four an a half years until the next general election, now is the time to recruit new members. “Better than the next” is not good enough for the Bahamian people, so it can’t work for political parties in The Bahamas.

Who do we want to see leading the political parties in this country, and how? Who do we believe when they say they care about the same things we do? Where can we find people with both social influence and commitment to building the best version of The Bahamas for Bahamians? How can we interest them in the opportunity to lead, politically and otherwise?

We can’t wait for “them” to do it. We know the people who walk among us, speaking to the vision of a better country and actively working toward it in their own ways. We know the absence of MPs, the closed constituency offices, the unheard voices during crisis and the faces behind the people who deceive us regularly. We know the problems.

Do we know the solutions? Are they in us? We need better leadership and we need better options when we have the opportunity to definitively and directly choose. The conversation is now open. What questions should we be asking?

,

2nd Annual Future of Democracy Conference

The Future of Democracy Conference is back for its second year, organized by University of The Bahamas’ Schools of English and Social Sciences with Dr. Ian Strachan at the helm. The two-day conference — packed with panels, roundtable discussions, and workshops — is bringing a diverse group of people together to go beyond conversation, focusing on solution-building. Educators, activists, students, and community workers will pool knowledge, experience, and ideas around interesting and immediately relevant themes like “Democracy and Governance in the 21st Century Bahamas” and “Power, Progress, and the People”.

Conference organizers are pleased to welcome Ret. Justice Zainool Hosein, Chairman of the Integrity Commission of Trinidad and Tobago to deliver the keynote. The Commission is an independent body comprising five members appointed by the President and its mission is to provide excellent customer service and public education, ensure compliance with the Integrity in Public Life Act, and detect corrupt practices and dishonest conduct. Hosein will speak to the role and function of the Integrity Commission, and his presentation will be followed by a Q&A session.

Dr. Strachan said, “The Future of Democracy Conference is intended to help mobilize citizens and build their capacity to participate as change agents and builders in our society. A key part of the solution to so many of our governance issues is citizen leaders emerging across race, class and party lines and helping to introduce the new models we need. This conference is dedicated to creating the spaces where we start that work.”

The public is invited to participate in two of six workshops on Saturday afternoon, after two engaging roundtable discussions on drafting legislation and creating change, respectively. The 90-minute workshop options are listed below and linked to Facebook events with more information.

2pm

3:30pm

The Future of Democracy Conference is an excellent opportunity to learn, share, engage, and create. It is the perfect way to spend two days for those who are interested in democracy as a concept, system, and responsibility, good governance, and citizen-led action. For more information, visit Out Da Box or email futureofdemocracy242@gmail.com.

Video: Citizenship

The Citizenship panel — part of Equality Bahamas’ Women’s Wednesdays series — focused on the rights and responsibilities of the citizen, active citizenship, and moving forward one year after the gender equality referendum of 2016.

Panelists:
Knijah Knowles, Judicial Research Counsel at the Court of Appeal
Shawn-Gabrielle Gomez, UB Graduate
Dr. Niambi Hall-Campbell, Community Psychologist
Ava Turnquest, Chief Reporter at The Tribune

For more information on the Women’s Wednesdays event series, like Equality Bahamas on Facebook.

, , ,

Culture Clash: Our Votes Are Not The Only Way We Can Use Our Voices

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on June 14, 2017

THE past few years in The Bahamas have given us many things to think about. Our dissatisfaction mounting, too many of us found ourselves unable to act.

Members of Parliament did not disclose, and we were outraged. We made the time and effort to vote in the gambling opinion poll — which was framed as a referendum — only to be ignored and disrespected. There was resolve to get rid of the PLP administration and desire for more participatory governance.

There was anger and disappointment. We must figure out how to move beyond it to make progress and demand better of our representatives. It is critical that we activate and assert our citizenship outside of election season, and recognise its power on any given day.

We are underutilising our citizenship. Our conversations about citizenship are often limited to passports and work visas, seldom delving into the properties of citizenship and its direct link to government and governance.

Citizenship, at its best, is not passive. It is not wearing the title “Bahamian” and having a passport declaring our relationship with the country. It is not even at its peak when we cast our ballots every five years to elect representatives and, subsequently, the leader of the country. Citizens have the right to live, receive an education, work, and vote here. Those things come along with citizenship, but they are not the beginning and the end.

