Democracy under assault

The government’s shutout of the opposition during yesterday’s sitting of Parliament is the latest example of a devolution into authoritarian-style leadership witnessed during this country’s COVID-19 response.

Parliament’s sitting came a day after government’s untenable failure to have the governor general’s previous proclamation of emergency and its regulations extended before their expiration at midnight, June 29, 2020.

Following its tabling of a new emergency proclamation, the government moved for a suspension of the sitting, an act clearly intended to prevent the opposition from making any potential statement on the turn of events arising from the new proclamation.

A foremost assault on democracy comes in the form of silencing the voice of the opposition, whose role in our system of government is foundational, and whose scrutiny in the Parliament is essential to bringing accountability to the actions of government.

During states of emergency when civil liberties are suspended and/or restricted, the opposition’s role becomes especially pivotal given that states of emergency are by their very nature subject to abuse, as is being seen in countries throughout the world since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attempts by opposition leader Philip Brave Davis to be given the opportunity to speak were shut down by House Speaker Halson Moultrie, and the sitting eventually ended in furor with some members of the governing side openly expressing dissatisfaction with the sitting’s outcome, and with the country’s current state of affairs.

In the interest of democracy and given the matter of critical importance posed by the country’s new state of emergency rule, Moultrie ought to have used his discretion to protect the minority and with it the interests of the Bahamian people, by allowing the opposition’s voice to be heard.

Ultimately it is the competent authority, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, who stands accused of demonstrating to the Bahamian people an unwillingness to abide questions or criticisms about the manner in which the country is being governed and COVID-19 restrictions are being determined, under emergency rule.

From a notable reduction in the rate of COVID-19 testing since his tenure as health minister despite World Health Organization (WHO) guidance urging increased testing, to the decision not to delay today’s reopening of borders for commercial tourism, we question who the competent authority is taking advice from at this stage, if anyone.

Minnis advised Parliament that the Atlantis resort, in response to widespread surges in new COVID-19 cases in the United States, has chosen to delay its scheduled reopening until July 30.

Atlantis was the country’s only major resort that planned to reopen in the first week in July, and its decision to adjust to new COVID-19 surges in this country’s largest tourist market is one infectious disease experts worldwide say industries and countries must stand ready to make.

But the move prompts questions about the country’s overall state of preparedness.

Jamaica’s government, for example, which set out rigorous procedures ahead of its June 15 reopening, advised this week that it is considering a readjustment in its entry protocols for visitors because the country does not have the physical capacity to deal with the increase in arrivals under its existing entry requirements.

Both in his most recent national address and during yesterday’s sitting, Minnis bypassed the opportunity to advise the nation on the state of readiness of the country’s airports, healthcare system and tourism stakeholders for tourist arrivals.

The Ministry of Tourism’s Readiness and Recovery Plan sets out protocols for airports, seaports, transportation and resorts, but the public has not been advised on how facilities have stacked up against those protocols, and the capacity of the government and the private sector to manage and enforce those protocols as guests arrive.

Yesterday’s events in Parliament further eroded confidence in the competent authority’s ability and willingness to handle the emergency power arrogated to him in a manner that admits to consultation, collaboration and bi-partisan participation in the public interest.

With repeated examples of his seeking to rule by decree, we have witnessed a flouting of our parliamentary democracy under the guise of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

We repeat our admonition that now is an opportune time for members of Parliament to restore sanity to the governance of our country.

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