Posts

, ,

Culture Clash: Playing Follow the Leader

When we talk about leadership, we usually point to government as an example. The Prime Minister is seen as the ultimate leader. There is no one with more control. No one with greater power. No one with more responsibility. No one in a more important position. No one more unquestionable or beyond reproach. No one more silencing, domineering or undoubtedly correct. The prime minister is synonymous with leadership.

If you have managed not to rip this page to shreds, which of those statements made you uncomfortable? In which parts did you find irony? At which point did you think I could not be serious? What does this tell you about the way you feel about leadership in The Bahamas, and the positions and people we typically view as leaders?

Who’s in charge here?

It is interesting that we view politicians as leaders, even more than we see members of parliament as representatives. When we talk about leadership, it is often in ways that validate and celebrate dictatorial practices. One makes the decision for many. Consultation, if it exists at all, is at a minimum. The attitude is: “you put me here, so let me do my job”. This, however, only seems to work in one direction.

Members of parliament manage to say or demonstrate this to constituents, but ministers can not say this to the prime minister. It seems everyone is a leader until they have a leader, and in the presence of a high-level leader, all other leaders are stripped of the title.

Those who dare to behave like leaders, rather than subjects of the high-level leader, are scolded, belittled and threatened. The firstborn loses all authority when the parents get home from work.

What kind of leadership are we practicing if it is threatened by anyone else – even on our team – asserting themselves, offering criticism and developing solutions?

Leadership of a different kind

Minister of state for legal affairs Elsworth Johnson has been one of the only a few people to dare speak on even mildly controversial issues with any degree of honesty and both personal and professional understanding and obligation. In November 2017, he spoke strongly in support of proposed changes to citizenship law. Without pressing for people to adopt his position, he implored the Bahamian people to “come up to a higher level and accept certain truths as they exist in our society.” He encouraged respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

In March 2018, Johnson spoke to the issue of marital rape, noting people are not property. He encouraged a consultative process, accountability and transparency. He said: “It is accepted international standard that information maintained by the government is vital to civil society. That information when properly dispensed to members of civil society undergirds a democracy to give life to it and it allows people to properly involve themselves in the governance of the country.”

This is what we should expect of a leader. Willingness and ability to state positions on issues. Pushing the government to make information accessible to the public and provide opportunities for engagement.

Encouraging the public to participate in the process, access information and come to informed decisions. Johnson has demonstrated and exercised the ability to think for himself, challenge his colleagues and invite public discourse.

This flies in the face of the unspoken mandate of Bahamian ministers and members of parliament who are to tow the party line. The only opinion is the party’s opinion, the only challenge is to the Opposition, and the only reason to engage the citizenry is for votes.

Compare Johnson’s leadership with that of the “leaders” who refuse to take positions on hot button issues, sit small until their names are called, shy away from any forum giving citizens the opportunity to address them. Which do you prefer and which is most expedient for the head leader in charge?

Last week, Johnson went too far out of bounds. He dared to call for a chief justice to be appointed. Following the Bahamas Bar Association’s characterisation of no appointed chief justice as an “existential and constitutional crisis”, the former president of the Association spoke up. He said: “the right, transparent and accountable thing to do is for the PM to exercise his constitutional authority and appoint a chief justice”.

If a Minister disagrees and no one hears it, does it make a difference?

This is not disrespect. This is not unreasonable. This is a thought-out and explained position. Johnson said, rightly, that the vacancy should be filled. This is obvious. Without directly referencing the current state of the office – where senior justice Stephen Isaacs now serves as acting chief justice – Johnson challenged the self-loathing we all know exists in The Bahamas, and suggested that a foreign appointee would be properly compensated. Where is the lie?

Better yet, what is the problem? It is not what was said. It is where it was said, and who could hear it.

This must have made Prime Minister Hubert Minnis uncomfortable. Making this appointment was not on his agenda. He is busy balancing people’s-person and man-in-charge. It is not easy.

