Thursday, Dec 13, 2018
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Transparency matters

But only when it’s convenient
Glenys Hanna-Martin.

The use of the parliamentary select committee procedure has often been more about gaining political advantage than getting to the heart of a particular issue and demonstrating transparency.

Amid the furor over the government’s signing of an agreement with Oban Energies for an oil refinery and storage facility in East Grand Bahama, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) recognized early on that a sure way to get some political mileage was to call for a select committee to probe matters surrounding that deal.

In devising its plan to call for the committee, the opposition party no doubt knew it had a snowball’s chance in hell of being approved.

It knew that government MPs’ votes against the motion would provide it with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the Free National Movement (FNM) to be disingenuous in its commitment to transparency and accountability.

In moving the motion, Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin decried the “irregularities, unanswered questions and inconsistencies” surrounding the project.

PLP Deputy Leader Chester Cooper, the Exumas and Ragged Islands MP, said, “We are not trying to ask questions that may be objectionable. We are trying to get to the bottom of the questions that [are on] the minds of the Bahamian people.”

But Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson said it would be premature for a parliamentary select committee to look into the issue.

“The Cabinet subcommittee has had several meetings with the principals of Oban, and, as a member of the subcommittee, I can report that progress has been made,” he said.

The governing side played into the opposition’s plan perfectly.

Many Bahamians took to social media lashing the government for rejecting the bid.

Some found it laughable that a questionable deal agreed to by Cabinet was now being reviewed by Cabinet. Of course, the proceedings of Cabinet are not open to the public.

The view some people were left with was the Minnis administration was concerned about what a select committee probing the Oban matter might uncover.

One senior government official, speaking to us anonymously, acknowledged that, on the issue of the select committee, the opposition secured a public relations win over the government.

Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis said he does not think the government appreciates the seriousness of its conduct and vowed that the opposition won’t let the matter rest.

Davis said the Public Accounts Committee may probe the matter.

“As far as we are concerned, we are exploring the role of the Public Accounts Committee to see whether our mandate could have us to inquire into those dealings with Oban, [and] we think we do have that, because concessions are being granted by the government,” he said.

Davis also said the opposition will consider holding a commission of inquiry if re-elected.

That seems pretty far-fetched, though.

Ahead of the 2012 general election, Davis announced that a PLP administration would appoint a commission of inquiry within 100 days of its administration to “investigate the scandalous episodes of misconduct by the outgoing administration”.

He said that commission of inquiry would look into “the role of special interests involved in the grant of a 40-year monopoly at the Arawak Cay Port”, the sale of the majority interest in the Bahamas Telecommunications Company and the New Providence Road Improvement Project.

Of course, there was no such commission of inquiry.

We did not think at the time Davis made the declaration that there would be one.

We don’t expect a PLP government would call for one either, in respect of the Oban matter.

In opposition, “mouth can say plenty”.

Rubis

There are so many examples of this.

Consider, for instance, the 2015 bid by then Fort Charlotte MP Dr. Andre Rollins to examine the facts surrounding a Rubis gasoline spill that happened more than two years prior.

The PLP was the party in power.

Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly against the appointment of such a committee.

Davis, Hanna-Martin and other PLP MPs had no concern then about transparency and accountability.

This is why it is laughable every time we hear them sound the alarm over the lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the Minnis administration.

It is just so hard to take the messengers seriously.

Back then, Renward Wells, the Bamboo Town MP, and Rollins were the only two PLP MPs to vote in favor of a select committee to probe the Rubis matter.

The Christie administration was under intense fire after it emerged that the government sat on a consultant’s report for more than a year. That report warned that residents and workers in the area of the fuel leak could have faced health risks as a result.

Like Rollins, Wells wanted the select committee appointed because he believed it was important for the government to be transparent.

Wells, of course, is now leader of government business in the House, after gambling with the FNM and winning his Bamboo Town seat once again.

He, like his colleagues in government, saw no need for the FNM administration to demonstrate transparency in respect of the Oban matter by agreeing to the appointment of a select committee as requested by the opposition.

In relation to the 2015 bid for the Rubis committee, the FNM MPs — including FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis — voted in favor of the select committee.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis joined members on the governing side in voting against the selection committee’s appointment.

It is thus interesting now to hear Davis cry about the need for transparency in government.

The Christie administration’s decision to suppress the Rubis report was egregious.

It remains among the most significant examples of the PLP’s lack of commitment to transparency.

During an expression of public outrage over the Rubis affair, Allyson Maynard-Gibson, who was attorney general at the time, expressed regret in how the government handled the issue and announced that the government would appoint an independent expert — who understood and had experience in how government procedures ought to work — to evaluate the government’s handling of the matter.

But Maynard-Gibson never made that review public, although we asked about it many times.

Throughout its term, the PLP demonstrated that it just did not believe in transparency.

After the majority of government members voted against the Rubis select committee, then Free National Movement Chairman Michael Pintard told The Tribune it was evident that the government would not end its “cover-up” of this “crisis” to ensure transparency.

“Government members of Parliament had a wonderful opportunity to help the public heal from this scary realization that their lives were at risk,” Pintard said.

“… Now we see the way the vote went, and it leaves one to conclude that they are not interested in being transparent on a number of issues resonating from this gasoline leak in 2012.

“Bahamians should know every detail, including exactly when they discovered this leak, what motivated them to refuse to disclose, what were the conversations between the Cabinet ministers and Rubis.”

He said the rejection of the select committee on the Rubis leak proved that members of the then governing party did not view themselves as defenders of the people.

While the PLP in government was far from transparent, and while its bid for a select committee on Oban was no doubt to secure political points, we believe that many Bahamians — as in the case of Rubis back in 2015 — still have pressing questions surrounding the sordid Oban affair.

In rejecting the bid for the Oban committee, the Minnis administration has pointed to the fact that Cabinet is already reviewing the deal so there is no need for any parliamentary committee to review it.

The PLP administration had also indicated that the Rubis handling was also under review, so there was no need for any parliamentary review.

Governments have a majority so they are able to use that majority vote to reject bids for committees whose findings are not likely to be favorable, and to support the establishment of committees whose findings are likely to reflect unfavorably on the opposition.

In 2016, MPs supported the establishment of a select committee to examine the sale of a majority interest in the Bahamas Telecommunications Company.

Then Labour Minister Shane Gibson insisted it was not an election tactic.

The committee did not report ahead of the election, although Gibson had indicated it would.

Minnis, meanwhile, said that committee was merely a bid by the Christie administration to distract from real issues facing the country.

BTC was sold during the Ingraham administration. Minnis sat in the Cabinet at the time.

No government wants to be embarrassed by any adverse findings of any select committee.

We are left to ask the question: Who, then is defending the people?

We also use a popular saying we borrowed for our lead article today. It is also apropos for this matter of select committees: ‘‘Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

No one proves that better than politicians.

 

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