National Review

Grain of salt

Should accountability pledge really be believed?

The new leader of government business in the House of Assembly, Obie Wilchcombe, yesterday pledged that the Davis administration will answer all questions put to it in the new parliamentary session, which starts today.

This pledge was interesting to us given that the last Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) administration, of which Davis and Wilchcombe were a part, left office in 2017 with more than 200 unanswered questions on the agenda, with many of those questions asked directly of Davis, who was deputy prime minister and minister of works.

In 2017, we observed that the PLP was the poster child for secret government, shamelessly disregarding accountability demands.

Deputy Prime Minister Davis did not provide the answers to scores of questions placed on the agenda by the official opposition during that session of Parliament.

When it came to answering questions on the House agenda, the Minnis administration proved to be no better. When the House was prorogued on August 18 and subsequently dissolved on August 19, a long list of unanswered questions remained on the agenda.

Wilchcombe now pledges that the Davis administration will be different from both the Christie and Minnis administrations.

When asked yesterday by our intrepid reporter, Jasper Ward, if the new government intends to answer questions in the House, he said, “We intend to answer all questions that come to Parliament because that’s our responsibility. We’re not afraid of answering questions. The prime minister has promised transparency. We’re going to have transparency.”

We hope Wilchcombe and his colleagues remember this pledge and fulfill it throughout the term.

Many of the questions that went unanswered in the 2012 session had to do with government contract awards with inquiries on the names of contractors. Requests made for contracts to be tabled in Parliament were often not met.

Interestingly, the PLP in its “Our Blueprint for Change” — released ahead of the recent general election — pledges to fully implement the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Public Procurement Act.

Both pieces of legislation were recently enacted by the Minnis administration, although the infrastructure set up for FOIA is yet to be completed.

When the PLP left office in 2017, questions with respect to a controversial letter of intent (LOI) signed with Stellar Waste to Energy company, put to Davis in Parliament by Dr. Hubert Minnis, the Free National Movement (FNM) leader who went on to become prime minister, had not been answered.

That LOI was signed in 2014 by Renward Wells, who was parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Works. The unauthorized signing led to his firing by the then-prime minister, Perry Christie, and soured his relations with the PLP. 

Wells went on to join the FNM, saving Minnis from an early effort to unseat him as leader of the opposition.

Wells was rewarded for his loyalty. When the FNM won in 2017, he became a key member of the Minnis Cabinet, one of Minnis’ most-trusted ministers.

Of course, Minnis had no concerns about Wells and the LOI matter after Wells joined the FNM.

But the point we make is that Minnis had asked legitimate questions about that matter and the answers to those questions never came from Davis.

Questions that were also unanswered when the session ended in 2017 related to the controversial Rubis oil spill in the Marathon constituency. Those questions were placed on the agenda by Neko Grant, who was at the time the MP for Central Grand Bahama. The questions were addressed to Davis.

His colleague in Cabinet at the time, Jerome Fitzgerald, the Marathon MP, told us he kept secret a report that showed possible health dangers his constituents could have faced from that oil leak because he would have been fired from Cabinet had he informed them, given that a Cabinet decision had been made not to make that report public.

The secrecy surrounding the Rubis matter was a low point for the Christie administration. An independent researcher hired by the PLP leadership after the 2017 loss, pointed to that controversy as a contributing factor for the PLP’s election defeat.

The House record does reflect that in 2016, Davis did answer questions put by Grant regarding Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) contracts. Davis’ misleading of the House in relation to a BAMSI fire and the insurance for the dorm that burnt down at the Andros facility, had been the source of much controversy.

Davis did not respond to Grant’s request that he lay on the table of the House all of the documents relative to the purchase of Bahamasair aircraft.

We do not have the space to outline all the many other questions that were not answered by the PLP administration the last time around.

We also do not have the space to detail the many questions left on the agenda by the Minnis administration in 2021.

A series of questions directed to then-Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis by PLP Deputy Leader Chester Cooper regarding the Oban Energies deal signed by the government in 2018 went unanswered. 

This included a request for the prime minister to disclose the beneficial owners of Oban, and a request that he lay on the table of the House evidence of funding for the project that had been planned for East Grand Bahama.

In July 2019, Glenys Hanna-Martin, the Englerston MP, had placed on the agenda of the House a request that Prime Minister Minnis provide a full accounting of all travel and related expenses by himself and all ministers of government with effect from May 2017.

That was never provided. We do hope that the Cabinet of which Hanna-Martin is now a part will be forthcoming with similar requests.

In December 2020, Davis had placed on the agenda a request directed to Dionisio D’Aguilar, the then-minister of tourism, to table the agreement that had been announced for the sale of Grand Lucayan resort in Freeport. The request was never adhered to.

In February 2021, Cooper asked that the prime minister advise the House on the status of the bid by Royal Caribbean to be granted leased Crown land on Paradise Island.

That request was also ignored, as were so many other requests made to the Minnis administration by PLP and independent members of Parliament.

Question time

Notwithstanding Davis’ own personal poor record on transparency when he sat in the Christie Cabinet, and the poor record of the Christie administration as a whole, the new session, which begins today, provides an opportunity for the Davis administration to set a new tone, and do things differently.

The actions of the new administration will demonstrate whether its declarations and pledges were made out of political expediency or from pure conviction.

Transparency and accountability are more than just words that sound good to say. The real power behind them is in the action of those who claim to be committed to these important principles of good governance.

The main national forum in which that commitment to accountability is demonstrated is in the Parliament of The Bahamas.

In recent times, we have, however, observed that the basic functions of Parliament sometimes appear to be lost on politicians.

Under our constitution, Parliament has two roles: primarily, it makes laws. It is also mandated to hold government accountable.

Under House rules, the Parliament is mandated to hold Opposition Day — a day the opposition should use to make the government more accountable.

House Rule 59(1) states, “Question time shall be held on the second Wednesday of each month provided the House is sitting during that month and shall be for a duration of not more than 30 minutes.”

Under the Minnis administration, this never took place.

Renward Wells, who was leader of government business, had indicated to the House of Assembly that the Minnis administration intended to treat the opposition (the PLP) the same way the opposition treated the FNM when it (the PLP) was the government.

That was a shameful statement from an MP whose back, we admit, we were happy to see on the night of September 16.

Last year, Picewell Forbes, who was leader of opposition business in the House of Assembly, acknowledged that both the Christie and Minnis administrations avoided question time.

At the time, Davis, the then-opposition leader, said the opposition had been demanding Opposition Day. He said it would be good if independent voices do the same.

“Everybody looks to the opposition to hold them accountable and it is right to do so, but also, any responsible citizen should also be calling for it. Often when we call for it, it is relegated to the pile of politics,” Davis said.

The political tables have turned.

Now, Davis has an opportunity to show his commitment to important ideals of democracy and respect for House rules and for the constitution.

The PLP’s catchy “new day” election slogan, which has carried over into the start of its term in office, is a signal to the electorate that a new approach to governance will be taken; that the same old approach that has left many Bahamians feeling disappointed and disillusioned will be abandoned.

If the new executive does what previous administrations did — if it ignores its obligation to be accountable — and disregards the questions and requests made by the opposition and the media, if it makes the general citizenry feel that their desires for answers are not legitimate, then it would certainly be abandoning its good governance commitments.

In the same manner that the FNM’s “people’s time” slogan was used by many to demonstrate a feeling of betrayal and let down, the PLP’s “new day” mantra would be used for ridicule and mockery of the crew who now occupy the seat of power.

As leader of government business in the House, Wilchcombe is well-positioned to help usher in this new approach to how the executive behaves in Parliament.

Time will tell.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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