How can you be seen as a nice guy, but also have the respect of the people – especially those you consider to be beneath you? Having already called for a resignation and fired someone else very recently, we can only imagine the action taken to elicit the apology Johnson issued last week.

An apology for stating publicly what some say should have been a private conversation. A private conversation about a public matter.

We have grown so accustomed to being in the dark, to electing people and walking away, to being told our business is none of our business that anyone who attempts to involve us in the conversation is seen as out of order. We forget that they are employed by us. We, the people.

Who will lead next?

We have had a leadership crisis for some time now, and it continues. There are many new faces in the current administration, but has there been any real change? Can there be any substantive change within the same system that recycles not only people, but form and function?

The Bahamas is being governed using the same tactics we look back on and criticise, believing ourselves much evolved since the ‘70s. The play is the same. Same script, different cast. The actors of today learned from those of yesterday. They study and follow the notes left behind. They have bought into the same values, and have the same single-mindedness we rebuke and swear off with every election season. They are worn down. They join the cult.

Look at the ages of the people in positions of leadership, then look at the ages of the people in tomorrow’s obituary.

Look at the ages of the people locked out of the system or, when let in, are either silenced or brainwashed.

The leadership crisis continues. The crisis of representation continues.

We know public life is not easy, but do not often acknowledge that it is without reward for those determined to participate differently. Those who do not follow script. Those who speak out of turn. Those who do not bind themselves to convention or tradition, and do not feel indebted to the people or systems that brought them in to the point that they must become puppets.

We need to concern ourselves with the development of a new generation of leaders. In 20 years, who do we want to be at the helm, and how will we prepare them?

Watching Bahamian governance and listening to commentary would not encourage many people to be different. To speak up. To object. To demand better. To use positions of power to create change. We make leadership about popularity and longevity; not authenticity in the process of visioning, charting a path and equipping people for the journey.

Until we redefine it, it will be practiced in the same way, and we deserve to see change in more than time and faces.

Published by The Tribune on April 11, 2018.

,

Culture Clash: Raising Questions Over the Future of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on July 26, 2017

The results of the 2017 general election left The Bahamas in good spirits. Many of us have been in celebration mode for months, and insistent that we all temper our demands with patience and manage our expectations of the new FNM-led administration.

Criticism has generally not been welcome — an odd sentiment to express during “the people’s time” and unbecoming of a democratic nation. Fortunately, the second annual Future of Democracy Conference created a “people’s space”, inviting Bahamians to presentations, conversations, and workshops at University of The Bahamas to consider, critique, and address issues of governance and democracy.

Presentations and roundtables from educators, activists, community workers, Bahamians living abroad, (former) politicians, and practitioners covered a broad range of topics. Their questions, challenges, and messages spoke to the limited understanding and exercise of democracy, the (under)use of people power, and the need for better systems. A common thread throughout the two-day conference was the importance of civic participation and careful attention to systems, especially those that do not reflect the principles espoused by the Bahamian people or meet the needs of the collective.

Public Disclosure

For the past few years, there has been an increase in attention on public disclosure as required of Members of Parliament. It has become a part of the conversation about transparency and accountability, and civil society has demanded compliance with the law.

Perhaps more importantly, focus has been on Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition who are named by Article 8 of the Public Disclosure Act as responsible for publishing communication received from the Public Disclosure Commission to the House or Senate and/or provide information to the Attorney General or Commissioner of Police for appropriate action to be taken.

Such action has not been taken, presumably because Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have found their own Members noncompliant with the law, and are not more interested in lawfulness, transparency, and accountability than they are in the facade of the same and protection of their membership.

In his presentation at the Future of Democracy Conference, Lemarque Campbell explained the Public Disclosure Act in detail, and pointed out the deficiencies in the law and recourse for the Bahamian people. Anyone unfamiliar with the Act can access the recording of Campbell’s presentation on the Out Da Box Facebook page.

One of the expectations of the Bahamian people when they voted against the PLP, leaving us with the FNM by default, was an administration that valued and embodied the principles of transparency and accountability. We expected the FNM administration to repair the system that clearly has not worked for us thus far. Unfortunately, that has not happened, and there has been no indication that it will happen.

