Wednesday, Jul 8, 2020
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Governance money can’t buy

Members of Parliament in the House of Assembly. FILE

COVID-19 has wiped out billions from our country’s economy this year, making it exceptionally more difficult for the government to meet needs or requests that require significant injections of public funds.

From now until election day, we will hear how the unprecedented events of COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian — and the debt burden they have created — are the reasons the Minnis administration will be unable to fulfill many of its promises to the Bahamian people.

When Bahamians elect a party to govern them, they loan their government to a group of individuals who in turn owe Bahamians both the fulfillment of basic responsibilities of governance, and the fulfillment of core campaign promises used to secure their loan from the people.

Paying that largely looming debt is not as much a money problem as it is a problem of a respect deficit, because respect for the Bahamian people instrumentally enables a quality of governance money cannot buy.

A government that respects the citizenry esteems and holds in high regard the feelings, wishes and rights of its people.

Principles such as accountability and transparency, and virtues such as justice and compassion, are all rooted in respect both for those you serve and for the office from which you serve them.

Respect is fundamental

Whether the relationship is

between families, friends, lovers, coworkers or voters and those they elect, little progress can hope to be accomplished without respect.

Bahamians do not need a high degree of political acumen to appreciate that a fundamental way to show respect in governance is to keep your word, and to make fulfilling your promises to right the wrongs of the past a high priority.

And when you cannot keep your promise, respect is demonstrated by being both forthcoming and honest, explaining the reasons and showing the steps you have taken to make good on your commitments.

By the time election day 2017 rolled around, many Bahamians were disillusioned with the performance of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) administration led by former Prime Minister Perry Christie, and opted in large numbers to vote the administration out, providing the Free National Movement (FNM) with an overwhelming mandate at the polls.

Once their victory at the polls was declared, the debt clock started ticking.

When the FNM promised term limits, a recall system for poorly functioning members of Parliament and full enactment of Freedom of Information legislation, it touched a nerve of longing in the inner recesses of Bahamians who believed they were hearing the language of empowerment.

When Minnis and his candidates pledged to fight corruption by first holding themselves to the standard of a new code of ethics and new anti-corruption legislation, FNM supporters were satisfied that their party was on message, and voters on the fence reasoned that the message was one they could buy into.

The Minnis administration must understand what those kinds of promises did to the psyche of the average Bahamian, and why failing to put those promises first on its legislative agenda is a punch to the proverbial gut of the Bahamian people.

There were 852 days between election day 2017 and the deadly landfall of Dorian, during which time the Minnis administration declared that the economy was growing and that it had turned the tide of government inefficiency.

Is a reasonably-minded Bahamian expected to believe, therefore, that core campaign promises that were at the heart of the Minnis administration’s declaration of a new day, could not be introduced or fulfilled in those 852 days?

If the wishes of most Bahamians, as well as the rights of the Bahamian people to have greater access to public information and a government they can trust, were respected, the administration would have translated the tremendous political capital of its 35-4 win into fulfilling cornerstone pledges early in its term.

It is now obvious that campaign pledges that require a referendum will not be executed this close to a general election, and a rush to introduce or pass promised legislation at the end of a term, wherein the public will reap little to no benefits, is among the grossest forms of disrespect to the sensibilities of the Bahamian people.

It sends the message that the Bahamian people are not worth the respect of prioritizing the push for change, but that they are instead gullible enough to accept that the debt owed to them is paid in full if only partial payment is given shortly before they prepare to mark their X.

Respect inspires hope

Stop and think for a moment about the level of comfort and confidence you experience when you feel you are dealing with someone who treats you with respect.

And consider how disrespect cuts right to the heart of your humanity, diminishing your worth and your perception of how much power you have to change your situation.

Notwithstanding the essential power of the vote, Bahamians still view the government as holding the ultimate power to cause them and the nation to either advance or fail.

So when the government, which is viewed as all-powerful, disrespects the public by refusing to answer the public’s questions, or by down-talking the public for asking questions in the first place, it triggers a sense of hopelessness.

How many of us are now encountering fellow Bahamians who say they have given up on believing their vote means anything, or that they can break through the limits of the Westminster system and longstanding bastardization of that system, to have more of a voice in their country?

How many of us are one of those Bahamians?

There are now too many examples over the past three years of the prime minister or ministers refusing to answer press questions, or seeking to guilt Bahamians away from demanding accountability and transparency by using the illogic of “the PLP would have been worse” or “the PLP did the same thing”.

It is why more and more Bahamians are throwing up their hands in disgust.

The disgust comes from repeatedly seeing contempt poured on the debt owed to them by those they elected to govern their country.

It’s a contempt many never thought they would see poured by an FNM government, which is why those who fall in such a category of disappointment feel particularly forlorn and resigned to withdrawing themselves from political involvement and, potentially, the electoral process in less than two years’ time.

