The current standing of the heavily touted Fiscal Responsibility Council (FRC) is, in part, a classic example of what happens when compliance with accountability calls by external bodies does not mesh with longstanding internal practices that run counter to accountability in government.
The FRC was established via the Fiscal Responsibility Act enacted by this administration on the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and is a body charged with ensuring that government complies with the act’s fiscal rules which set limits on spending, deficits and debt as a percentage of GDP.
Appointed last year, the council was heralded by the Minnis administration as a landmark creation toward deepening fiscal responsibility and accountability.
Finance Minister Peter Turnquest told Parliament this week that the FRC will be able to get to work once matters including remuneration and its desire to control its budget without reference to the Ministry of Finance, are ironed out.
What the council is seeking in effect is independence; but the dilemma is that the council, which is appointed on the advice of the speaker of the House, is not an independent body because the Parliament of The Bahamas is not currently an independent body as are Commonwealth parliaments in the region and throughout the world.
Presently, both the Parliament and the FRC are under the administrative auspices of the secretary to the Cabinet who functions at the direction of the prime minister, which means both bodies whose responsibility it is to hold government accountable are directly answerable to the government for its operations.
True accountability under such a circumstance is an illusion, and in the case of the FRC, this is especially so because notwithstanding its statutory mandate, the council has no constitutional authority to compel or restrict the executive branch with respect to public expenditure.
That authority rests solely with the Parliament, which has been stymied in its own constitutional mandate over the years due to its disproportionate number of members who are either Cabinet ministers or hold government posts, essentially guaranteeing that whatever government wishes to do legislatively, will be carried out.
Government has yet to move on a proposed Parliamentary Service Emoluments and Pensions Bill which would grant the legislature its independence from the executive branch.
We understand that some senior Cabinet ministers are reluctant to see the proposed legislation introduced.
Article 72(1) of the Constitution states: “There shall be a Cabinet for The Bahamas which shall have the general direction and control of the government of The Bahamas and shall be collectively responsible thereof to Parliament.”
Just as a Cabinet-heavy parliament hinders the legislature in carrying out its responsibility via Article 72(1), so does the practice of ministers failing or refusing to answer opposition questions in Parliament on the affairs of their portfolios.
For the past three budget cycles this term, we have watched minister after minister respond to opposition questions in committee stage with the refrain, “I will get back to you on that”, and the answers almost never materialize.
This practice is not new.
When Cabinet ministers do not give an account to the Parliament for their areas of responsibility and for their actions and decisions therein, the same runs afoul of what the constitution envisions, which is that the legislative branch is to be a check on the executive.
When one minister fails to give an account to the Parliament, the Cabinet collectively betrays its constitutional responsibility to be accountable to the Parliament, and by extension it betrays its responsibility to the Bahamian people whose highest voice the Parliament represents.
Government also offends parliamentary norms and hinders accountability when it causes Cabinet ministers to be appointed to Parliament’s sessional committees, the committees charged with scrutinizing government’s activities and advising government on best practices.
More than halfway into the present term, two of Parliament’s key sessional committees —the Rules Committee and the Treasury Committee — have yet to convene a single meeting.
And Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has been rendered impotent because accountability in this session has proven to be little more than a cliché.
An illusion is something that is not as it appears to be.
Legislation promising heightened accountability, consistent harkening to the record of previous Free National Movement administrations, and dogmatic insistence that change has come, give the appearance of government in the sunshine.
But the shadow of stony refusal to make that appearance real has been this administration’s solar eclipse.