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Culture Clash: The Lessons We Can Learn from the Budget

The world of partisan politics is never dull. The Budget Communication certainly makes for a lively few weeks, full of debate, pontification, and a range of emotions. It is probably the time we are most attentive to the government and political maneuverings aside from election season. It gives insight into the real agenda of administrations and reveals values like nothing else. In their contributions, our representatives show us, in practice, what is important to them. They speak to specific parts of the budget as we listen for signs that they are just another cog in the wheel, or thinking representative giving due consideration to the everyday realities of our lives before taking a position.

More information please

The 2018-2019 budget could keep us talking for days on end. The controversy and confusion that arise from the budget debate often lead to conversations, arguments, research, and critical thinking, increasing our knowledge and understanding of governance and government. Other events — like the vote of no confidence by the rebel seven in 2016 — become practical teaching tools and open our eyes to what was previously unknown. Many of us only recently learned that the official Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is not necessarily the opposition party leader. We are learning as we go.

How is that working for us?

Sure, there is always more to learn. Yes, it is great that we are able to start and sustain conversations in the aftermath of political events that lead to an expansion of individual and national knowledge, but are we figuring it all out too late, and too piecemeal?

We are in desperate need of a national civics lesson. Yes, some schools have civics class, but not all of them. It should be a requirement at every school in The Bahamas. If we can give five-year-olds projects on the governor generals of The Bahamas, we can offer civic education to school-age children. There should be educational programming on television and radio, supplements in newspapers, open online courses, and resources in public libraries. If political parties and candidates can go door-to-door with their paraphernalia, they can make information about the Westminster system, political history, and governance easily accessible to every Bahamian resident.

Voting against party position

Over the past few days, we have been talking about the four FNM Members of Parliament who voted no on the bill to increase Value Added Tax to twelve percent. Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine, Bain and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson and Centreville MP Reece Chipman did not support the VAT increase, and seven other FNM Members of Parliament did not show up to vote. This came after Attorney General Carl Bethel said “the whip is on” and suggested to anyone voting no, “you may as well tender your resignation at the same time that you vote with the opposition.”

Many people of varied political allegiances expressed disdain, shock, and disappointment at the Prime Ministers actions yesterday. Robinson and Miller were terminated from their parliamentary secretary positions at Ministry of Tourism and Aviation and Ministry of Social Services respectively, and McAlpine was terminated from his position as chairman of the Hotel Corporation. Their termination letters referred to Part III, Section 21 of the Manual of Cabinet and Ministry Procedure.

Following their budget contributions, it was made clear to these Members of Parliament that they had a decision to make. They could support the budget in its entirety, including relevant bills, and keep their appointments or they could represent their constituents by not supporting every aspect of the budget and be terminated. They chose to stand for the people, knowing the consequences stipulated by the Westminster system.

The Minnis mistake

Minnis is obviously trying to look strong. He is opposed to compromise. He is not interested in engaging the press, or communicating with the Bahamian people. He wants to eat lunch. He disappears and goes quiet, pushing other people to the fore. Maybe he thinks we will not see him as the bad guy. Maybe he thinks if he is not the one to deliver the bad news, we will not know where it came from. One thing is certain — he does not take kindly to being opposed, questioned, or criticized. That is too bad, especially since opposition, questions, and criticism could be instructive, especially for someone so clearly out of touch.

Minnis does not seem to understand the implications of the budget. He has not grasped the fact that the Bahamian people are not interested in any of the spins being offered. We are especially not going to accept the idea that we have to suffer now to benefit later.

Minnis said, ”My budget is not necessarily about VAT. My budget is more about a better tomorrow for the young people of this country, the future.”

In two sentences, he took ownership of the budget, demonstrated his lack of awareness of the general understanding of the budget and the most dominant component, and suggested that there is a focus on youth and the future. There is too much in that statement to refute here and now, but young people are not buying it; especially not after Robinson’s termination yesterday.

The Robinson effect

Many people are confused by what has taken place. Some are likening Minnis to dictators and fascists. There have been numerous questions about the validity of this move, whether or not it was necessary, and possible loopholes. More than anyone else, Travis Robinson has the attention of the Bahamian people — especially young people. For many, his termination feels like a punch to the gut. We have to remember, however, that he remains the representative for Bain and Grants Towns, that was what he wanted at the beginning, and his current situation is the outcome of fulfilling his duty to the people of that constituency. He has done what many others have failed to do. He consulted with his constituents and spoke on their behalf, even when it was to his own detriment. He has proven that a young person who is new to politics and has been courted by a major political party can truly represent the people.

What will this do for Bahamian politics? Maybe we will see a wave of more inspired leaders and leadership emerge. There could be new boldness. Perhaps we can expect present and future Members of Parliament to give careful consideration to everything put before them, consult with constituents, and truly work for them rather than the party. We may get representatives who care more about our communities than their own titles and salaries. Didn’t this seem unrealistic a short time ago?

Whether or not we see change, incremental or substantial, in the practice of politics depends on more than one person. Travis Robinson, at the very least, took a risk. What about us? What is our response going to be? Beyond the initial social media posts and paraphrasing of what others have said, what are we going to do?

At this point, our action is just as important as his. If we want to see more representatives truly representing us, we have to show it with our support. That means resisting the urge to make jokes about his lost income, and going beyond the lazy explain-it-away method of posting a screenshot of the relevant Westminster rule or section of the cabinet manual. Okay, the system brought us here. What now? What of that system? Is it serving us?

We talk about democracy in very general terms, and most of us have done very little to learn more about it. We go through the motions of a specific part of democracy. We vote every five years, and spend all the time in between making threats about what we will do with our one vote when the time comes again. Democracy is and must be more than that. We have to be able to talk about what it has and has not been for us, and co-create a better functioning democracy that goes beyond a vote. We can have our say on any day at any time, if only we learn to tap into the power of the collective. When we do, as Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper put it, “The day of reckoning is going to come. And that is the beauty of democracy.”

