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Culture Clash: Minnis’ Cabinet Shuffle

No matter how low we set our expectations, there seems to be surprise, embarrassment, and frustration at every turn. There has not been much to celebrate in recent weeks, the increase in Value Added Tax bringing a muddy tinge to our reality. It puts everything in a different perspective. We do not think about anything without considering the twelve percent VAT added onto it, or the twelve percent VAT that should cover it. This is about more than grocery. It is about management of funds, yes, but also about government operations and the way resources — especially human resources — are used.

We are more watchful, critical, and vocal when it feels like the money is coming directly out of our pockets, and it is. From the decision not to appoint new parliamentary secretaries with a reason — that the positions are unnecessary — pointing to a waste of $90,000 to reneging on the commitment to host the IAAF World Relays and, at the same time, claiming the Bahamian people “accepted” the VAT increase, the Prime Minister is obviously determined to do as he likes whenever he likes and create false narratives while refusing to acknowledge criticism.

Cabinet shuffle on our dime

The cabinet shuffle came at an unexpected time. This administration has not even been in for eighteen months and we have already ministers and permanent secretaries moved from one ministry to another. How is this beneficial to the Bahamian people? Is is cost-effective? Does it increase productivity? Is it a morale boost? There is no reason anyone can find to support this move.

When asked to explain the reason for the shuffle, Minnis said, “It gives individuals exposure and experience in all the different ministries. That’s why I don’t have any ministry. I have no ministry so I can look at all and learn about all.”

This raises even more questions. Why is the Government of The Bahamas in the business of offering work-study placements? We all know cabinet appointments are rewards to the faithful and the spineless. Prime Ministers treat those who have supported and spoken no ill of them with favor in the form of an additional salary. They would have us believe it is too much to ask for some consideration to the qualifications and experience suitable for each post.

It is clear that the intention is not to put people where they will perform best, or give ministries the benefit of experienced ministers. Minnis said, “Individuals are moved and they become knowledgeable in certain things. There is no so-called pre-training before you engage in a post. You learn and you become very good.”

Well, thank goodness for that. As long as the Ministers are benefitting from these educational experiences, right?

Of course most appointments depend on the limited range of education, skills, and experience of members of parliament elected, but due consideration to the optimal mix should be a part of the nomination process. There is no excuse for using government ministries — responsible for areas critical to our economic, social, and physical wellbeing such as health, education, youth, sports, culture, and tourism — as training grounds for people paid tens of thousands of dollars from the public purse. This is an insult and an outrage.

Minnis: Looking and learning or primary duties only?

As for the statement that Minnis has no ministry so that he can “look at all and learn about all,” similar concerns arise. Minnis is not the Prime Minister so he can get paid work experience in numerous fields. It is doubly troubling when we bring to mind his 2017 explanation for having no ministerial portfolio which is quite the opposite of this new line of reasoning.

“I made this decision in order to perform my primary constitutional duty as prime minister. This primary constitutional duty is the coordination and oversight of the Cabinet of the Bahamas,” Minnis said.

There is a difference between looking at and learning about all ministries and performing the primary duty of the Prime Minister. He should be able to entrust ministers with the task of overseeing their ministries and the departments therein and communicate regularly with the permanent secretaries, department heads, and cabinet. There is no reason for the Prime Minister to be intimately involved in every ministry, and no explanation for the waste of resources in reassignments and loss of productivity due to unnecessary, often disruptive changes.

Minnis said it himself. “You go in, you read, you understand, and many instances you become better than who was there, sometimes you’re not.”

A more believable version

Maybe we choose to buy the “exposure” story because it is easier to accept that the Prime Minister really thinks governance is a game of musical chairs, or appointments are collectible items and his people need to get as many as possible. What if there is another version of the story? Recall the appointment of Lanisha Rolle as Minister of Social Services and Community Development. People were not happy about it; least of all the people who celebrated the upgrade of The Bureau of Women’s Affairs to the Department of Gender and Family Affairs in 2016. The establishment of the Department felt like a step into the twenty-first century, but Rolle’s appointment was disappointing at best, terrifying at worst. She had already made it clear that she did not stand with the women’s rights advocates in The Bahamas.

It was, as expected, a disaster. The RISE (conditional cash transfer) program was discontinued in less than two months, never to be discussed again. Little, if any, information was provided to the press on this or any other issue. Regular meetings with women’s organizations suddenly stopped. It became more difficult members of civil society to get information. The then Minister of Social Services and Community Development outright refused to meet with many stakeholders. It seemed every single thing needed her approval, and this resulted in very little being done, and last minute announcements of events like National Women’s Week and International Women’s Day.

We learned from observation that her brand of empowerment, for women and those living in poverty, was the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps variety. There have been reports of her blatant disrespect of others and intentionally impeding progress on new and existing projects. She was certainly ill-suited to this ministerial portfolio, and it took far too long for her to be moved. Now, the question. Was this the real reason for the cabinet shuffle? Did Minnis finally get the memo — that Rolle needed to be moved from the Ministry — and choose other people to move at the same time in hopes that it would be less obvious?

If this is not the case, it is quite strange that the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture lost Michael Pintard. It is odd that only four ministers are being shuffled. The others must be just as deserving of the “exposure” Minnis is giving out at our expense.