What are the responsibilities of a citizen? What are the things we should be doing to both honour and fully exercise our citizenship?

It is our duty to participate in Bahamian democracy, to monitor the work (or lack thereof) of our elected (and paid) officials, to engage one another on issues of national concern, and to agitate for the changes we need.

Regardless of how our representatives would like to posture and feign unmitigated authority, it is our duty to question. We have to challenge the systems that do not work for us, and those that are being abused to such an extent that any supposed benefit is lost on us or pales in comparison to the perks they afford to the privileged. We have to pay attention. We need to be prepared to speak openly about what we see and hear, and to make recommendations for Bahamian citizens as a collective to respond.

What can citizens do, from the ground, to effect change?

Politicians benefit from the popular idea that they are in charge. They have led us to believe that we elect them to lead and make decisions for us. They depend on our laziness and willingness to pass off our duties as citizens, allowing them to do as they wish. In truth, we are their employers, and their job is to represent us. Our issues should be at the front of their minds, and potential solutions should be rolling off their tongues.

Unfortunately, too many of us cast our votes and almost immediately disengage, content that someone else will deal with the running of the country. Some of us are busy, some of us are tired, and some of us are just not interested enough. For those of us who care about our country and its future, it is imperative that we remain alert, communicative, and ready to act.

There is a broad range of actions any citizen can take to protest, change, and create. We know our challenges, and we hold the solutions. In recent years, we have become more willing to share needs, experiences, and ideas. We communicate in a variety of ways, from the sometimes incisive, sometimes enlightening letter to the editor to the hilariously relatable and catchy song. We are creative people, constantly finding new ways to raise issues, share knowledge, and invite people to the conversation.

Talk radio has given us space to think aloud, hear from fellow Bahamians, and form opinions that need not depend solely on our individual experiences. We now have access to the realities of people we do not know, and may not even know of if we did not hear them on the radio, telling their own stories.

We have spent years honing and exercising theses skills, and desperately need to get to the next step. Some of the easiest things we think to do are writing letters to newspaper editors, calling in to radio talk shows, and share our thoughts on social media.

How do we move from conversation to collective action?

Social media — specifically Facebook — has taken us beyond one-way communication. It allows us to organise ourselves into groups and discuss issues relevant to our shared values. What do we do with the perspective we gain from this? How do our positions change based on new information?

One of the road blocks to effective collective action is lack of buy-in. This issue exists for a number of reasons including lack of trust. We ask ourselves about ulterior motives and question the methods of people we do not know. True activism and advocacy require time, energy, and other resources in limited supply, especially for nonprofit initiatives. We ask ourselves why anyone would give freely of these resources, and how long it will take for them to be bought (as we may have seen recently).

Another major roadblock is the divisiveness that inevitably comes from difference in identity or opinion, completely detracting from the shared vision.

Theoretically, many of us want the same things, but are prepared to forgo rights to ensure that someone else does not gain access to those (or other) rights (as we saw in the June 2016 referendum).

There is tremendous value in the conversations we have on a daily basis on radio talk shows, Facebook, and themed panels and fora.

We head-nod, clap, and like each other’s comments, and sometimes dive right into actions like petitions and protests. Collective action must come, but all participating citizens need to understand why we are there, together, despite difference. This requires a shared vision. There must be something we can all agree on, commit to working toward, and recognise as more importance than differences in identity and personality. We must shift the way we engage one another.

Social media can be a tool for organising, but it’s up to us to drive the conversation toward indisputable consensus that can serve as a foundation and driver for citizen-led action.

Let’s keep the conversation going, but more meaningfully and constructively toward action. At some point, we have to put our citizenship to work, and that means doing something — not just voting.

, ,

Culture Clash: A Time To Believe In Our Fellow Bahamians

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on May 17, 2017

It’s the people’s time. Believe in Bahamians. Forward, upward, onward, together.

According to the Parliamentary Registration Department, 87 per cent of registered voters – not all Bahamians eligible to vote – exercised their right to vote.

