Monday, Sep 23, 2019
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You’ve changed

The general election of August 19, 1992 marked a critical turning point in the history of the nation, bringing with it an end to 25 years of governance by the Pindling-led Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

The Free National Movement’s (FNM) victory at the polls ushered in far-reaching shifts to the nation’s social landscape through the opening of the airwaves, brought about an era of female ascendancy in government and charted a documented period of economic resurgence catapulted by a vanguard of transparency and accountability dubbed governance “in the sunshine”.

That was 27 years ago today. For FNM members and supporters, it is a proud legacy.

But while records of accomplishment in office cannot change, a party’s demonstrative commitment to the values and principles that brought such accomplishments to fruition can change over time.

And in the case of the FNM, it has changed.

Troubling departures from the FNM’s foundational bedrock of transparency, accountability and firm leadership are rattling the confidence and trust of longstanding party supporters and of Bahamians who made the first-time decision to support the FNM at the polls in May 2017.

While it has had some notable achievements thus far, it is what the FNM is not doing that is prompting concerned supporters and the wider public to conclude that the FNM they are seeing today is not performing as the FNM they have always known.

Trumped transparency

The FNM’s approach to governance in its 1992 term facilitated a level of public trust that is essential for effective governance and led to larger electoral gains in its second consecutive term.

Key to this was the government’s willingness to be open and frank with the Bahamian people, and its follow-through on plans and pledges made supporters and the wider public trust that it said what it meant, and meant what it said.

Today, FNM governance of openness and consistency is changing to FNM governance of withholding public information, being dismissive of and derisive toward the press and back-peddling on pivotal promises — upending public trust and triggering suspicions about the government’s dealings in office.

Key pledges on matters including value-added tax (VAT), the signing of heads of agreements prior to public consultation and the withholding of information on agreements with Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) were reversed soon into the FNM’s 2017 term — a culture shock for those who associate the FNM with keeping its word.

Transparency is being re-defined to the point of cliche, with ministers insisting they are being transparent while withholding or failing to table in Parliament the very information that would make their claim of transparency a matter of irrefutable fact.

The issue of transparency is one former FNM Deputy Prime Minister Frank Watson acknowledged as a concern during an interview with Perspective.

“I think that is an issue,” he said. “I think that there are many things that they tend to keep in their back pockets that people should be able to be aware of. Involving the people in the administration of the government is important.

“Our people are much more aware today,” Watson added. “They are not prepared to just simply go to the polls and vote you in, and forget about it. They want to know what is going on and how they can help the government achieve its objectives.”

Speaking to Perspective on the need for ministers to be readily accessible and cooperative when questioned, Dame Janet Bostwick, an iconic figure in the FNM and in Bahamian politics as the first female elected to the House of Assembly, applauded the holding of town meetings to disseminate information but urged her colleagues to recognize the need for even greater accessibility to the public.

“They must realize and must appreciate that formal meetings and reports to the nation are not sufficient, and it is essential that they are available to answer questions concerning their ministries and their performance no matter how distasteful the questioning may be,” she noted.

“I would ask them to please not negate all of the good things they’re doing by not being available and not answering.”

Absconded accountability

There is no such creature as good governance without accountability.

FNM governance has been hallmarked by the expectation that ministers and public officials who failed to execute their duties would be decisively held accountable for the same.

One only need point to BPL’s power crisis in the nation’s capital as a stark example of an accountability deficit where no heads are being made to roll despite rolling blackouts with no credible end in sight.

A second glaring example is in the handling of the Oban deal where a principal of the company was televised signing someone else’s signature to government documents, and where negotiations to revamp a heads of agreement just months after that agreement was executed raised fundamental questions about how the first and now infamous agreement came to being in the first place.

But accountability is not just about suffering the consequence of actions that miss the mark; it is also about demonstrating a level of responsibility that inspires trust in the government’s stated objectives.

“In 1992 we did not have money and so the tightening of the belt was not just something that was said, it was something which was done,” Dame Janet pointed out as she expounded on the FNM’s approach to accountable governance.

“I remember the first act which we took was to decrease the salaries of the ministers, our prime minister and the members of Parliament,” she recalled.

It was a move repeated by the FNM in 2010 in response to a global recession that dampened government revenue and economic growth.

“The PLP had increased the salaries about two years before,” Dame Janet continued. “Those of us who were in Parliament refused to accept it. We tried to return the money to the treasury and the treasury did not accept it so we put it in a special account and we used the monies from that account to provide scholarships to a number of persons to COB (College of The Bahamas).”

This, Dame Janet added, caught the attention and the approval of the public, making it easier to make the case for tightening the purse strings because the government demonstrated a personal commitment to the effort.

“You had travel only for what you could truly say was for the benefit of the country. We did not travel as much,” she highlighted. “Accountability was paramount. We all worked together toward that goal.

“The 1992-1997 government was the best government The Bahamas has ever had.”

In contrast, the FNM government sparked public outrage just months into its 2017 term when Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis “put the country on notice” that Parliamentarians would be given a pay raise.

