Democratic precepts we take for granted
More often than not, democracies are weakened or thwarted not by the sudden rise of an autocrat, but by a gradual erosion of the norms that enable a democracy to continue and to thrive.
Seemingly innocuous actions on the part of government that run counter to foundational precepts of democratic governance slip past a distracted, unaware or complacent citizenry and go unchallenged.
Over time, an atmosphere develops where rudimentary tenets of our system are regarded as tools of political expediency rather than bedrocks that are to be both respected and vigorously defended.
One such bedrock is separation of powers that is bubbling to a pitch in the Senate, following from the prime minister’s decision to appoint Senate President Kay Forbes Smith to act as an arm of the executive through her role as hurricane coordinator with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) on Grand Bahama.
Whether members of the Opposition are considered by some to have the moral high ground to protest a violation of separation of powers through that appointment is irrelevant with respect to the principle at hand, as the letter and spirit of the constitution do not rise or fall on any political party or personality therein.
Article 44 (3) of the constitution states, “The Senate shall not elect a senator who is a minister or parliamentary secretary to be the president or vice president of the Senate.”
The spirit of this provision is rooted in the precept that the presiding officer of a house of Parliament that is constituted to be a check on the executive is not to be a part of or functionally subject to the very same executive.
The same constitutional provision exists for the election of speaker and deputy speaker of the House of Assembly.
Through her recent appointment, the Senate president would ultimately take instructions from a minister (in this case the prime minister who is minister of NEMA), which, in effect, diminishes the role of the office particularly where she has also presided over debate on proposed legislation that involves duties given to her by the prime minister.
There are any number of competent Bahamians who could have been chosen for this post on Grand Bahama so as to guard against conflict and controversy in the legislature.
To have selected the Senate president was an action that ran counter to foundational precepts of democratic governance.
Another bedrock in our system of governance involves a code of conduct for ministers which is tied to robust democratic governance in that it works to preserve the citizenry’s essential trust in government.
Recent decisions taken by Youth, Sports and Culture Minister Lanisha Rolle fell into disrepute with the public and triggered backlash from members of the Junkanoo Corporation of New Providence (JCNP).
For many, the minister’s decision to have a personalized medal struck off at public expense, and her move, according to the JCNP, to have a late-applicant Junkanoo group added to this year’s competition against the corporation’s ruling, were summed up by members of the public as either bad judgment, an exaggerated sense of power, or both.
But those decisions took on a more critical level of significance when the prime minister announced in Parliament a reversal of both; the consequence in the case of the medals being an order of reimbursement to the minister.
This was significant because the prime minister’s statement to Parliament that the medals were personal medals and “the government should not have to pay for anything that’s personalized”, suggests that public funds were misappropriated; that is to say, put to wrong use.
Further, it is unusual that a prime minister would publicly reverse two decisions of a sitting minister that have prompted widespread ridicule and a protest by a prominent segment of the cultural community while still opting to keep that minister in post.
It gives rise to questions about the extent to which ministerial responsibility is being taken seriously and public trust in those reposed with that responsibility is being properly regarded.
When it comes to democratic governance, we are prone to identify threats thereto in the form of violence or unprecedented withdrawals of rights or freedoms.
If governments continue to play fast and loose with democratic principles, such that right and wrong run the risk of becoming indistinguishable to a majority of Bahamians, strong-armed tactics by a leader won’t be necessary to put the country’s developing democracy on a slippery slope.