Following the general election, the Bahamian people are represented by 35 Free National Movement (FNM) and four Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) MPs. Few could have predicted the composition of our new government. Many celebrate it, seeing it as a victory not only for the FNM, but for the people who wanted, more than anything else, to vote the PLP out and unseat former Prime Minister Perry Christie.

Some of us are concerned, recognising that the opposition is small and its strength unknown. Yes, our voices were heard and the FNM was rewarded with a landslide victory, whether earned or not. We now have a different party in control of Parliament, but that was the case in 2012 too. Our attention should be on the role we, as citizens, play in our own governance, and how we can – and must – hold our representatives accountable. It would be remiss of us to ignore the obvious flaws in the government we now have.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the FNM’s composition and campaign was the dearth of women candidates and this is now glaringly obvious given its overwhelming win. Is it possible to laugh at the absurdity of four seats going to the PLP while ignoring the fact that women hold the same number of seats on the FNM’s side? Glenys Hanna Martin brings the final count of women in the lower chamber to five. This is a slight decrease in representation from the 2012-2017 term.

It’s rather troubling that the FNM claims to champion women’s rights but did not give attention to women’s representation on its slate. In appointing Cabinet Ministers, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis gave no attention to this issue, appointing only one woman – Lanisha Rolle – and assigning her to the soft portfolio of Social Services and Urban Development. As a result, we are saddled with a government that does not come close to representing our population in terms of gender.

Additionally, the FNM manifesto – like the PLP Charter and Democratic National Alliance’s Vision – does not speak specifically to issues of gender, nor does it intentionally include gender in other sections like education, healthcare, or crime. This is a clear indication that the road ahead will be no easier for women and girls, or for the people who advocate for them. Issues like this are not yet being discussed, but we have no time to wait.

Most will agree that this election and the aftermath feels markedly different from those before it. The nation is enjoying a deep sense of satisfaction. We disagreed on ways to move forward, but largely agreed that the PLP was not to be victorious. For many Bahamians, it felt necessary to bite the bullet and vote for the non-PLP party most likely to win, even if they would have liked to support a different candidate and/or party.

This is the sacrifice of voting within the confines of our electoral system and its rules. While some wistfulness may remain, there is a general sense of ease and content across the country. We may not love our new leader, or think the manifesto is good enough, or be happy with the gender split, or have any idea who half the MPs are, or feel inspired by the flip-flopping between two major parties, but we voted the PLP out. It feels good. It feels like a win. It feels like we can breathe again.

What will happen when the dump starts burning again? How will we respond if the murder rate continues to rise? What will we do if all the talk about anti-corruption doesn’t move beyond conversation? What is the acceptable grace period for new governments?

I’ve been less than ecstatic about the results of the election. I’ve been indifferent about the outcome in terms of the party in leadership, convinced that no one party is better than the others, hence my role in Out Da Box. I remain concerned about our electoral system and dedicated to working toward the reform we desperately need.

When I saw the results, my first thought was, “We have no opposition.” I recalled the last five years and the lackluster performance of the FNM opposition twice the size of the PLP opposition we now have. Other people noted and raised this issue, much to the chagrin of indignant voters who thought it much too soon for anyone to dare offer any critique.

I’ve seen scores of Facebook posts by dedicated FNMs and swing voters who voted FNM, all sending a disturbing message. They say we should give it a rest. We should give Minnis and the FNM some time. We should wait and see what they do. They say if the FNM doesn’t perform, we’ll vote them out in 2022 – quite a long wait. They want us to be quiet, and let them enjoy their win. They also say we, the people, are the opposition now. It reminded me of a statement made my Out Da Box co-organiser Dr Nicolette Bethel.

“I do not need to be a candidate to be a part of the government. I already am the government. Democracy is government of the people by the people, and in our system it is effected by representation.”

We are the government, and we have elected people to represent us. The government includes the opposition. For this reason, I wonder if the Bahamian people are now realising that we have a role to play in our governance, and that we have not elected leaders, but representatives. Whatever the ratio of FNM to PLP Members of Parliament, it is their job to represent us, and to do that, they need to hear our voices.

Less than 160,000 votes were cast last week. Approximately 24,000 registered voters were disenfranchised or chose not to vote, and thousands of people didn’t even register to vote. Our system is flawed, and this has been proven over the past six months. Fortunately, exercising the right to vote in free and fair elections is only one part of democracy and citizenship. Whether we vote or not, we all have a voice – and many ways to use it.

