By Frederick Smith, QC
LIKE many I remain an ardent supporter of the FNM, but like many, I too am frustrated, exasperated and discouraged at the dissonance exhibited by my party.
I continue to hear many of its leaders, including the Prime Minister, speak of progressive change and reaching for pre-election commitments made. I remain confident in Doc’s sincere expressions of democratic reform. Sadly, little has changed, except for the passage of more and more inquisitorial and arguably unconstitutional legislation and polices that were never mentioned in our manifesto.
True, Rome was not built in a day; and the resurrection of Freeport may arguably take three! But if we are to win the next election - and 2022 is just around the corner - we must be bold and progressive, particularly in Grand Bahama. Grand Bahama should be a crucible of experimentation and change (like it was successfully in 1955). Government should take extreme progressive steps and cut the red tape and roll out the red carpet. The FNM does not have to re-invent the wheel! Freeport, armed with the Hawksbill Creek Agreement and some tax extensions, will create prosperity for the entire Bahamas and our FNM will remain in power for decades, term after term.
If this government does not resurrect Freeport it may very well lose the next election. Freeport is the key to the nation’s future and success. Until and unless Nassuvians experience Freeport they have a visceral difficulty understanding this.
The PM and Min. of GB, Kwasi Thompson are well meaning and say the right things, but that does not convert into action on the ground, and more to the point immigration continues to be an albatross drowning Grand Bahamas’ exponential potential.
There are many promising signs on the horizon for the once Magic City, but none will come to fruition unless the government gets control of the Immigration Boogie-Man in Freeport!
If it does not, heaven forbid, but the PLP, like Freddie Krueger-Mitchell may be back to terrorise us!
The world is changing, why aren’t we?
But all is not lost. Hope springs eternal in FNM Country. We are survivors. If the FNM won’t effect fundamental change, then maybe a Third Force needs to do so!
The world is changing all around us, yet politics in The Bahamas remains mired in the early 1970s. Social conservativism, religious fundamentalism, economic paternalism, xenophobic immigration policies – our national discourse is trapped in an unprogressive time capsule, endlessly rehashing the same tired old ideas and priorities, concerns and hang-ups that have dominated since before independence.
Young, progressive individuals enter politics all the time, but they are quickly swallowed up by The Machine, transformed into unthinking automata, slaves to the will of their political masters. The fact is, there is no changing the status quo through membership of either the FNM or PLP as the Westminster system, especially in small developing states, leaves no room for individual action.
Each elected member is chosen by, serves at the pleasure of and remains beholden to the party leader for the duration of their political career. Outspoken members can object, but the result is removal from positions of influence and income and political impotence for the duration of their term. Troublemakers are unlikely to be chosen to run a second time.
Whereas in England, Australia or other large Commonwealth countries, it is theoretically possible to mount a coup against, or at least apply pressure to a leader from within a party. Thirty nine seats is simply too few for this to be a realistic possibility here. Just ask Andre Rollins or Loretta Butler-Turner – both undoubtedly well-intentioned, both doomed to failure before they began.
Lessons from history
If new, progressive ideas are to enter the political bloodstream, they must be introduced as part of a movement from outside the main parties. But, according to accepted wisdom, this too is impossible. Politics in The Bahamas remains a de facto two-party system and anyone seeking to affect change independent of the FNM or PLP is simply wasting time and money. But it does not have to be so.
True, our history is littered with the carcasses of failed political projects – the Bahamas Democratic Movement, the Coalition for Democratic Reform, the National Development Party, the Workers’ Party and on and on.
After contesting two elections in which it won no seats, the most recent example, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), now appears to be on its last legs. Such political disasters are often portrayed as cautionary tales, warnings to would-be nation builders against striking out on a different path.
But this is to forget the lesson of one particular cluster of successive ‘third force’ movements, which achieved such amazing success that for a short time they actually held the title of Official Opposition, relegating the FNM to the status of ‘also-ran’. In the 1977 general elections, the upstart Bahamian Democratic Party shocked the political establishment, receiving 27 percent of the votes and winning six seats. The PLP won 30 seats and the FNM just 2. The BDP did include a number of established political figures like former premier Sir Roland Symonette, but it was also home to progressive liberals with daring, unorthodox ideas.
The BDP and its offshoots, the Social Democratic Party and the Free National Democratic Movement, were hotbeds of creative thinking, bold vision and courageous political activism. This was short lived, and by the time of the 1992 election, these groups had been reabsorbed into the FNM which went on to win the government for the first time.
