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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.