The call for a fully enacted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) continues throughout civil society and the wider public as the desire of Bahamians to know more about the actions and decisions of their government increases.
But even without an FOIA, there is fundamental information about the people’s business that any prime minister can today decide to make public, and that is the decisions of the Cabinet.
Cabinet deliberations, which involve the process of decision-making by Cabinet prior to reaching a conclusion on a matter, are confidential; an oath-sworn secrecy that, under the Westminster model, is considered essential to the system of collective responsibility.
Once Cabinet reaches a conclusion on a matter, that conclusion is the decision of the government and becomes the policy of the government.
As such, the Bahamian people have a right to know all such decisions, and to know them in the shortest possible time after such conclusions are reached.
When veteran broadcaster Anthony Newbold served briefly as press secretary in the Minnis administration, his weekly press briefings were said to have been designed, in part, to provide the press and by extension the public, with information on weekly Cabinet conclusions.
Whether the prime minister ever made available to Newbold the anticipated conclusions seems doubtful based on the outcome of those press briefings.
If the administration, which pledged a new era of honesty and transparency in government, was regularly forthcoming with details on Cabinet decisions reached, the Bahamian people would not have been caught angrily off guard upon learning that the administration increased travel benefits for ministers last year.
As reported yesterday by this newspaper, a new travel policy instituted by Cabinet gave significant per diem increases to ministers, introduced a new $100 per diem to ministers’ spouses as well as an increase in the number of paid spousal trips, and other perks.
This increase in travel benefits for ministers came at a time when the administration was continuing to stress the need for fiscal restraint and austerity, and was taken against the backdrop of record cost of living increases sparked by government tax hikes.
It also came as the administration was preparing to break the news to the Bahamian people that the already burdensome cost of electricity for BPL customers was set to increase due to the company’s rate-reduction bond.
Given that the government’s new travel policy for ministers took effect since last year but the public was not informed, it is likely that no formal communication on the increase in travel benefits was intended — and this is precisely the problem.
Accountability and transparency are inextricably tied.
It is hardly possible for the public to hold a government accountable to what they have no knowledge of and as such, when a government refuses to be transparent with the Bahamian people it is willfully shielding itself against being held accountable for its stewardship.
And to have failed to inform the public of this increase is to leave the public with little choice but to conclude that the Cabinet was content to rest in the bosom of secrecy and from it, add additional burden to the taxpayers via inessential travel expenditures for ministers and their spouses.
Leadership, whether sound or incautious, sets an example for others to follow.
If the administration wishes Bahamians to know and understand the seriousness of the country’s financial position, it must demonstrate that through its own use of public funds, and the extent to which it seeks to direct those funds to furnish the comforts of those in office.
If administrations were in the practice of making public all of its Cabinet decisions, the same would no doubt influence the kinds of decisions cabinets otherwise impudently or scandalously make.