On July 12, it was reported that three parliamentarians missed the filing deadline, and the names had not been forwarded to the Attorney General. This came after the report that Public Disclosure Commission Chairman Myles Laroda was instructed to send the list by July 3, after the government-set deadline of June 30. What does this say about the FNM administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability? What does this mean for our democracy; in particular, the principle of the rule of law?

Can this same administration mete out punishment to PLP Members of Parliament of the last administration? Is that what democracy looks like? Is the law for some, not all? Are those in seats of power under no obligation to follow the laws of the land, and only subject to questioning and consequences when they no longer have the safety of seat in Parliament?

We must be careful not to be duped by the theatrics of politicians who act on their own time, in their own mysterious ways, and create events that appear (often in retrospect) to be designed for the gain of quick and easy points at best and mass distraction at worst. The current administration has not been convincing in its attempt to present itself as law-abiding, transparent, accountable, and for the people.

Death Penalty

National Security Minister Marvin Dames said, “We cannot have a lawless society and it is our job as the government to introduce new policies and to enforce old ones to make sure everyone is safe.”

It is unfortunate that the government does not seem up to the task. Not only is there no regard for rule of law as an equalizer among all people, regardless of position or affiliation, but complete disregard for human rights.

Yesterday, we learned of the FNM’s plan to push for the death penalty to be enforced — certainly only one part of their “zero tolerance” plan to curb crime which was not well-detailed in the party manifesto. The death penalty is a breach of two human rights protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the right to life and the right to live free of torture. The over-referenced theory that the death penalty is crime deterrent has been disproven in several countries.

This administration seems to be under the impression that punishment is equivalent to prevention — a gross error. The death penalty is only an option after a crime has been committed and the accused convicted. The country would have already suffered a loss, spent money on court proceedings, and put victims, witnesses, and their loved ones through significant trauma. Why is this administration’s response to the climbing murder rate a punishment — not a solution to the issue, but a scare tactic that has proven ineffective?

In discussing crime and creating systems and strategies to reduce crime, there must be a conversation about the difference between prevention and punishment. Punishment only happens and has effect after a crime has been committed. This is already something we, as a country, are not doing in the most effective way, failing to incorporate rehabilitation which results in high recidivism. Prevention is the area that needs the most focus. Civil society members from social workers and psychologists to researchers and economists should be invited to contribute to a national crime prevention plan. Bigger prisons, moving prisons, and capital punishment do not help people to resolve conflict, solve financial issues, or push students to finish high school. Crime is a systemic issue, and requires a robust, dynamic plan that responds to the environmental factors that lead to crime.

These two examples — public disclosure and the death penalty — are indicative of the FNM administration’s view to systems.

Our current position is a reflection of the same kind of thinking from a different group of people. To see the change we desperately need (and voted for), we need to build better, more instructive and responsive systems and see the too-little-too-late reactions for what they truly are — unproductive distractions. We, the people, must stop showing up for their poppy shows and demand the systems, policies, and recourse we need and deserve.

,

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.
, , ,

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: 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.

, , ,

Culture Clash: On People Power and Functions of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on March 22, 2017

As the general election of 2017 – date still unknown – draws near, conversations about democracy are being ignited, but largely limited to one of its functions.

The low rate of voter registration has led the Bahamian people to frame the act of voting as the only form of participation in democracy available to citizens.

While it is a direct action and right afforded to us through democracy, voting is not the only benefit of democracy. Additionally, the creation and maintenance of the political system is not the only function of democracy.

Democracy is a concept, system, and practice that we, as citizens of The Bahamas, need to understand. Many believe it to be limited to elections and voting, but it reaches far beyond such events.

Democracy has four main functions, three of which are often ignored while it is reduced to the first. While it is important to understand the theory of democracy, it is at least as critical to recognise all of its functions and put it into practice more fully and intentionally.

