It is a hell of a thing for a member of Parliament to accuse his party of perpetuating corruption, especially a party that roared to power promising to implement a strong anti-corruption regime and take action against members of the former administration accused of using their office for personal enrichment.
Some were left wondering whether Vaughn Miller, the career broadcaster and pastor who won the Golden Isles seat for the Free National Movement (FNM) in the last election, has a place left in the party, after accusing the government of being engaged in a corrupt act in deciding to lease space in Town Centre Mall to house the General Post Office.
That mall is owned by Immigration Minister Brent Symonette and his brother. The government’s decision in this regard infuriated many who felt betrayed by the FNM, which pushed the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) as the party of self-dealing.
Once again, several FNM MPs stood against their party and their government – the same four who voted in June against the government’s decision to increase value-added tax (VAT) from 7.5 percent to 12 percent.
In the Westminster system, backbenchers like Miller play an important role in keeping the government accountable. Political realities, however, mean that Miller and his colleagues, Frederick McAlpine (Pineridge), Travis Robinson (Bains and Grants Town) and Reece Chipman (Centreville), are likely to face an even frostier reception in government and party circles.
All of them presumably spoke and acted on conviction when they voted against a resolution in the House of Assembly last Wednesday night granting parliamentary approval for the government to lease space from the wealthy Cabinet minister.
While Miller and the others — previously dubbed the ‘rebel four’ — won favor with the public in standing against the powerful government majority on this matter, their future in the FNM appears bleak.
The question for Miller is, how does he continue to align with a party he views as acting in a corrupt manner?
When he contributed to debate on the resolution, he delivered a stinging rebuke of his party.
“I have no choice but to condemn this pernicious practice and call on all Free National Movement members of Parliament to resolve to do the same,” he said.
“This practice must cease, must desist. It must stop. We cannot sit here claiming that we are opposed to corruption, yet we are planning to support this resolution, which is a continuation… and indeed a perpetuation of an age-old, well-greased, corrupt practice. It is nothing new.
“If we in the FNM are against corruption, then we must be against it in every shape, in every form, in every apparition, in every manifestation, everywhere and every time. This resolution is peculiar, in that a Cabinet minister, not a backbencher, is involved.”
Yesterday, Miller told us that he would not speak to the issue of his political future ahead of a conclave the FNM has scheduled for this weekend.
Some in the FNM have had enough of the embarrassment the four MPs have caused for the party.
On Sunday, FNM founding member Maurice Moore told a Guardian reporter the MPs were out of order for rejecting the resolution. Moore suggested that because the constitution of The Bahamas provides for the House of Assembly to exempt a member from vacating his seat if he is doing business with the government, then there is nothing wrong or improper with leasing from Symonette.
Last week, Symonette disclosed his interest in the government contract and the House voted to exempt him from vacating his seat.
“The only mandatory requirement is that if it is a member of Parliament, that member of Parliament must declare his interest. It’s in the constitution,” Moore said.
“I don’t know what grounds they’re arguing… I don’t think they have any real justification for going on with the stuff I heard them going on with on the floor of the House, and quite frankly they need to exercise common sense.
“Where you are breaking the law, that’s a different story, but where you are abiding by the conditions laid out in the constitution, they do not have any grounds to do or say what they are saying.”
The fact that the government had legal justification for its decision has done nothing to override the perceptions attached to the move, however.
It seems the Minnis administration has suffered significant fallout over the decision to lease from Symonette. Its focus during the recent debate was on the poor working conditions faced by post office staff in the current facility on East Hill Street and on the $12-per-square-foot “concessionary” rate it says it has secured for the Town Centre Mall. It also talked about the PLP administration having considered Town Centre Mall.
But it will be virtually impossible for many to get beyond the widely held perception that the Minnis administration was brazenly fixing up one of its own. This is precisely what the FNM spoke out against so convincingly in the weeks leading up to the 2017 election.
