It is not unusual to be asked whether or not I have political aspirations or, more directly, told that I need to run in the next general election. This is sometimes an unfriendly challenge.
“You have so much to say, go run.”
More often, it is an opening in the attempt to persuade me to go where people think I can have more impact.
“You could only make change from the inside.”
Though I have come to expect it, the experience is frustrating in multiple ways. There is the assumption that I am interested in frontline politics, the belief that anyone consistently providing critique of government should be prepared to be in frontline politics and the common, unfortunate perception that the only way to affect change is to be in parliament. I reject all of these ideas.
We are the government
I, as a citizen of The Bahamas, am already a part of the government. All citizens are a part of the government. We have representatives in parliament. If the system worked, and even better if our representatives worked, we would not all be pushing each other toward candidacy.
If we had more active civic participation, we would know and demonstrate that we have a voice, we hold the power and bring change. Instead, we push our best and brightest to be a whisper in a throng of approximately 39 voices — instead of joining our hundreds of thousands of voices — expecting those individuals to bring us change on a plate. Some of us try to silence the people outside that space who discuss national issues, challenge the status quo and demand not just different, but better. This is generally because we do not want the critique or do not want their critique in particular.
There is a danger in pushing the intelligent, the charismatic, the popular, the technically skilled into the system that has been failing us for decades. It is a mistake to suggests members of civil society abandon their advocacy to become the people who make the decisions. In the case of the former, we leave ourselves without allies.
What is to happen when the people who used to be on our side realise there is little they can do when the party whip is on, they are stripped of their positions for not playing nicely and the only thing they can really accomplish is personal wins by playing by the dirty rules of what has become a game?
Think of all the people who entered frontline politics with good intentions and either sat there muzzled or left with dirty hands. In the case of the latter, we admit we have given up on exercising our power, refuse to engage in collective action and expect advocates and practitioners to become politicians so they can do it for us. We say we do not want to be involved in our own governance. Is that the case? Have we given up? Are we no longer interested in self-governance? Are we content to allow a small group of people to make decisions for us because we can’t all sit in Parliament?
The power is in the people, but do the people know it?
My frustration with the occasional question about my interest in frontline politics is not personal. I do not find it insulting, whether it arises because people think I would serve well and need to be “higher” or an idiot who can be challenged into silence. It is that so many people are uncomfortable with critique, whether it is an opposing point of view or not. It is unfortunate so many people do not believe in their own power and have learned to depend on other people to speak for them. It is most disappointing so many people are comfortable with the idea that only 39 people hold all the power in this country, relinquished by us when we vote for them (or against the others).
We need to change the way we think about politics, elections, power and collective action. We need to pay attention to consultation processes, committee appointments and outputs and responses to civil society. We cannot be bystanders and expect change. We have to participate and that requires paying attention, providing feedback and demanding to be heard.
Importantly, government officials depend on the people to call for specific actions, laws and policy. This is why political parties have operatives who flood radio talk show lines with very specific lines of rhetoric every day — creating demand.
We have to know by now that no one is coming to save us. We have to reject the cult of personality. We have to break allegiance to party. There are too many issues that need our attention. We have to make it clear we need to know candidates’ positions on these pressing issues and their plans to address them.
No one believes we should remain dependent on tourism, but who has presented a plan to diversify the economy? Climate change is not only a threat, but a reality that forces us to pay attention at least once per year. Where is our climate action plan? Where is the post-Hurricane Dorian report including lessons learned, identified experts, changes to existing policies including prioritised fields of study for scholarships and disaster recovery protocol?
These are just a few of the demands we must make of candidates. Explicit positions and concrete plans have to be prerequisites not only for our votes, but for our time and attention during the election season.
Representation requires communication
In her 2012 Voter’s Manifesto, Dr Nicolette Bethel said: “I believe that it is the obligation of a government to seek out and hear the needs of the people whom it represents.” I share this belief.
The current relationship is the inverse of what it should be. We should not be chasing any administration, begging it to listen to us, communicate with us, or involve us. We should not have to say the Economic Recovery Committee is a joke and the idea of 10,000 subcommittees does not solve the problem. It should have recognised the expertise in a diverse group of people and it could have easily requested and received nominations from the public.
The government ought to invite our participation. It ought to ask questions, present opportunities and welcome critique.
Dr Bethel also said: “I believe that Bahamian innovation, creativity, and adaptability carved this nation out of these scattered rocks in the sea, and that innovation, creativity, and adaptability will make us flourish in the 21st century.”
We have what it takes. We can reshape this country without squeezing ourselves into Parliament. (Let’s not forget that some among us cannot get in there anyway because the building is inaccessible.) We have representatives and they work for us. We advocate for ourselves and they ought to create mechanisms — including regular constituency meetings, town halls, and online platforms — for consistent communication.
If we have to be in Parliament to be heard, to make change, it is useless to have representatives. We have to remind ourselves that we are the government, we are the employers and perhaps, we need to withhold pay.
Communication from the government on the COVID-19 crisis, emergency order and relevant decision-making has deteriorated. At the beginning of this situation, we received regular updates from both the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Health. There were informative press conferences and the participation of the press has been critical to getting a deeper understanding of what is and will be taking place.
Since the resignation of former Minister of Health Dr Duane Sands, there is a marked difference. There is no minister at the Ministry of Health briefings. The team of experts is doing well with keeping us up to date and answering questions from the press on issues specific to health operations, but no one there is able to answer questions about policy. Is this by design?
The Prime Minister now only delivers addresses, having moved away from the press conference format. This means he gives us information he deems appropriate and the live feed ends. There is no opportunity for the press to ask questions for clarification, request further information, or raise issues that are ignored in the speeches. This, coupled with the lack of an actual Minister of Health or the attendance of the Prime Minister at the Ministry of Health updates means there is no opportunity to engage them on issues related to policies and movement through the phases of reopening.
In the last address from the Prime Minister there were many questions we should have had answered. Why the punitive approach to reopening the Family Islands? When will a new Minister of Health be appointed? What protocols are being considered for the reopening of commercial travel? What metrics are being used to determine how and when we move through the phases of reopening?
We are the government. We need to do our jobs. We need to be able to ask questions and receive clear, accurate answers. Getting into parliament in two years isn’t going to help us now. We need to activate our power as a people. The time for depending on others is long gone.
Members of Parliament represent us in the House and the press represents us wherever it has access - and it should always have access. We should always have access.