Allowing democracy to work
In 2013 after the Constitutional Commission, which was chaired by former Attorney General Sean McWeeney, presented its report, Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis supported many of the recommended constitutional changes.
“An independent Boundaries Commission would allow for the transparency of democracy to flourish without political interference trying to gerrymander boundary lines for political advantage,” Minnis said.
He noted, “I’m a staunch supporter of democracy and I believe that every Bahamian has a right to vote for whomever he or she chooses in a transparent, non-victimized, free fashion.”
In 2017, after the FNM came to office, it reflected its commitment to democratic principles in the Speech from the Throne.
“My government will, with the consent of the electorate in a referendum, constitute 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. The Office of Ombudsman will be created to provide a direct source of relief, where people have legitimate grievances due to the actions or inactions of government or any agency of the government,” it stated.
We now know that given all the government has before it, and given what ultimately has emerged as an unfocused legislative agenda, such commitments will likely go nowhere this term.
As if that was not unfortunate enough, Prime Minister Minnis let it be known that the constitutionally mandated Boundaries Commission’s work would be useless ahead of the next election, as the boundaries will remain the way they are now.
Speaking at an FNM community meeting on New Providence last week, he said the party has an easy task in the next election, predicting the results will be 39 FNM seats and zero PLP seats.
“It’s never been done,” the prime minister said.
“The boundaries are not changing. You’ve got what you got. But it must be 39-0.”
The statement suggests a disrespect for constitutional requirements and demonstrates the ease with which the prime minister would disregard his own campaign promises.
This is not good for democracy.
On too many occasions, Minnis has shown that much of what he said while in opposition was not based on conviction, but on pure politics.
We recall in early 2017 when the then opposition leader was condemning what he called the PLP administration’s disregard for constitutional requirements.
The government’s failure to table the Boundaries Commission report in Parliament on time was a breach of the constitution, he had charged.
“We are supposed to be a country of law and order,” Minnis reminded.
“Our constitution clearly states that the Boundaries Commission should report no later than five years [from the date of last report].
“…The last boundaries report was on the 17th of November, 2011.
“This only shows why we have so much problems within our society.”
Minnis also stated in a Tribune article three years ago that confusion over the timing of the report was at the root of why some Bahamians were not registering to vote, asserting that the confusion over whether the report could affect their current constituency assignments had pushed many Bahamians to adopt a “wait and see” approach.
The McWeeney commission had recommended strengthening political institutions — something Minnis supported in opposition.
As prescribed by article 69 (1), the commission is to consist of five individuals: the speaker of the House as automatic chairman, a Supreme Court justice appointed by the chief justice and three members of Parliament appointed by the governor general (two nominated by the prime minister, one by the leader of the opposition).
The McWeeney commission proposed merging the functions of elections management and boundaries review into a single Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which would be a constitutionally entrenched body whose members have security of tenure and constitutional autonomy and protection similar to standing service commissions.
In opposition, Minnis was not the only member of the current Parliament who wanted to see an independent commission.
When he was a Tribune columnist in 2015, Adrian Gibson, who is today the Long Island MP, made an interesting statement along these lines.
Gibson wrote: “The public is tired of politicians who view themselves as demigods, of being burdened with choosing the lesser evil of candidates who they view as inadequate, ineffectual, hopeless, too egotistical and unlikeable, angry and belligerent, egg-heady and out of their depth, political liabilities, poor listeners, self-serving and/or are to old or political retreads.
“During the last election cycle, quite a number of the FNM’s standard bearers lacked the likability factor.
“Indeed, clear demarcations must be implemented relative to boundary cuts and the FNM should agitate for the establishment of an independent Boundaries Commission — of which average, everyday citizens should be a part — to deal with the issue of boundary cuts.”
Now that he has another important platform, perhaps Gibson could agitate for such.
But it is clear that we will see no referendum this term to address these weighty issues.
The deeper the Minnis administration gets into the term, the less likely this becomes. As Minnis has put it, we are already in election season.
If the prime minister is not now minded to effect promised electoral reforms, at the very least he should be seen to be respectful of existing constitutional procedures relating to our elections.
Political confidence is important for any prime minister seeking to win an election, but Minnis’ sometimes dictatorial declarations are worrying.
Leaders must be careful of the signals they send when they speak. Irresponsible statements should never be brushed off as mere rally talk.
That a prime minister who supported and promised to push for an independent Boundaries Commission would now preempt the work of such a commission with premature election talk is unfortunate.