If we believe we are the government, or that we are (or can be) the opposition, we have work to do. If we are to move forward, upward, onward, together, we must be able to find our shared vision, disagree respectfully and find ways to action the goals we agree on. We are at a time in our democracy where it is imperative that we not only believe in ourselves, but in each other. I challenge you to do what it seems the PLP could not, or did not. Believe in fellow Bahamians.

Let us focus more on the things we have in common and commit to active participation in governance. We have, in one day, withdrawn consent from a party and its candidates because we did not deem them worthy. Know that we do not have to wait five years to do the same if the representatives we have today refuse to hear our collective voice. It is, indeed, the people’s time. They said it and, now, we must own it.

, , , ,

Culture Clash: How the Political Parties Compare

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on May 3, 2017

With the general election one week away, the last debate organised by University of The Bahamas’ School of Social Sciences held last night and all plans of the three major parties published on their websites, it’s decision time.

We don’t hear much about the issues at rallies. They are celebratory in design and execution, bringing more music, one-liners and dancing than substantial plans for the next five years. Door-to-door visits are seldom made by the candidates themselves, leaving the questions of many constituents unanswered. Constituency offices are barely open until a few weeks before election, and rarely staffed by people with complete information, or even able to put constituents in immediate and direct contact with the candidate.

We have very little to go on as we approach the polls. I visited several constituency offices to request hard copies of their plans, but they all directed me to their websites. When I asked about options for people with limited internet access, I was met with no response.

While the plans are long, and not always organised or designed in the most intuitive ways, I found reading them side-by-side quite beneficial. I’ve chosen to focus on specific aspects of each of the three plans, and highlight some of their components to give a general idea of party promises.

PLP Charter 2017

The Progressive Liberal Party has identified, in Charter 2017, five key tools for development – environmental sustainability, good governance and civic responsibility, cultural development, youth empowerment, and technology. It’s action plan is divided into six areas of focus – expand opportunities, empower Bahamians, protect our citizens, care for our people, preserve what makes the Bahamas special, and strengthen citizen participation in governance. I find these titles quite odd, but the subheadings for each – not shown on the website but shown in the download – help to set expectations.

Charter 2017 can be viewed on six separate webpages or downloaded as an 84-page document. In each of its sections, Charter 2017 gives an overview of the PLP’s work since 2012. For example, Expand Opportunities boasts of over 40 per cent reduction in electricity costs (with no further explanation), the College of The Bahamas’ transition to University of The Bahamas, expected job creation through Baha Mar and expansion of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force fleet. It then lists plans for the next five years such as generation of new jobs through BAMSI, building a college-based city in North Andros, creating policies to ensure 75 to 80 per cent of tourism revenue remains in the Bahamas, implementing a revitalisation plan for downtown Nassau, and developing Exuma as an economic and transportation hub to bridge the northern and southern Bahamas.

The PLP’s Charter 2017 further promises the development of a Cultural and Creative Industries Sector yielding $200 per tourist ($1 billion of new revenue), alleviation of debt burden by capping interest, doubled investment in public school scholarships, creation of “Second Start” to help adults develop new skills, launch of a forensic laboratory, a biometric bail reporting process, development of Family Island health facilities to include new equipment and more doctors and nurses, and free electricity for those under (an unspecified) limit (expected to affect 15 to 20 per cent of low income households).

It also proposes the development of a Standing Forum for the Bahamian diaspora, inviting Bahamians to return annually, bringing their talent, skills and experience to work toward national development. Some components appear to be copied from the Vision 2040 National Development Plan (NDP) of the Bahamas such as Services Bahamas – one-window access to a range of government services. It, of course, also includes buzzwords like Freedom of Information Act and references to widely demanded systems like consultative processes with green papers and white papers and a paper-free public service.

Charter 2017 is relatively easy to read, laid out in bullet points with bold type for key phrases. The points do not include much details, but give a general idea of what the PLP intends to accomplish, why, and how.