Fleeting though it was, this extraordinary political moment showed the potential of ‘rogue’ outsider movements to have a substantial impact on the political landscape, disrupting the status quo by injecting progressive, enlightened ideas into the mix. It is no mistake the unification of all this restless, combative energy was immediately followed by the first change in government in the history of an independent Bahamas. The FNM owes a profound though unacknowledged debt in this regard.
Most Third Force movements fail to make an impact because they agree to play the game according to the Big Boys’ rule-book. For example, outsider parties have felt pressure to field a full slate of candidates in order to be taken seriously as a viable option. They universally fail to convince a majority of voters to make them the government, and pour untold time and resources down the drain in the process.
But we don’t need to actually win an election to create change. If the aim is to force the executive - whichever party may be in power - to consider ideas, policies and initiatives that are unpopular with the current political class, it is enough to disrupt the balance of power by becoming the potential “spoiler” of any party’s plans and aspirations.
All a Third Party or even a loose alliance of progressive independents need do is target a handful, say eight to 10 winnable seats, and convince the voters therein that their interests would be best served by empowering parliamentarians who are beholden to no-one but their constituents.
In the past, independent MPs have failed to make an impact on behalf of their communities, because a lone voice in the wilderness is not enough to sway a government’s decision-making process. But a group of eight MPs has the power to make or break any vote in Parliament, to scrap any piece of legislation the government may want to pass, to bring the executive to its knees when it comes to passing the annual budget, unless and until its concerns are taken seriously, its ideas passed into law, its policy suggestions incorporated into the running of government.
Such a group need not go to the expense and trouble of forming an official party, ratifying a constitution or writing a manifesto. It need not work to attract candidates that agree on all points of politics and governance. Its members need only set aside their differences and focus on a core set of ideas upon which they agree, commit to working together to push for these ideas, and exert pressure in Parliament to ensure that their shared vision for the country has a voice at the table, regardless of which party is in office. And more to the point, have the confidence of the big election financial donors, thus starving the PLP and FNM of large scale political election funding.
The forgotten in our midst
The hardship and neglect suffered by Grand Bahama over the past 50 years makes that island’s six seats the ideal target for such a movement. Usually considered FNM country, the fact is Grand Bahama is so fed up with being ignored, overlooked, forgotten that any message of hope and meaningful change will be enthusiastically received. It is also true that on the whole, Grand Bahamians tend to be less conservative in their views, and more tolerant and broadminded in their perspective, than the average Nassuvian or Family Islander. They are far more accepting of the notion that we need fundamental, radical change because they feel the effects of five decades of stagnation more than most.
It would not be too difficult to find three or four constituencies in Abaco or Nassau that also feel they have been forgotten, neglected or wronged by the political establishment as a whole, either left to fend for themselves in poverty or marginalised, left out of the national conversation because of ethnicity, cultural distinctiveness or the unwelcome nature of their ideas.
But resonating with a target audience is not enough, as the DNA can testify. To win elections in The Bahamas, you need money. For this reason, perhaps the most important audience for such an alliance are individuals, business interests and social groups that possess financial power but lack political clout.
Many in this category donate to political organisations already, but are routinely left feeling frustrated and impotent when the ideas and initiatives they support are cast aside following each election. This is not to suggest a quid pro quo arrangement regarding government contracts or favours; that would be tantamount to corruption. But, if a person has been convinced to financially support a political organisation on the basis of supposed shared ideals they have a right to feel betrayed when those ideals are summarily abandoned, sacrificed on the alter of power, as soon as the cheque is cashed.
Rage against The Machine
In my view, what The Bahamas is screaming out for is a group of political hopefuls who can coalesce around a set of ideas that directly challenge the institutional biases, stagnant policies and sterile perspective of the status quo and point to a new path toward peace, success and prosperity.
We need politicians who want an open and liberal economy, where regulation, red tape and bureaucracy are kept to a minimum and Bahamians can borrow capital easily, move money overseas at will and invest in foreign and domestic enterprises as they see fit.
Politicians who want to ease the stranglehold of racist immigration policies and invite the world’s best and brightest in groundbreaking fields and emerging technologies to our shores.
Politicians who actually believe in freedom of information, transparency, accountability and small government.
Politicians who are not afraid to think outside of the box and want to break the grip of the current political elite on all aspects of this society, whether moral, economic or legislative.
I know there are financial interests in this country which would support such an agenda and would be more than willing to fund an intrepid group of parliamentarians whose aim for once is not to ‘take over’ and become the new boss, but rather to exert just enough strategic pressure to ensure that daring, progressive, unpopular ideas can enter into the conversation and have a chance at helping to mould a future for The Bahamas that would benefit of us all.
We owe this to our future!