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Falling for it

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis addresses Free National Movement supporters. FILE

In an election campaign, there is a whole lot said to woo the electorate and demonize opponents, but in government some politicians often scoff at the notion that they are actually expected to keep their pledges; others develop convenient cases of amnesia.

A key component of the Minnis administration’s campaign in 2017 was its anti-corruption agenda.

It vowed to prosecute members of the Christie administration it claimed were corrupt and it vowed to bring legislation to make it more difficult for people in public life to be corrupted and to punish those who abuse their positions in office.

It also pledged to implement legislation to deepen accountability and improve transparency.

And it committed to reform the electoral process.

To date, it has made very little progress in these areas; the attorney general noted recently that the focus has been on protecting the jurisdiction in the face of an ever-moving goal post and the pressures exerted by industrialized nations on the financial services sector.

While anyone can say anything on the campaign trail — from the believable to the bizarre — governing calls for the administration of the day to sensibly manage the affairs of the country, making room for adjustments given unforeseen circumstances.

While governing requires shifting focus and prioritizing in response to those circumstances, it does not absolve the government of its moral responsibility to fulfill its pledges to the electorate.

Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis unveiled an anti-corruption plan on August 3, 2016 at a time when he and the FNM were saying just about anything to get elected.

Electors — desperate for change — bought into it.

Recall 

Seven pledges made up the promised anti-corruption plan. One of those pledges was a recall system for poorly performing MPs “to ensure that MPs faithfully serve the people who elect them”.

We never believed such a promise would be fulfilled — or that there should be a process to recall MPs — but Minnis repeated it several times in the lead up to the last election.

In April 2016, he said, “We will also ensure that we have a recall system for all members of Parliament, so that if your member of Parliament does not perform, you would have the authority to fire him.”

Minnis also pledged to introduce “primaries for constituency candidate elections”.

After the FNM came to office in May 2017, the Minnis administration stated in the Speech from the Throne it intended to hold a referendum to get the consent of the electorate to establish an independent Electoral Commission and Boundaries Commission, introduce term limits for prime ministers and introduce a system of recall for non-performing members of Parliament.

It is therefore baffling that the attorney general, Carl Bethel, would say the government made no commitment to a recall system.

Asked recently by a Nassau Guardian reporter about whether the government still intended to cause the introduction of such a system, Bethel responded:  “That’s not anything we committed to, as far as I’m concerned or aware. And it’s not a workable system in the parliamentary context. It is not something that is on the legislative agenda. I don’t think we committed to doing that. Did the FNM commit to that? I’m not aware of that.” 

Many who voted in the May 2017 general election did not vote primarily based on specific pledges made. They voted primarily to punish the poorly performing and untrustworthy Christie administration and to banish the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) to the wilderness.

But there are some who believed the FNM would do what it said it would do, and naively believed they would be empowered to kick out “non-performing” MPs at any point in the term.

No one in the FNM was talking about a recall system not being workable in the parliamentary context. Details and a real plan to make those kinds of pledges a reality in governance were not hashed out.

The demand for an MPs recall system was made by members of the “We March” movement, which rose to prominence in the months leading up to the last election as its leader — the now Senator Ranard Henfield — apparently had his sights set on politics while using civic activism to propel him there.

In his first speech as a senator, Henfield declared: “We asked for term limits for the prime minister and an MP recall system and we see the new prime minister’s blessings and signature on it already.”

More than two and a half years later, the prime minister’s “blessings” on such initiatives have accounted for literally nothing.

The truth is, the FNM’s leadership and its candidates, not unlike some other politicians before them, adopted various catchphrases and legislative ideas from other jurisdictions and from political strategists without any real intent to move beyond those ideas.

How much probing and analysis do voters actually do ahead of elections?

With so many issues that demanded addressing and with angst toward the administration so high, the electorate was comfortable in taking its chances with the FNM and in trusting that Minnis and his party would do better for the country.

As it regards recalling MPs, the constitution already outlines circumstances that would disqualify members of Parliament from serving — being declared bankrupt; certified as insane or of unsound mind and being imprisoned for more than 12 months; failing to disclose interest in any government contract and being absent from Parliament for a certain period are among them.

