ON December 10 the upper chamber of government withdrew a bill it anticipated would zip through without so much as a challenge. Called the Non-Profit Organisations Bill, 2018, it required the same kind of transparency for churches and non-profit organisations as is now required of real estate firms and has, for years, been mandated from banks and other financial institutions – strict know-your-client information. In the case of non-profits, the legislation would require organisations that nurture souls or feed the hungry or house the elderly or provide disaster relief to affected communities to reveal who their larger donors are and how they spend the donations.
It was not the meat of the legislation that caused the Senate of The Bahamas to choke.
It was the lack of public consultation and it became an embarrassment to an increasingly bold group of senators who, perhaps for the first time, are not acting as a body of ‘yes’ men and women, rubber stamping decisions by elected Members of Parliament in the Lower House which has traditionally taken the active role in making laws.
The Senate, in layman’s terms, got caught with its pants down. After this government was swept into office in May last year on the promise of transparency, accountability, public consultation and good governance, it failed to live up to one of its own tenets and it did so with a bill that it should have recognised would set off every fire alarm in the nation. Requiring churches to reveal who donated and how it was spent and not allowing for public consultation on the matter and expecting those leaders and others in civil society not to express outrage was like throwing gasoline on a dry haystack, lighting a match and being surprised that it catches fire.
Stakeholder engagement is as critical to good governance as is freedom of information or the right to freedom of speech or religion. Public consultation is a right of the people and a duty of the government, not an afterthought and we are very surprised the Bill requiring transparency among civil society and non-profits made it as far as it did without an opportunity for the public to be engaged with lawmakers. It was foolhardy on the part of government to think it could slide this Act through in an attempt to round off a compendium of greater transparency requirements demanded by the OECD and the US-based FATF (Financial Action Task Force).
The Tribune stance on this is very clear.
This is not a position about the legislation itself, but about the people’s right to be consulted. Public consultation is not only a basic foundation of good governance, it is a building block that reduces resistance, improves compliance and builds trust.
When the Attorney General Carl Bethel, an erstwhile intelligent man, stated bluntly the Senate - of which he is a member - would give the public a brief time to respond, but they would pass the Bill anyway, it was an insult that only served to further enrage an already affronted group of highly vocal and articulate persons, particularly those in associations like Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), whose sole role is to keep government in its place.
How much smarter would it have been for the Attorney General to say “mea culpa, in our haste to make good with outside forces and ensure that The Bahamas’ name and reputation were clear and the country did not appear on any list that would harm our citizens and investors, we neglected a basic duty, to engage the public. We will now allow for that and we look forward to the opportunity to meet, discuss, listen and consider.” It is not too late for Sen. Bethel to offer such a sentiment. Tempers flare in emotional situations. When cooler heads prevail, the public is surprisingly forgiving.
The FNM government helped to raise expectations by the promises it made prior to election. It was to be the People’s Time. It is still early in the life of this administration but the clock is ticking and people whose time it is are watching very closely.
In the end, public consultation serves the government as much as it serves the governed.