  • Political system

A democratic political system allows people to choose their leaders in regular, free elections.

Free, fair elections require a neutral administrating body to ensure fair treatment of all parties and candidates, allowance for individuals to monitor voting and the counting of votes and independent tribunals to hear disputes.

Beyond that, it allows the people to hold representatives accountable for their actions and inaction while in office. Democracy recognises the sovereignty of the people as government authority is subject to the people’s consent. Political power is only temporary while the power of the people is lasting and flows to their representatives at their will.

For this reason, those elected are to consult with their constituents to ascertain their needs and opinions to enable accurate representation. Through the democratic system, voters have the right to observe the conduct of government business, criticise elected representatives, launch and support campaigns, vote secretly and be free of intimidation as they participate.

  • Active participation

Like its benefits, the democratic burden does not fall solely on governments and political leaders to maintain, strengthen, and exercise it.

The onus is on citizens to be informed of national issues, observe the behaviour of elected and appointed officials, voice their concerns and challenge decisions imposed upon and ideas put to them.

While voting is an important exercise and a right afforded to citizens by the democratic political system, citizens are called to participate in public discussions. The voice of the people must be heard, and serve as a guide for political representatives who are to act in the interest of their constituents.

Participation is not synonymous with spectatorship. To fully participate in public life, citizens must be informed – and this often requires personal effort. Politically-driven narratives seldom give a full picture, and the media is not always capable, for many reasons, of delivering balanced reports. It is necessary to look at multiple news sources, ask questions and engage in conversations with people of varied persuasions. Democracy enables the people to actively participate through:

  1. Questions. Accept nothing as fact without evidence. Investigate claims and try to find multiple sources.
  2. Discussion. Share your thoughts and ideas with other people. Engage with people who do not look like you, have the same background as you, or think the same way as you. The purpose is not to win, or be on the side of popular opinion. Enter conversations with gaining new perspective as your goal.
  3. Challenges. Do not settle for less than you deserve. Make demands of your representatives. Hold them accountable for their actions, demand transparency and insist upon regular reporting to and consultation with the people.
  4. Mobilisation. Be prepared to work together, as citizens, to find common ground, make a plan and take action. Your power is strengthened with activated along with that of your fellow Bahamians.

Participation includes joining political campaigns, protesting, petitioning, organising within communities and running for political office. Involvement in civil society organisations is another way to be an active citizen, and can allow for informal education and mobilisation around specific interests and causes.

  • Human rights protection

Human rights are inherent to all people, regardless of gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, language or any other identity marker.

They are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated. Human rights are promoted and protected by international law, and the standard has been set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the UDHR protects against discrimination, slavery, torture, and unfair detainment, and affirms the right to life, freedom of movement, equality before the law, right to trial, right to privacy and right to nationality.

International law grants every citizen human rights that cannot be denied. Citizens are free to speak, practice their religions, associate with people and organisations, assemble, travel and engage in a number of other acts. In a democracy, citizens have these basic rights that cannot be denied.

  • Rule of Law

Democracy is subject to a set of laws. These laws exist for the protection of citizens’ rights, to maintain order in the country and to limit the power of the people’s representatives.

This function exists to ensure that rule is not subject to the whims of an individual or group of individuals. Because of the rule of law, all citizens are equal, none being above the law, regardless of position. It allows for fair and impartial decision-making by independent courts, separate from the government, which is meant to limit the power of representatives.

The people of The Bahamas can only benefit when democracy functions properly, being exercised by the citizens to whom it extends specific rights.

One right afforded to us through democracy is the casting of a ballot in the next general election. To exercise that right, we must take proof of Bahamian citizenship to register to vote. This is an important exercise that enables us to choose our constituency representatives and, by extension, the leadership of the country. It is not, however, the only way to participate in our democracy, and to suggest such is both dishonest and disempowering to the Bahamian people.

Let us encourage one another to exercise the right to vote, but include the other functions of democracy and methods of participation in our conversations for balance, comprehensiveness and strengthening of people power.