If the Minnis administration had any existing legislation in mind at the time of its commitment to put in place a recall system, it would likely have been the United Kingdom’s (U.K.) Recall of MPs Act 2015, but even that has a very specific set of circumstances under which an MP can be recalled.

Many Bahamian voters unfamiliar with that piece of legislation might assume that it allows the recall of MPs who are not undertaking expected community initiatives and who are not representing the views of “a majority” of constituents.

Under the U.K. act, a recall petition could be triggered if a member is sentenced to a prison term or is suspended from the House for a least 21 sitting days, according to a summary of the legislation on the U.K. Parliament’s website.

A petition would then be open for signing for eight weeks. If at the end of that period at least 10 percent of eligible electors had signed the petition, the seat would be declared vacant and a by-election would follow. The member who was recalled could stand in the by-election.

It also outlines rules on the conduct of the recall petition, including campaign spending limits for those supporting and opposing recalling the member.

We believe a system to recall MPs would be disruptive in our system. The time to recall is at the polls on Election Day.

But those points do not negate the fact that the FNM in opposition, and the FNM in government committed to introducing one.

Freedom of Information

Let’s examine the other elements of the FNM’s anti-corruption plan:

The party said a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) will make it easier for all Bahamians to have full access to the workings and the decisions of the government.

It also promised a Whistleblower Protection Act to protect those persons who are willing to report illegal activities by those in government.

While the government does not intend to introduce a Whistleblower Protection Act, on March 1, 2018 it enacted the whistleblower provision of the Freedom of Information Act passed under the previous administration in February 2017.

That provision states that no person may be subject to any legal, administrative or employment-related sanction, regardless of any breach of a legal or employment-related obligation, for releasing information on wrongdoing, or that which would disclose a serious threat to health, safety or the environment, as long as he acted in good faith.

In April 2018, the attorney general said the government expected to fully enact the FOIA “within the next budget year”, adding that each government agency has to go through extensive training that is set to cost around $1 million.

The government was also seeking to identify an information commissioner.

This week, Bethel had no update on the full enactment of the law.

Freedom of Information legislation has spanned three administrations. The FNM administration does not appear to be prioritizing the citizens’ right to access information.

It would not surprise us if the term ends without full enactment.

Integrity

The FNM promised to strengthen legislation so that politicians are held accountable for any corruption activities.

In 2017, it brought the Integrity Commission Bill to Parliament to deal strongly with corruption in public life.

The bill comprehensively details acts of corruption, including the behavior of public officials with respect to the award of contracts and soliciting or accepting any personal benefit or providing an advantage for another person by doing an act or omitting to do an act in the performance of his or her functions as a public official.

The FNM also promised term limits for the prime minister “to ensure that no politician can abuse their mandate to serve the people by manipulating the levers of government to attain absolute power”.

In 2016, Minnis said, “We will introduce term limits to your prime minister, so that you would know for certain that, before 10 years, I am gone. If we had term limits, we wouldn’t be dealing with Perry Christie today. He would be gone, so we will see to it that there would be no more Perry Christies.”

Last June, the prime minister said his government would be tabling a bill on the issue “very soon”.

No bill ever came.

Again, we have no expectation that this issue will be addressed this term. It certainly won’t be addressed in an election year.

The other element of the FNM’s anti-corruption plan was a Transparency in Government Act “that will ensure that funding allocated to MPs will be utilized for specific projects identified by their constituencies”.

MPs currently get a monthly $2,500 constituency allowance that is sent to whatever account the MP has provided the Ministry of Finance.

There is no accounting for how the money is spent.

MPs do have to account for the $100,000 capital grant they receive — paid out in $25,000 tranches quarterly.

The Constituency Capital Grant Act, 2017 mandates that each member of Parliament shall keep proper accounts and reports and such accounts shall be audited by the auditor general at the end of each fiscal year.

Transparency

On the issue of transparency, a positive sign is that the government is circulating a Public Procurement Bill. That bill seeks to provide for the establishment of a Public Procurement Department to ensure best practices in the award of government contracts.

The attorney general has said the bill will be on the legislative agenda in 2020.

We shall see.

While they will have no authority to recall any MP this term, electors will get to judge the FNM based on its record come Election Day.

The PLP in opposition has adopted the slogan, “No lie lasts forever”.

If the FNM continues to backtrack on its promises and changes its tone in office, this catchphrase could resonate to its detriment.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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