MICAL MP Miriam Emmanuel in the House of Assembly. File Photo: Terrel W Carey/Tribune staff
MICAL MP Miriam Emmanuel has been the talk of the town since her inability to read a seven-figure number in Parliament last week. As is often the case in this kind of situation, there has been as much debate about the debate as there has been about the incident itself. Bahamians love little more than a joke, especially at someone else’s expense. There is a flavourful relish when the unfortunate party is a public figure. It was all too much when Emmanuel, Chair of the Education Loan Authority which is currently working to collect loan payments, struggled to read a number. Between “education” being in the name of the body and the importance of numeracy to the position, there was more than enough to spur head shaking and laughter. Days later, employees at the Education Loan Authority told The Tribune about the difficulties they have had since Emmanuel’s appointment. The reports are not unlike the rumours that came from a ministry where another MP wreaked havoc, making ridiculous demands, suspending programs without reasons, and creating an uncomfortable work environment.
While many say the common denominator is a bad attitude, there is more to it. There is something about under-qualification and new-found power that can turn a supposed leader into a nightmare. When a person has something to prove and they do not have a base of knowledge and experience to do it, they may resort to bullying. We are bound to have unqualified people in positions of leadership under the current system of governance. Ministers come from the pool of MPs. The MPs are nominated by political parties and backed by councils, then elected by voters, usually by default or process of elimination. Political parties do not tell us who they are considering for ministerial positions and why. We guess, but we do not know, because many appointments are the return of favours or the equivalent of hush money, and they depend on who wins a seat. How can a country run on chance and a seemingly endless exchange of favours? This is how we end up with people who exhaust, discourage, and sour civil servants, are ineffective at their jobs, and embarrass us with their comments and performance. We desperately need a different system and, along with that, training opportunities for people who aspire to these positions and are prepared to put in the work. Love of country is not enough, and can never make up for competence.
Contrary to the comments from the “Office of the Spouse,” the media has done nothing wrong by showing Emmanuel’s blunder. The Bahamian people are not wrong to critique it. Sands and Lloyd have their reasons for expressing support for her, and others have their reasons for making not comment at all. We all have our responses to the case of the $4.7 million. Some of our responses have, of course, been coloured by Emmanuel’s ridiculous statement condoning domestic violence. Some are reluctant to advance a critique because she is a woman, and there are so few women in Parliament. (Recall last week’s column on political quotas and the need for changes to the political system and the development of training opportunities for potential candidates.)
Beyond the jokes, conversation about our representatives, how they are selected, where they are appointed, and the need for a recall process is necessary. We know the current system is not working for us, and we know the people who benefit from it are not interested in changing it. That part, like spending more to eat better and ending corporal punishment, is up to us. We are the ones who care, the ones who demand and have the most to gain from the change, and the ones who will save us.
Keep your eye on the till - and your waistline
We do not always make healthy choices. Sometimes it is not nearly as convenient to make the healthy choice as it is to make an unhealthy one. We can start with food. A bag of chips costs less than a decent apple — and we all know we get some terrible, tasteless apples when we pay less than a dollar — and it is just as easy (if not easier) to toss in a bag for a snack. Fast food franchises make it easy to order a burger and fries because it is relatively quick, we do not have to get out of our cars and there is an option almost any way we turn. When we are feeling peckish, a ready-to-eat item is more appealing that anything that requires peeling, slicing, mixing, squeezing, or any other extra steps for preparation. With limited time, money, and energy, the chips, fast food,and sugary juices almost always win over fruit, vegetables, home-cooked meals and healthy restaurant options. Regressive taxation limits our consumption, making the situation at least, in our case, 12 percent worse. Fortunately, it looks like we may be headed for a positive change.
Last week, Minister of Health Duane Sands’ decried the high rate of obesity and, in the budget debate, connected it to health challenges such as diabetes and hypertension. If 90 percent of Bahamians are not eating enough fruit and vegetables, we have to look at the conditions that help to create this situation. One of them is habit. What is offered in school lunches, and how are we teaching children to eat? Another is the success of businesses offering healthy options. How are small health food businesses being supported, from capital and access to land and local produce to incentives and exemptions? More specific to the budget, Value Added Tax could be applied in a way that encourages Bahamians to make healthier choices rather than shrinking shopping baskets. To that end, Sands announced that spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce, apples, oranges, strawberries, and almonds, along with a few other items, would be VAT-exempt and price controlled. This is the kind of relief we have needed for a long time.
We do not yet know when the changes in taxation and price control measures will come into effect, and this information needs to be made public. The Bahamian people need to know when we can expect to see changes in the prices. For many of us, buying strawberries is somewhere between irresponsible and an occasionally acceptable splurge. Maybe we will soon be able to add them to the grocery list with confidence. I will definitely be making note of prices at the stores I frequent, and watching for the promised decrease. I also look forward to the announcement of a date and details of the price control we can expect.