By FREDERICK R M SMITH, QC
This article, the second in a two-part series, deals with initiatives to strengthen rights and privileges of individuals and communities. The first instalment, ‘A few words of advice to help a government off course’, published on October 29, addressed the need to upgrade our economic system for the 21st century.
WHEN the FNM joined activists and citizens in the ‘We March’ protest on November 29, 2016, The Bahamas seemed on the brink of an era of progressive politics.
Dr Minnis, who within eight months would become PM, said the experience had changed him as a leader, and he’d realised the people, “want a new type of (politician) and the ‘same old way’ to stop”.
“I will be a different type of leader......the protest opened my eyes. I will listen to my employer and do what is right for the Bahamian people. This is the people’s time and I will listen to what they have to say.”
The We Marchers wanted a Freedom of Information Act; transparency and fiscal responsibility enshrined in the law; no Spy Bill; an end to toxic conditions at the NP Landfill, environmental protection, an end to corruption and respect for the rule of law.
“We as individuals and communities have a right to personal freedom and privacy, a right to open and accountable government, and a right to live in a clean and safe environment!” declared the Marchers in a resounding and unified voice. It seemed – for a while at least – that the FNM heard them loud and clear.
Once in office, the FNM got off to a good start, attacking corruption, creating an independent Director of Public Prosecutions and engaging with women’s rights by announcing its intention to criminalise marital rape.
Sadly, within months, the “same old way”, denounced by Minnis, reasserted itself. Secrecy, Anchor Projects and no consultation. Governance became less about strengthening the rights and privileges of individuals, and more about wheeling and dealing with shady foreign investors. Less about unifying and empowering people, more about hate mongering and intolerance.
As always, concern for the environment in which Bahamians must live and work has been relegated to the back burner in the face of headline-grabbing mega projects that promise much, but fail to deliver real progress.
Despite the stated commitment to transparency and consultation, deals are once again being cut behind closed doors, the public’s input only sought when it was already too late.
Worst of all from the perspective of human rights, the FNM decided to pursue and even heighten the illegal, inhumane and unconscionable immigration crackdown of their predecessors, while passing a ‘Spy Act’ to allow Gestapo-style anonymous operatives to rummage through the most intimate details of our private lives at will.
Minnis has forgotten the November 2016 lesson and his transformation short lived. The public sees this and the media out-cry clearly expresses it. If the FNM wants to get back on track, they must take a step back, change course and recommit themselves to the principles upon which they ran for office in the first place.
Freedom of Information Act
The FOIA has again become the subject of political gimmickry and delays. The FNM have stuck with the deficient and unacceptable 2017 PLP version.
The government should pass a new and effective FOIA which creates a truly independent Information Commissioner.
The definition of “Public Authorities” should include ALL government bodies and crucially, time limits for the release of documents must be substantially reduced from 30 years to be declassified and remove the Cabinet Minister’s veto rights over the release of information.
Real Local Government
It’s time to decentralise power. The Bahamas is a “Commonwealth”; a “Family of Islands” which are not colonies of Nassau. It’s time to repeal the Local Government Act and pass a real one giving power to “The People” for local home rule; to pass and enforce local laws, impose and collect local taxes and to manifest local change. As for Freeport; simply respect the Hawksbill Creek Agreement.
Environmental Protection Act
This is a no brainer. It is recognised as desperately needed by everyone. The PLP and FNM have promised to enact one. I don’t know how much more I can say about this.
The FOIA merely mentions protection for civil servants who expose neglect or malfeasance.
The government should pass a modern Whistleblower Act to encourage and incentivise reporting of wrongdoing.
A Human Rights Act and Hate speech
State promoted and tolerated discrimination is the greatest cancer in our body politic, and during the Christie Administration, hate speech became the chief mode of political attack on minority groups such as migrants, the LBGTQ community and activists that fought human rights abuses, fiscal mismanagement and environmental pollution.
Legislation criminalising all forms private and public discrimination, of hate speech and harassment is urgently needed. Careful consideration must of course be given to balancing this with the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution.
Since 1992 the FNM promised an Ombudsman Act. All mature democracies accept that governments cannot police themselves and it is high time we joined the club.
Once the office is created, independent units should be established in all key departments and report regularly to the Ombudsman on matters such as: fiscal management; complaints and claims of negligence or malfeasance; operational efficiency; and systemic issues leading to poor service or breaches of basic rights.
With immigration policy, we continue to live in the dark ages. Regrettably, Immigration is not used as a tool of development. It is stuck in xenophobic election vote pandering mode. The government remains in the grip of a blinkered, anxiety-driven effort to keep the “invaders” out at all costs, without ever considering the devastating human consequences of their actions. As to the treatment of the Haitian ethnic communities, families are torn apart, people are wrongfully deprived of their liberty and kept captive in conditions too horrible to describe. Innocent people are beaten, extorted, expelled from the country of their birth.
Simply put, our immigration policy violates nearly every human right norm. It is a disaster, a sin and a travesty. The Minnis Administration simply must bring an end to it.
Every human being in The Bahamas is presumed innocent; has the right to freedom of movement, to an attorney if suspected of a crime, to apply for bail if detained and the right to be set free unless formally charged. All Immigration needs to do is respect these rights while carrying out their duties.
Campaign finance transparency
The FNM pledged to introduce campaign finance reform through the expansion of the Public Disclosure Act to cover political donations.
Secret campaign donations are the driving force behind corruption and nepotism that plague Bahamian politics. Shedding light upon and regulating political financing must be a priority in any effort to further entrench democratic principles.
The overwhelmingly public rejection of proposed constitutional amendments to achieve gender equality was due, largely, to the politicisation of the referendums by the FNM and PLP and misinformation campaigns by special interests.
Luckily, neither a national referendum, nor changes to the constitution are actually needed to bring about gender equality, at least in the short term.
A few simple changes to existing law, or passage of a Human Rights Act, would plug the gaps in gender equality, allowing the public to adjust to the new reality and see that most, if not all, of their fears are unfounded.
Public awareness and Legal Aid
There is a worrying lack of awareness regarding the nature of constitutional rights, the role of government and the function of the law.
A comprehensive awareness campaign is therefore a crucial component of any successful effort to create progressive change.
This must begin at the grade school level across the public education system and extend to courses in Civics, Good Governance and Constitutional Theory at the University of The Bahamas, and key groups such as law enforcement, immigration and correctional services; civil society, in particular groups that deal with minority, migrant and gender rights; staff at the Office of the Attorney General, the Ministry of Legal Affairs and the Judicial and Legal Services Commission; social services.
The way forward
The FNM has an unprecedented mandate with its landslide victory, but Minnis and colleagues must remember that this support was based on specific promises. Support will be withdrawn as quickly as it was bestowed.
Once in office, it is understandable that the minutiae of day-to-day governance can distract and disorientate even the most well-intentioned politician. To return to the path they set for themselves, the FNM must get back to basics. They must revisit their promises and rekindle the progressive spirit of change that ushered them into office. They must remember the energy of We March and resist the temptation to return to the “same old way”. They must decentralize and empower “The People”.
The Minnis Administration still has an incredible opportunity to go down in history as the government that ushered in true democratic change in The Bahamas and pointed the way to a brighter future for us all. Let us pray they have the political courage necessary.
The first part of this article can be found at: http://www.tribune242.com/news/2018/oct/29/insight-few-words-advice-help-government-course/?opinion