After watching last week’s Torchbearers Convention at the Meliá hotel, a veteran of the Free National Movement, who spent decades on the frontline of politics, noted his delight and deep satisfaction that the party was home to a new generation of young Bahamians.
He enthused that the party’s founders would be very pleased to see the young people attracted to and involved in the party today nearly 50 years after its founding. He applauded the faces of a new generation and how the party is evolving.
Though it retains the traditions and hallmarks of the party, today’s FNM does not look like 1972 or 1992. This is a good thing. It must be the party of 2022 and beyond and must continue to innovate and grow for a new era.
Institutions and political parties that fail to innovate become moribund and stagnant, which is the paralyzing structural problem of the PLP.
When Tony Blair was remaking the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and when Bill Clinton was recasting the Democratic Party in the U.S. around the same time, many of the party’s grandees were chagrined and bothered that the parties in the respective countries were changing.
The new faces at the Torchbearers’ event showed tremendous diversity, especially more young people from traditional grassroots constituencies.
The FNM’s Over-the-Hill initiative and the MPs from these areas are helping the party to gain supporters, who at one time may have been more inclined to support the PLP.
The FNM has a generational opportunity to expand its base and to reach scores of young people because of its entrepreneurial, small business and educational programs.
The dynamism and enthusiasm of the two-day convention of the youth arm of the FNM was in stark contrast to the recent 54th PLP National Convention, which proved off-camera to be a chaotic and divisive affair.
The party’s two-day event was marked by a former Member of Parliament from the Pindling era, who once famously described in the House of Assembly how he used to physically beat a former girlfriend, demanding that he and a number of other former MPs be given nominations at the next election.
On air, as the camera panned the audience, the PLP convention seemed like an affair from yesteryear dominated by the same old faces and a legion of stalwart councilors.
Though the convention was held under the supposed rubric of renewal, there was little semblance of renewal or the future. The keynote address by party leader Philip Brave Davis was uninteresting, boring and lacking in vision.
In marked contrast, the FNM youth convention, led, organized and produced by 20-something year-olds, was fast-paced, well-produced and more energetic.
The Torchbearers Convention looked like a full convention of the party, pulling a crowd rivaling the PLP’s National Convention, though the youth convention was made up overwhelmingly of young people.
A former FNM Cabinet minister enthused: “After watching the convention I know that the FNM’s future will be secure in the hands of young and gifted Bahamians.”
The former minister was referencing the convention’s theme.
In his remarks, party leader Dr. Hubert Minnis noted: “The FNM is very different from the PLP.
“At the very birth of our party, we formed the Torchbearers to give voice to the aspirations and energy of young Bahamians.”
Dr. Minnis continued: “We were the first major party in the country to create a youth organization. Though the PLP was formed in 1953, it did not form a youth association until almost two decades later and after the creation of the Torchbearers.”
Former Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes, one of the Dissident Eight and one of the founders of the FNM, has spoken previously of the formation of the Torchbearers.
He vividly recalled the afternoon in 1972 on the porch at his Gambier home when he, along with Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield and others, met to discuss, among other things, the formation of the youth arm of the party. This was soon after the formation of the FNM.
Last week, decades later, Sir Arthur’s grandson, Carlyle Bethel, president of the Torchbearers Association, took to the youth convention stage, with a dynamic and soulful speech about the FNM’s commitment to young people. It was a moment replete with historical resonance and import.
The keynote address on the opening night by Education Minister Jeff Lloyd, rocked the convention and resonated throughout the country.
Lloyd gave full voice to the social revolution today’s FNM has embarked on in terms of free education from preschool to university.
He spoke about distance learning and the application of technology to transform education in the government-operated school system.
The education program of the Minnis administration builds on progress in education of previous FNM governments and is built on the dreams of many in the movement for majority rule.
Among the transformative and ambitious goals of many in the movement was greater access to economic opportunity and to universal education at every level.
One of those who helped to usher in majority rule, notes that the FNM’s education program today is the complete fulfillment of a dream deferred from the inception of majority rule and builds on previous advancements in education.
The FNM’s program also stands in stark and profound contrast to the failures of the Perry Christie era to fulfill many of the PLP’s broken promises in education.
In an August 15, 2011, national address, just about eight years before the opening of a new school year this past Monday and free tuition for qualifying students at the University of The Bahamas, then-Opposition Leader Christie solemnly promised: “We intend to double our investment in education over the next five years. We need better quality education for all our children, starting at the very beginning.”
Christie continued: “Did you know that research has shown that at-risk children who don’t participate in quality preschool programs are five times more likely to be criminals at age 27 than children who did have a good quality program early in their lives? Early education works – and it deserves our funding and our support.
“It was with a heavy heart that I read recently about poor test results – when our children are getting failing grades, it is we who are failing. We have to do better, and we can.”
These were just more of the typical, vacant, hollow, empty, unfulfilled words and promises by Christie and the PLP, which some in the party unsuccessfully attempted to deny.
Christie and the PLP utterly failed to double the national investment in education and failed to do dramatically more in preschool education. After two years in office, the Minnis administration and the FNM are transforming access to education.
In his convention remarks, Dr. Minnis declared: “The FNM’s mission today is to secure the future by advancing access to free education from preschool to university for Bahamian children.
“The great benefit of preschool education is that it can improve the lives of children across all social and income levels.”
He continued: “We have already launched a major preschool initiative that will continue to expand throughout the country. To expand this initiative, the Ministry of Education will partner with approved private preschools through a voucher program…
“Upon application to the Universal Preschool program, applicants will first be directed to government-operated schools.
“Once all of the spaces in government-operated public preschools are taken, we will provide vouchers for students to attend a private preschool that has met national standards and that has been approved by the government.”
The prime minister noted: “The voucher will be worth approximately $2,000 per year and will be paid directly to the selected private preschool to cover tuition and learning supplies for the preschooler.
“We are providing $1 million initially through the Small Business Development Centre and the Bahamas Entrepreneurial Venture Fund for the development of preschools.
“This funding will support equity and loans up to $150,000 to qualifying educational institutions that offer preschool education and that are participating in the Ministry of Education’s Universal Preschool program.
“These sums will provide private preschool operators the means to expand their facilities, to meet the demand for preschool seats that will be created by this program. We will also promote access to Crown land for the development of preschools.”
Young people are not moved by empty words and promises. They want opportunity, education, jobs, a safer society and other public goods that will improve their lives.
In the refrain of the FNM convention, their future is being secured by a party that is building on its past by looking to a new future, with a new generation of leaders and faces.
More next week: “New opportunities for the FNM”