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An Aspirational Look to 2018

Coming out of a year of sitting around, watching and questioning, 2018 has to be a year of collective action.

From early on, we will not only pay attention to what is being said by whom, but scrutinise those words and hold them up against behaviour and supposed values.

We will find inconsistencies, wherever they are, and call on relevant organisations and individuals to address them.

In 2018, Bahamians will finally move beyond conversation and not just to participate in political stunts. We will be thoughtful in our contributions to national discussions, cautious in our commitments and unrelenting in our pursuit of the common good.

The people have been duped enough times to now recognise the tell-tale signs of liars, opportunists and manipulators and our experience will be put to the test.

Politicians, wannabe politicians, career criminals and those seeking celebrity will continue to use pressing issues to push their own agendas, tying up Bahamians thirsty for change in their webs of deceit. We will do our best to see these people miles away, ask the hard questions and listen to what they don’t say. We won’t have the time to warm seats or fill streets for anything other than a better Bahamas for all of us – and we know this. We’ll be more discriminating in the causes we take up, who we allow to lead us and how far we go without seeing a long-term plan.

This is the year of the sceptic. Conspiracy theorists will continue to buzz in our ears about other eras, curses and outlandish outcomes unnamed people are working toward. Those aren’t the sceptics, or the people the sceptics question. Most of us will become — if we haven’t already — untrusting. Leaders in all arenas will find it more difficult to gain support because we are determined to avoid all forms of trickery. We won’t be easily convinced and we will refuse to get on board without near-absolute certainty of the outcome.

It’s going to be a tough one. While we want to move from talk to action, there isn’t much we can accomplish alone. Unfortunately, we don’t know who to trust. We may be facing the toughest year yet, for politicians, yes, but it isn’t an election year. It’s going to be most difficult for the activists, advocates and civil society organisations that need buy-in.

So many have disappointed Bahamians over the past year it should not be surprising that we’re made to work much harder to gain trust, mobilise and take the kind of collective action that forces change.

Published by The Tribune on January 2, 2018

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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.
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Culture Clash: A Time To Believe In Our Fellow Bahamians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.