In his contribution to the debate last week, McAlpine observed that the resolution does not sit well with the Bahamian people.
“Our actions have not lined up with what we’ve preached,” McAlpine said. “Too many see our government as hypocritical: same mess, different crew, they say.”
He said, “There are a lot of angry and disappointed people out there.”
McAlpine added that he was not talking about PLPs.
If the MPs show up for the weekend conclave, they would likely face a tense atmosphere. There are already internal calls for them to toe the party line or be kicked out of the FNM. But expelling them would not be a wise move for the party.
The FNM was founded on democratic principles. Expelling the backbenchers would probably do the party more harm than good.
Any time MPs find it difficult to align with the views of their party there is automatic speculation that they may eventually cross the floor. But that move would not have any immediate benefit for those members. If they secure nominations in the next election and the opposition party is victorious they would have secured political lifelines.
Politicians who want to have a political future significantly lessen their chances of doing so when they opt to go independent or form their own party — just ask former Marco City MP Gregory Moss, whose voice thundered during parliamentary debates in the last term, but whose political fate became clear as the general election neared. Or ask former Bamboo Town MP Branville McCartney, a promising minister in the last Cabinet of Hubert Ingraham, who resigned from the Cabinet, and then the FNM, and eventually founded the Democratic National Alliance, which performed worse in the 2017 general election than it did in the 2012 election.
Former Fort Charlotte MP Dr. Andre Rollins also fell out of favor with the former government. He eventually joined the FNM, but sided with MPs who voted out Dr. Hubert Minnis as leader of the opposition in late 2016.
With the electorate in an anti-PLP mood and with it being clear that he would not get an FNM nomination for turning against the leader — a treacherous move in political circles — Rollins also sealed his own fate, burying himself in a cement-covered political grave.
His name is rarely called these days when national and political issues are discussed publicly, but he played an important role in unseating the once entrenched PLP.
At one time, Rollins was the political twin of Bamboo Town MP Renward Wells. The two followed an identical path from the National Development Party (NDP), but Wells played another hand and took another path when he, too, fell out of favor with the Christie administration and the PLP. He remained loyal to Minnis in the leader’s most difficult times, secured an FNM nomination and rode the wave of victory that swept the PLP from office in dramatic fashion.
Today, Wells is a minister in Minnis’ Cabinet and leader of government business in the House of Assembly.
The reality of our political system is that failing to toe the party line often ends in political suicide, especially if those involved do not join the opposing team.
It could very well be that they are content in making their mark with no desire for a political future, as they continue to speak on conviction, channelling the mood of the public on unfavorable government decisions and actions.
While some colleagues choose to whisper in some circles about their disapproval of certain actions taken by their side, the ‘rebel four’ have courageously voiced their views publicly, refusing to compromise their beliefs.
We are still early in the term, but it is apparent that McAlpine, Chipman, Miller and Robinson are set to face continued isolation in the FNM.
If they do decide to cross the floor — and there is no indication that any such move is being contemplated — this would strengthen the four-seat opposition, but would have minimal impact in weakening the governing party, which would still be left with 31 seats in the House — a super majority.
While the opposition PLP and its leader, Philip Brave Davis, remain an unattractive force, there is a growing sense that the FNM is becoming less popular as the weeks pass.
The electorate has demonstrated in the last four general elections that it has no love or patience for incumbent parties and has changed governments, relegating once-powerful men and women to the graveyard of political has-beens.
Notwithstanding the confidence of Prime Minister Minnis and his team of ministers, and notwithstanding the tepid performance of the Progressive Liberal Party, which is still trying to rebuild its sordid brand, the FNM on its current course would face a hard task seeking to get reelected.
If the electorate is displeased with the FNM’s performance, current members who cast their lot with the PLP could rise to victory, as Wells did with the FNM last year.
For now, the rebel four might be satisfied in speaking their truth so a generally receptive public is able to feel confident that not all members of the governing party in those hallowed halls are tone-deaf, haughty and persistently delusional.