FNM Manifesto

The Free National Movement (FNM) Manifesto is a much more basic plan with less detail, mostly stopping at the mention of an item. the manifesto is divided into 23 sections including immigration, healthcare, economy, good governance, education, judicial reform, tourism, and the environment. there does not seem to be a one-click option to download or even view the full plan. the website offers a history of the party and a biography of the party leader, but there is no framing of the manifesto.

In its social agenda, the FNM commits to the implementation of the Disability Equal Opportunity Act and lists a number of specific actions such as making parking in disabled parking spots an offence and establishing facilities so caregivers could have respite. It seeks to create a Ministry of Environment, inaugurate a National Clean-up Day, and phase out use of plastic bags by 2020. On crime, the FNM proposed a zero-tolerance approach, shares the PLP’s interest in a forensic lab and plans to “eliminate habitats where criminally flourish”.

Interestingly, the FNM has a section on public life which lists seven principles. They are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. Each item is explained, and would suggest FNM candidates make their public disclosures on time and are transparent about their decisions. In general, the plan is quite difficult to read, because it requires visits to 23 different pages, used colour backgrounds and has multiple nested lists. Unfortunately, with such simple line items, it does not feel like it is worth the work.

DNA Vision 2017 & Beyond

The Democratic National Alliance (DNA) has Vision 2017 & Beyond on its website, easy to view and download. The 62-page document begins with the vision and mission, message from the party leader and a list of 23 priorities for its first year should it win the election.

These include forming a Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, launching Commissions of Inquiry on Baha Mar and Bank of The Bahamas, raising minimum wage to $250, establishing a national lottery and legislating for the reinforcement of capital punishment.

Vision 2017 & Beyond is divided into eight areas of focus – good governance, national security, business and the economy, youth, education and culture, energy and the environment, healthcare and social policy, and Grand Bahama and the Family Islands.

The DNA has the strongest response to the demands of Bahamians who want political and electoral reform. It states its commitment to establishing the Office of the Ombudsman, an anti-corruption act, revision and strengthening of the Public Disclosure Act and making the Attorney General an independent position. Vision 2017 & Beyond also speaks to electoral reform, listing campaign finance reform, fixed election dates, term limits, recall of MPs and moving to a proportional representation system.

Through its plan, the DNA commits itself to reducing electricity costs by 50 per cent, move toward having 40 per cent renewable power by 2027, formation of a National Procurement Agency to oversee tender processes, developing a unified bus system, reducing public debt to 65 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2022, and reducing unemployment to eight per cent by 2021. It also makes mention of “one-stop portal” for the Business Licence Unit, which is akin to the one-window service in the NDP. The party also includes smaller projects that, no doubt, can be undertaken by its candidates whether they win or lose. These include the online “super library” and the fruit tree planting drive.

It’s interesting to consider the plan of the DNA and derive its value. The approach to crime is questionable, particularly when considering the impact of another maximum security prison, increased foot patrol and capital punishment. Punishment seems to get more focus than crime prevention, or addressing the issues that can lead to crime.

Comparing the three parties’ plans is not an easy task. They do not use the same style, and do not even focus on the same areas. Still, even a quick read gives a sense of values, priority areas, feasibility. The PLP Charter 2017 is the most detailed of the three, and likely benefitted from the NDP. The FNM Manifesto has simplicity, but lacks substance. The DNA has buzzwords and pet issues front and centre, but does not explain process. These plans will not give us all the answers, but in one week, we have to make a choice. It’s on us to be informed and prepared, and make our way to the polls on May 10 to make our marks.

, , ,

Culture Clash: Last Call for Voter Registration

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on April 5, 2017

According to reports from the Parliamentary Registration Department, 141,698 people had registered to vote as at March 20 for the 2017 general election .

Voter registration has been remarkably slow, and attention was first drawn to it in the last quarter of 2016.

On November 16, it was reported that only 57,000 people were registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011 before the last election.

Voter registration is expected to increase given the announcement that Parliament will be dissolved on April 10, ending voter registration for the 2017 general election. More than 30,000 people would need to register to vote before Tuesday to meet the 2012 voter registration count of 172,128.

For many years, we have boasted about high voter participation in general elections in the Bahamas. In the 2012 general election, 91.2 per cent of registered voters participated. In the general elections of 2007 and 2002, we saw 92.08 per cent and 90.18 per cent of registered voters cast ballots. While 90 per cent is quite high, it is important to note that these numbers are based on the number of people registered to vote; not the number of people eligible to vote.