This after Finance Minister Peter Turnquest in a sobering budget communication to Parliament declared that the “cupboard was bare”, and that painful sacrifices would need to be made to right the country’s fiscal position.

The pay raise plan was ultimately abandoned, but mammoth-sized travel delegations were not, once again hammering away at public trust that the government was genuinely interested in making responsible choices with taxpayer money.

To its credit, today’s FNM has made some inroads in curbing expenditure levels by the previous administration.

But its failure to produce promised travel expenses for ministers, the costs of unknown numbers of forensic audits and its decision to purchase the Grand Lucayan property in Freeport for $65 million though its appraised value stood at $40 million, are among issues that left Bahamians questioning the government’s management of public finances.

Women “relegated”

The FNM’s record on the advancement of women in government and the public service is landmark in the nation’s history.

Dame Janet, who served as acting prime minister, attorney general, minister of justice and immigration, minister of housing and national insurance and minister of social services, is a living testament to that record that she expected to have been more advanced over time.

“I am saddened that there has not been the degree of growth in women’s participation in frontline politics that I would have expected,” she conveyed. “There has been a depreciation rather than an increase.

“In 1992 we had three women Cabinet ministers and women in the FNM Cabinet had ministries which were considered to be strong and of extreme importance, and so we were first in so many things.

“There is only one woman in the Cabinet of The Bahamas now and that, to me, is a painful circumstance.”

FNM women served as ministers of education, health and foreign affairs. The first female governor general, the first female speaker of the House, first female chief justice, first female president of the Court of Appeal and first female deputy governor of the Central Bank were among elevations all realized under the FNM’s watch between 1992 and 2002.

“One of the things that you saw in the 1992 FNM government was the promotion of women throughout the [public] service in every aspect and area of the service so that more women became permanent secretaries, heads of schools and more women were in the judiciary.

“I’m a little concerned that women have been somewhat relegated now.”

“Not failed, but slow”

Acknowledging that the FNM government is “taking a beating” in public perception, Watson views this as a function of being able to effectively connect with the public.

“The people feel a little detached from the government right now,” he reasoned. “The difference between the FNM today and the FNM of yesterday is that we had a prime minister and ministers who were able to speak to the public in the language they understood, clearly and concisely giving them hope for the future.

“I’m not sure our people today are articulating what they are trying to do in a way that the average Bahamian can buy into and thereby have hope that the future is going to be brighter.

“They’ve not failed,” he maintained, “but they’ve been slow in delivering the services to the people. They have not been able to sell a vision of what they hope to achieve for the country in their period in office. I think that is a critical issue for the present administration.”

Longstanding roadblocks to the ease of doing business, Watson stressed, are also standing in the way of progress.

“I thought that they would come out in the first six months and remove most of those impediments to business and growth,” he noted. “Yes they have done some things but they haven’t yet solved the issue.

“I asked them the other day, ‘What is the issue?’ They said, ‘Oh, it’s difficult.’ Nothing is difficult. The government is in office to solve problems however difficult they might be.”

He recommended that the government sit with business owners throughout the country and hear them out on what their difficulties are so as to work out the problems that exist.

“We were interactive with the people and ultimately nine times out of 10 we were able to fix the problem,” Watson said.

The cohesion factor

To the challenges in governance that today’s FNM is facing, Dame Janet offered an important insight.

“The FNM of 1992 was a very longstanding political party of members who were very tightly woven for so many years. Those who ran as FNM candidates, with few exceptions, would have been a part of the party for decades. They were well known to each other and they were well known to the public. It was a very close-knit, cohesive group.

“The new FNM does not have that advantage,” she said. “They are people who have come together, many of them, a short time before the general election and so that natural cohesion is not there.

“I believe they are at a serious disadvantage coming together as they did so closely before the election when they have not had the opportunity to really know each other and to cohere.”

The people’s time

As Bahamians begin to look out over the horizon of a general election and consider the potential options that await them, it is time for today’s FNM to truly listen to what their supporters and the wider public are saying and feeling.

As New Providence residents continued to struggle through power outages, those who could watched the government patting itself on the back in two nights of rallying right in the heart of the crisis, declaring its certainty of another win.

This as Bahamians grappling with soaring costs of living and an uncertainty about the nation’s future do not feel like the true winners of their economy, and have yet to be given the blueprint that would bring about a season of winning worthy of being dubbed “the people’s time”.

It is not enough to insist that Bahamians should support the FNM chiefly because of what the party accomplished in the past.

And it is not enough to insist that Bahamians should support the FNM chiefly to keep the PLP out, since the reality is that without transparency, accountability and sound, decisive leadership, there is nothing magical about the FNM that prevents it from going counter to the people’s best interests.

Every FNM parliamentarian knows this one thing is true: that many FNM supporters and Bahamians at large are hurt by, disappointed in and disillusioned at what they have seen, perceived and experienced following the landslide victory given to the party nearly two and a half years ago.

The FNM owes it to the country and to itself to be honest about where it is going wrong and what is required to get it right.

Whether the FNM has the desire and wherewithal to face its challenges head-on with the aim of making necessary changes remains to be seen, but for the good of the Bahamian people and the nation, it needs to be seen sooner rather than later.

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