There is more than enough happening — and not happening — to upset us. One of the most frustrating is certainly the lack of honesty and integrity that would prompt leaders and representatives to plainly state the reasons for their action. Lay out the logic behind decisions. It is not good enough to give a quick response to move on to the next question or end the engagement. Bahamian citizens must demand to be treated with respect. After all, we are the employers. We pay twelve percent VAT. That has to count for something.

Published in The Tribune on July 11, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Mps, Prove Your Worth Before Even Thinking About A Pay Rise

We, the Bahamian people, are frequent victims of the bait and switch. Parties in opposition agree with us, promise to represent our positions, then forget about us once they have consent to govern on our behalf.

They repeatedly fail to show their understanding of the duties we’ve entrusted them to carry out. Good intentions, wherever they existed, seem to fly out the window as they face off with their opposition and each other, figuring out how to make the most of their sudden privilege.

Do we reap the benefits of their arrangements, or are they purely personal? How can the perks of life as a Member of Parliament trickle down to constituents in need?

What should we be thinking about now, particularly as salary increase for Members of Parliament continues to dominate national dialogue.

The Member of Parliament: Who, What, and How?

The Member of Parliament is the presence and the voice of the people. The vote of the MP is a reflection of the constituency’s position on the issue. The MP is committed to amplifying the voices of their constituents after actively listening to and understanding them. The MP is accessible to constituents. There is an office, staffed and open during reasonable hours that are made known to the public. There are phone numbers and email addresses that work and messages are answered in a timely fashion. The MP is in the constituency on a regular basis and not only knows the needs, but addresses them without being asked by dozens, scores, or hundreds of people, or being shamed on social media. The MP sees to it road repairs are done, tree branches on power lines are moved and people are connected with organisations and individuals who can help meet their needs.

The MP meets with constituency members on a regular basis. The MP reports on proceedings in Parliament, provides information on bills being debated, updates members on participation in regional and national events, welcomes feedback, answers questions and considers constituents’ points of view before arriving at a position. Constituents are the first priority of the MP, never eclipsed by personal desires or party pressure. The MP knows the salary and expectations of the position before running for or accepting it and is prepared for that reality for the duration of the term.

What we got for our votes

Do we have MPs who know why they have a seat, remember who gave it to them and treat their constituents like their employers? Is there a way to assess MP performance? Are we, as Bahamian citizens, voters and employers, working together to access and keep record of MP positions on issues and contributions to debates?

The current administration campaigned heavily on accountability and transparency, but we have yet to see it develop systems that align with those concepts. In fact, it looks a lot like their version of accountability and transparency are only retrospective. They are more interested in exposing and punishing the previous administration, giving the nation a series of spectacles.

It is as though current MPs intend to ride out this term the same way the rode out the last one — pointing fingers and hoping to be seen as the lesser of the evils because they think we have no other choice. Are we prepared to let them think that? Do we want to give our votes to (members of) the party that does the least damage simply by doing the absolute minimum? Are we ready to demand true governance and evidence of the accountability and transparency they claimed to value throughout their campaign?

What is good governance?

In May 2017, the Bahamian people ousted the PLP and defaulted to the FNM with the expectation of receiving good governance. Good governance is accountable and transparent, but also responsive, inclusive and participatory. We know accountability is responsibility for decisions and their consequences as well as reporting on and explaining them to the people.

We understand transparency is the ability to see the decision-making process and being able to see the information and consultative activity that led to the chosen action. This administration has not brought us either of these things with reference to its own actions. It has spent months looking back, working to convince us we did that right thing in May, and they are not the worst option.

Have we heard anything about the decisions being made in Parliament? Has any MP invited constituents to discuss bills or policies under consideration? Where decisions have already been made, have we been shown the receipts? Can we see how and why our representatives, our employees, acted as they did? Do we have accountability and transparency?

Can we justify a pay increase?

As employers, we are no clearer on the activities of our MPs today than we were in April. They are not responding to our needs, including us in the decision-making process or encouraging us to participate by making information accessible, conducting polls or surveys or looking to us for recommendations.

Accountability and transparency are still just words being thrown around, stripped of meaning and purpose. How, in this state, can the Prime Minister even hint at increased salaries for MPs? There is no need to get into what has already been pointed out, including the fact MPs hold other paying jobs and many Bahamians have lost their jobs in recent months. More to the point and in keeping with the theme of accountability and transparency, why should we increase pay for MPs when we don’t even know what they are doing? We do not receive reports. We are not invited to give performance evaluations.

We depend on the media to clue us in to what is happening in the country and, more specifically, in Parliament. We do not receive regular communication from our employees, but we are expected to pay them more. For what? Even better, with what? Where is the money supposed to come from? Would this be part of a larger exercise to address the plight of most Bahamian people in the labour force? Is this administration ready to talk about a living wage?

A few things must be made clear. Compensation must be commensurate with performance. The Bahamian people need to observe and participate in monitoring and evaluation. There must be a recall system. Sitting MPs should not be responsible for deciding on their own salaries. To go further, perhaps any raise in salary should come into effect at the start of the next term — in 2022. Until we truly have good governance — accountability, transparency, responsiveness, inclusivity and participation — we must reject all requests for salary increases. Let’s not forget who is really in charge here. It’s the Bahamian people who would have to pay. Can we afford it?

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 15, 2017

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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.