Published in The Tribune on June 20, 2018.

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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.

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Culture Clash: When Leaders Fail To Lead

We often talk about leadership. It is a hot topic on the radio, at church, within civic groups, in politics, in schools and at conferences and training sessions. Everyone has wisdom to impart on the subject. We are not likely to ever come to a consensus on whether leaders are born or made, but can all see there are skills every leader needs to have and hone.

In many cases, leaders lack the skills to effectively move toward the vision and this can happen for many reasons. Sometimes they overstay and either don’t realise the environment has changed and the culture has shifted, or they don’t care. At times, leaders have been thrust into their positions out of convenience or because there was no one better at the time, so they were never quite ideal or ready for the job. In other cases, leaders don’t share the vision, don’t have buy-in, or fail to communicate effectively.

We see these issues in organisations throughout the country and it eventually plays out publicly, prompting pressing questions. In recent weeks, three leaders have shown themselves lacking in leadership skills, largely because they failed to fully review an issue, consider impact on communities and take an appropriate position. Their missteps and inactions highlight the need for conviction, consultation, delegation and apology.

Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis and the non-position

When the Prime Minister is asked a question, he is expected to have a response. When he is asked a question about heavily debated issue, related to legislation, we ought to demand he takes a position.

Unfortunately and embarrassingly, Minnis lacks at least one of the following: decisiveness, confidence and honesty.

There is no other reason for him not to say exactly where he stands on issues of national importance. When he refused to make public his position on the four constitutional amendment bills that went to referendum in 2016, Bahamians should have paid attention and understood what it meant. Political parties declared their positions, as did individual Members of Parliament and all present were required to vote before the bills could go to referendum. He participated in the referendum. Why did he choose not to state his position?

Even given his refusal to say how he voted in the referendum, Minnis was elected Prime Minister in May 2017. We can’t feign shock now that he has refused to take a position on the marital rape issue. Instead, he said, “As prime minister I don’t have personal views anymore.” Has he ceased to be a human being? This would explain quite a bit, but doesn’t seem likely. Oddly, he didn’t see fit to share a prime ministerial or national view on the issue.

As Bahamians, it would be helpful to know whether or not the Prime Minister of this country believes consent is mandatory, sexual intercourse without consent is rape and married women retain rights over their own bodies.

The same is true of all Members of Parliament. We deserve to know. It doesn’t seem enough to say Minnis’ response was a cop-out.

He said the issue, along with any other new legislative issues, would be taken to the public first, allowing the people to speak. Does this mean a referendum? Will there be wide public consultation? What would constitute, in his mind, fair representation of the Bahamian people?

If Minnis is decisive, he is certainly not confident. He is afraid of sharing his opinion with the public and, if he is afraid of us, we certainly have cause for concern. When a man who campaigned on accountability and transparency claims he doesn’t have a personal view, something isn’t right. He is not prepared to be honest. Equally troubling, he does not see fit to defer to experts on his team. He did not even point to someone who conducted research, had professional experience, or was even in the early stages of public consultation.

The entire nation was talking about the very specific issue of marital rape and legislation, and the Prime Minister had no personal view. No conviction.

Rolle and the “private matter”

Minister of Social Services and Urban Development Lanisha Rolle took the position that marital rape is a “private matter”. She also said she does not support any form of violence against women.

Cognitive dissonance is evident here, as well as failure to consult with experts and consultants within her own Ministry. Leaders must be able to self-assess, take regular inventory of resources and determine who is best-suited to do what.

Rolle, however, fails to recognise her own deficiencies and does not lean on the knowledgeable staff within the Ministry who have been there long before her appointment.

When asked for her position on marital rape, she could have easily referenced CEDAW, the Gender-based Task Force Report, or any of the projects in the pipeline for the Department of Gender and Family Affairs, formerly known as the Bureau of Women’s Affairs.

Has she taken the time to learn about the departments within the Ministry? Can she identify key personnel? Does she have a working knowledge of conventions like CEDAW?

Leaders become liabilities when they do not do the work, have values in conflict with the vision, or refuse to admit lack of information and defer to a more appropriate person. Consultation and delegation are not optional; they are necessary.

Palacious and the non-apology

Last week, we saw the Royal Bahamas Police Force expose its own misogyny and institutional rape culture and the RBPF got the backlash it deserved.

Archdeacon James Palacious saw fit to defend the RBPF, and show his own cognitive dissonance. He tried to say no one deserves to be raped while saying women and girls need to dress differently to avoid sexual assault.

Palacious faced fierce rebuke for his irresponsible comments and issued a non-apology. Leaders make mistakes and must learn to make proper apologies. An apology does not include “I am prepared to stand by what I did say.” That is the opposite of an apology. To apologise, one must be sorry, recognising a wrong and acknowledging it to those affected and privy to it.

Further, an apology is not a resume and should not include all of the great things about the person who has done wrong. Admit to the wrong, make amends with those harmed and commit to doing and being better. When a leader is able to make a proper apology, it shows emotional intelligence, capacity to learn, and growth.

When they can’t apologise, ego is ahead of vision and care for community.

Leaders are not irreplaceable. If you are in a position of leadership now, a better person is being trained and will be ready to take over in month. They’ve been able to observe you and people like you and they’ve paired your practice with the theory they’re learning. If you want to stay where you are, you already have the wrong idea, but you won’t comfortably maintain your position without conviction and a proper leadership toolkit.

Consultation, delegation, and apology have to be in that toolkit, fit easily in your hand, and be ready to get to work.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on January 3, 2018

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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?