THE SENATE has a rare opportunity to make a difference in the future of The Bahamas this week when a certain Bill comes before it.
It can do the usual thing, make carefully crafted comments that largely go unnoticed though officially recorded, then rubber stamp the Bill as is.
Or it can act as the august body it is intended to be for once and send the Bill right back to the House of Assembly with strong recommendations. Asking the Senate to reject a Bill as presented is a bit like asking David to battle Goliath but when courage meets conviction, the seemingly impossible is possible.
Why, all of a sudden, is it so important for the Senate to find the testosterone it needs? Because never before in the short history of The Bahamas have the rights of Bahamians been threatened as they are today. Mere talk of the blanket authority to invade privacy by giving the Police Commissioner the right to intercept mail, e-mail and telephone conversations goes beyond the pale. Surely, the proposers of such legislation cannot believe that Bahamians would accept a concept that deprives them of their basic inalienable right to privacy.
Its impact on financial services, on domestic and foreign investment, on individual lives and the trust implicit in every business and social interaction would be instantaneous. Even the talk of such deprivation of human rights is dangerous. We would go so far as to state that never before has any government of The Bahamas proffered an idea so heinous and untenable, an idea that if it became reality would trample the basic rights of every individual in this country. It is a proposal that should die a rapid death. Bahamians should rise up in absolute indignation. If they do not, the usual apathy of the Bahamian public will slowly accept this horror as unavoidable and even acceptable because, after all, the government would not be proposing it if there were not a good reason.
Here is where and why the Senate can and must show its muscle.
The Bill that will come before it this week is the Freedom of Information Act. When the Act passed the House of Assembly, the Bill contained several - but not all of - the changes recommended by a coalition of 21 civil society and business organisations whose contributions were clearly stated and submitted in written form well within the published deadline for submissions. Those organisations ranging from the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation and Citizens for a Better Bahamas to Organisation for Responsible Governance and Save The Bays say they represent more than 100,000 persons. We did the math and we think the number could be even higher. They are worth listening to. In fact, we would say that any government that fails to heed the voices of 100,000 or more persons is a government too confident for its own good.
So what is the connection between the Senate, the Freedom of Information Act and the talk of the right to spy on ordinary Bahamians and residents?
The connection is the respect for rights that is at the foundation of any democracy. There can be no legitimate Freedom of Information Act that does not include the right to know what the government - meaning the employees of the people of the Bahamas - promised with contracts with bodies like BPL, BTC, NAD or what was presented to the BEST Commission. Yet, the Bill as it stands ignored the 100,000-plus voices that recommended including non-statutory bodies. One Facebook contributor whom we have never before seen comment on anything emerged from her widowhood this weekend to say she was “horrified’ that so many entities would be exempted and wanted to know what we could do about it.
The only thing we can do about it now is ask the Senate to stand up for what is right. Government’s excuse about why it is not including such deals in the public’s right to know is because there are so many and it would take up too much time to have to open the books and supply information to journalists and others. That is the weakest reason we have ever heard and we find it so unacceptable as to be laughable. What does it take to open a contract unless you have a reason for not wanting its contents to become public?
There were other recommendations, including the appointment of an independent Information Commissioner, which we believe is essential. However, for now, if the Senate does one thing to show that Senate voices matter, it would be to send the Bill right back where it came from and refuse to sign off on it until it covers all government transactions with the exception of those that truly endanger national security. Every contract with every entity, statutory or non-statutory, should be available upon request. Then and only then will there be a true Freedom of Information Act and then and only then will we believe that there are more than two branches of government with the Senate serving as the final rubber stamp.
Senators of The Bahamas, of both sides of the aisle and the new voice of the Senate, the Democratic National Alliance, this is your chance to stand up, stand out and make a difference in the future of The Bahamas.