To read the room is to evaluate and understand the mood, attitude and thoughts of your audience, and to govern yourself accordingly.
Recent public statements and positions put forward by the opposition Free National Movement (FNM) have been hitting a sour note with Bahamians who regularly take to social media and other platforms to express their opinions on political and social issues of the day.
Thus far, it appears that the opposition wishes to come out aggressively on matters following its party’s crushing defeat at the polls last year, doing so by consistently pointing out what it deems to be weaknesses or wrongdoing on the part of the Davis administration.
Opposition Leader Michael Pintard’s semblant desire to establish himself as aggressive is understandable given the size of his parliamentary caucus against a formidable governing party.
It is also understandable given the fact that his former leader’s presence — indisputably unpopular with much of the public — continues to loom largely in the opposition party.
But there can be a difference, as far as public perception and reception is concerned, between aggressive opposition that has the potential to spur necessary action or change, and taking a soapbox approach to subject matters that either do not warrant a piling-on effect, or upon which the opposition does not have a record with which to stand.
To this end, as the opposition works to carry out its mandate, it needs to read the room, garnering an accurate interpretation of how the public views the party whose brand was decidedly tarnished by its performance in office last term.
It must understand what matters to the public at any given time, appreciate the mood of the public toward both government and opposition, and be guided by the goal of pursing positions that are reasonable, have heuristic value, and do not turn opposition politics into a theater of the absurd.
To the extent that the opposition misses the mark herein, it will run the risk of aggravating the public, appearing to be opposing for opposing sake, and being too eager to fire up the drums of scandal in the hopes it will help the party regain what was once a comfortable degree of public popularity.
The PM’s quarantine break
When Pintard questioned Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis’ “moral authority” to lead the COVID fight, after Davis revealed he left quarantine to purchase gifts last month, and former Elizabeth MP Dr. Duane Sands followed by suggesting that Davis resign because of this, the reaction by Bahamians online was widely disparaging and dismissive.
There are several reasons for this, in our view.
Many Bahamians do not see the FNM as having the moral authority to preach on the issue of COVID protocols, and the handling thereof by the prime minister, because the Minnis administration inarguably wrote The Bahamas’ book on “one rule for me, one rule for you” during its one-man emergency rule repeatedly rubber-stamped by Parliament.
While it is clear that Davis ought to have remained in quarantine for the time outlined in COVID rules at that time, Davis’ revelation did not spark widespread public outrage, and no amount of drumming by the FNM was going to be able to make the public angrier than it decided it wanted to be.
After having fired the Minnis administration only four months ago, there is certainly no mood in the electorate to have government turned upside down by the resignation of the prime minister, and a call for such was generally discarded as unreasonable.
Last term’s handling of the pandemic was traumatizing and damaging to the country and its civil liberties, and the pain and outcomes of this have not been so soon forgotten by much of the public, who hold the entire Minnis administration — not just Minnis, himself — responsible.
Pintard cannot change that he was a minister in the Minnis Cabinet, but he hopefully recognizes that the public is not likely to abide his condemnation of Davis regarding his departure from quarantine, since the Cabinet of which Pintard was a part, failed to rein in their prime minister whose apparent addiction to emergency power left a nation of people in a modern Bahamas historically disempowered.
The COVID fight
It is clear to us that some weaknesses in enforcement and management of COVID protocols that existed under the previous administration, remain in need of remediation under the Davis administration.
There have been recent responses such as the expansion of free antigen testing, the distribution of medical grade masks, and a change in containment rules that supposedly are intended to relieve the strain caused by Omicron infections, that have resulted in many healthcare workers and other employees having to be placed in 14-day isolation.
Apart from a strengthening of enforcement, which we agree is necessary, it is unclear what additional measures the opposition wants government to adopt as it calls for more to be done to stop the spread of Omicron, which health officials at home and abroad classify as a variant that causes mild disease in most people.
Dr. Nikkiah Forbes, director of the National HIV/AIDS and Infectious Diseases Programme, recently advised that of the current number of patients listed as hospitalized in Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), 30 percent presented with COVID symptoms.
This would mean the remaining 70 percent of those listed on the Ministry of Health’s dashboard as hospitalized COVID patients in PMH, presented to hospital for other matters and happened to have also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
This could be a positive indicator with respect to the severity of the country’s COVID situation at this stage, and we, therefore, question why it is that the opposition seems to equate taking lockdowns and curfews off the table with a pandemic response by government that is not sufficiently responsive.
Most Bahamians know someone whether vaccinated or unvaccinated who was infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the past several weeks, and while officials may worry that a reduced fear of COVID, due to Omicron’s mild presentation, may lead to less compliance, this is where national thinking needs to evolve.
Governments have roundly counted on fear to guarantee compliance with COVID protocols but, in the interest of mental and physical health, we must move away from a dynamic of living and functioning in fear, to the promotion of a medically-based approach to living with SARS-CoV-2.
It would be beneficial for the country if the opposition contributed more to the discussion on therapeutics and prophylactics; encouraged the initiation of local studies into COVID preventions and treatments; and offered insights into lifestyle adjustments and supplementation aimed at building and repairing natural immunity.
The FNM’s brand
Instead of what appears to be the FNM’s attempt at re-establishing itself by prodding Bahamians to keep looking at what may be unfavorable about the PLP, the party needs to give the electorate compelling reasons to want to look favorably at its organization once again.
Minnis’ press appearances that some Bahamians have viewed as being in competition with those of his leader, routinely draw ridicule from internet users who question why the man they voted to “get rid of” last September, remains so heavily in the forefront of FNM relations with the press and public.
This has put Pintard in the unenviable position of having to repeatedly assure reporters and the public that the FNM has only one leader, a state of affairs that not only casts doubt on the viability of the party’s leadership, but complicates the party’s ability to present an attractive face to the Bahamian people.
It seems parties in opposition are becoming comfortable both with the decades-long trend of Bahamians firing a government after just one term in office, and with the associated idea that being returned to office not long after being fired is likely regardless of why an election was lost.
It is a comfort that does not incentivize necessary change within political organizations, and which keeps focus more on the political value of government’s screwups, than on fixing one’s party and creating a relevant organization of quality individuals worthy of the people’s vote.
Partisan support is still very much alive and well in The Bahamas but more and more Bahamians want more from national development than promises draped in party colors.
It will not be enough for the FNM to work with a narrative that essentially says “vote for us because of what we used to be before Minnis”.
The nation’s needs will also not be met if the opposition relies too heavily on the chances of government stumbling so significantly in office, that voters will turn to the opposition by sheer default.
Bahamians ought to have confidence in how today’s FNM may perform if elected again, and should not be expected to repose confidence in the FNM in 2026 because of what the FNM did when it was elected in the 1990s.
So, to the FNM we say, oppose as you must, but do not be beguiled into thinking that consistently shouting “look at them”, can take the place of the prevailing question of why the Bahamian people should once again look at you.