It is unfortunate that our system puts the onus on the citizen to opt-in to the exercise, forcing Bahamians to gather documents, stand in long lines, complete forms, and sometimes return multiple times, all to ensure that they are able to vote in this country. The voter registration process is a barrier to participation. Perhaps it is a part of the reason for low voter registration, especially when so many people remain unconvinced by any political party or candidate.

When the numbers were revealed in November, showing that less than 50 per cent of those that registered by November in 2011 registered by 2016, we all knew it was a cause for concern. Everyone asked the same question. Why?

We see ourselves as enthusiastic participants in general elections. We show up en masse for rallies. We dress in party colours. We assume party affiliation based on the colours other people wear. We argue passionately about our political persuasions. Many of us are longtime swing voters, unattached to any party. No matter what, we are generally excited to vote. After five years or – worse – ten years of a particular administration, we are ready to make the switch. We have a long list of grievances with the current administration, and we know they need to be taught a lesson.

For that reason, we vote them out. We rarely vote a new administration in. More often than not, we vote an administration – a political party – out.

This time, people are a combination of angry, disappointed, dissatisfied and confused. Not to be mistaken for apathy, what Bahamians seem to be feeling now is a sense of hopelessness. We see no saviours. No political party even appears to have it all together, able to present a plan it is prepared to act on. From leadership feuds to overall track records, no political party has been able to gain the trust of the people. In 2017, most of us have no one to vote for. Even so, many Bahamian are committed to voting the current administration out, whatever it takes.

This is not exciting. This is not positive. This is not the kind of election season we know and love. It does not make us want to stand in long lines to register to vote. Still, it is what we need to do. We need to seriously consider the options, based on candidate, party leadership, plans of action, track records, and voting history in Parliament on issues of interest to us.

In February, Out Da Box launched what has been deemed the “spoil-the-ballot” campaign – part of a larger movement to build people power through increased civic engagement. I have worked with Dr Nicolette Bethel and Dr Ian Strachan for months to build this movement, now primarily focused on encouraging Bahamians to participate in the general election exercise. We do not want our fellow Bahamians to believe they must choose the lesser of the evils or sit it out.

Our commitment to building people power and creating a space for greater civic engagement is not temporary, nor is it limited to the upcoming election. We see this campaign as a step toward a stronger spirit of activism and the beginning of a sustained conversation about electoral reform.

The short term goal of Out Da Box is get eligible Bahamian citizens to register to vote, then go to the polls to cast ballots. We present the option to spoil the ballot as an alternative to staying home or voting against one’s conscience. This campaign is building democracy and expanding the options of the Bahamian people through a national conversation about something that has always existed and never been publicly discussed – the ability to choose none.

Every Bahamian deserves the right to choose, whether that choice is one or none. Unfortunately, anyone who does not register to vote gives up the right choose on election day. After Parliament has dissolved, the option to vote will no longer be available to those who have not registered. It is important to give yourself the option by registering to vote before Tuesday, April 11. The lines are likely to be long and the process probably won’t be the most pleasant experience of the day, but your right as a citizen of this country is worth the time and effort.

Remember this: even if you do not support a political party or candidate, you can show up on election day. You can spoil your ballot. Some people are thinking about opting out in protest, as a sign of dissatisfaction, but that cannot be quantified. Spoiled ballots will be counted, and we will all be able to see how many Bahamians did not endorse a party or candidate.

If you support a party or candidate in your constituency, let your ballot reflect that. If you are committed to voting against a particular party, let your ballot reflect that. If you refuse to choose from the options put before you, let your ballot reflect that. Be clear about your position. Let it be counted. Let there be no mistake, no assumption and no confusion. Let your voice be heard. Bahamian democracy needs you.

Voter registration stations remain open up to and including Monday at 9pm. For those already registered, voter’s cards are now available at several locations including Thomas A Robinson National Stadium, Remnant Tabernacle Church and St. George’s Anglican Church. Call the Parliamentary Registration Department at 397-2000 to find out where you need to go to collect yours before all cards are relocated to the Department on Farrington Road.