Respect shows compassion

Rubbed raw by disenchantment, many Bahamians when speaking of their government fire off the retort, “Don’t you see that they don’t care?”

It is a view that naturally puts government ministers and MPs on the defensive, but if respect for those who hold this view exists, then genuine effort should be made to understand the roots of that sentiment and the extent to which it can be addressed.

When the shock of a value-added tax (VAT) increase to 12 percent was thrust on the Bahamian people a year after the general election, the disconnect from what this increase in the cost of living would do to the average person was stark and vitriolic.

Justifiably upset Bahamians were branded as complainers, persons who spend their meager incomes too frivolously and citizens who are either not intelligent or not concerned enough about their country to support the government’s move.

Adding insult to injury, they were browbeaten for so quickly forgetting that the VAT increase was supposedly the PLP’s fault — a chorus that would become synonymous with arguments used by the Minnis administration to defend its legislative and policy decisions.

Bahamians quickly learned that their feelings and wishes were only respected so long as they did not run counter to the government’s wishes.

Suddenly, many felt punished for caring about their ability to provide for themselves and their families in the midst of tax hikes; a dynamic that has the effect of engendering the feeling that the government does not care about whether the average Bahamian will survive or be able to thrive.

The feeling that one’s government does not care is at its root, a direct consequence of factors including a citizen’s belief that who they are in their country and what matters to them, is not respected and valued.

There would be more instances of this kind of disconnect, peaking in what will long be regarded as infamous aspects of the government’s response to Hurricane Dorian.

While Abaconians were dying in Category 5 winds and raging storm surge, the prime minister during a press conference branded as a “fool” anyone who would venture out into storm conditions to attempt to rescue those stranded in the very areas they were told to seek shelter.

Thankfully, Abaco and Grand Bahama had many “fools” on those fateful days in September 2019 who saved many lives, and were later ironically dubbed as heroes.

Though record flooding put most of Grand Bahama underwater, resulting in thousands of homes and businesses in Freeport being damaged or destroyed, the prime minister told the country and the world that Freeport sustained only “minimal” damage, sparking outrage among residents still reeling from the loss of all they had.

Calls for increased police and defense force presence to curb instances of looting and break-ins on Abaco went unheeded for far longer than storm-ravaged residents gripped by the horror of dead bodies and obliterated communities were willing or able to bear.

Then there was the handling of the missing and the dead on Abaco.

Though recent remarks in Parliament by Elizabeth MP Dr. Duane Sands triggered a fiery response from National Security Minister Marvin Dames, what remains saliently unaddressed is outstanding questions on DNA testing on the deceased, and the publishing of the missing persons list that is central to the identification process.

Though Attorney General Carl Bethel has advised that an expedited coroner’s process is provided for in law to have storm victims such as those who perished or disappeared in Dorian declared dead, the families have not been formally and personally informed by the government on what the process is and how they are to initiate that process.

When Dames urged the press and the public not to get “fixated” on the numbers of those reported missing in Dorian’s wake, it was a jarring example of disconnect given that the numbers of those missing are not merely an incidental range of statistics.

Those numbers represent human beings — children, mothers, fathers, siblings, relatives and friends — whose loved ones are left with shattered lives and more questions than answers on the process of moving forward.

Respect for the lives lost and the lives left behind in Dorian recognizes that the damage caused by insensitive statements, inadequate government responses and perceived lack of compassion for those traumatized by the country’s worst natural disaster in living memory, cannot be fixed by rhetoric or public relations.

Nobody gets everything right in a disaster.

But respect for the victims, both living and deceased, would have prevented or quickly corrected much of what was and is horribly wrong.

Respect reciprocates

Bahamians understand that no government can be blamed for a natural disaster or a pandemic, and respect for the basic reasoning skills of the citizenry recognizes that this point does not need to be continually hammered home to the public.

It is not the things outside of the Minnis administration’s power that the Bahamian people will hold it accountable for, but rather the things it has always had the ability to do even in the aftermath of disaster — which is to honor its commitment to be true to principles of good governance, and to treat the public with respect.

If the citizenry can respect the electoral process enough to peacefully participate and elect the government of its choice, respect for the citizenry reciprocates by giving Bahamians what they were promised and what they are due.

If Bahamians can respect high office enough to cooperate with government objectives even when they are displeased with them, respect reciprocates by meeting Bahamians where they are, and by crafting laws and policies that take thoughtful account of the practical impact of the government’s decisions.

Bahamians are giving their government to political parties every five years and in return are getting perpetual contempt and disrespect, and they are tired of it.

Yes, Dorian and COVID-19 have heavily altered the Minnis administration’s fiscal options for the remainder of its term in office, and will impact where and how it can spend moving forward.

But you don’t need to write a check to show respect.

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