United States founding father Patrick Henry once said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
In a democracy, there are few violations of the citizenry more egregious than when its government withholds information on decisions taken in its name, whether those decisions be in the form of binding agreements, public expenditure or other commitments.
There is power in secrecy because the least powerful among us are those with the least amount of information, hence the unwillingness of many holding political office to govern in the sunshine where corruption, injustice and indulgence at public expense can find no hiding place.
Since March 2018, the Minnis administration has signed seven heads of agreement which have not been tabled in Parliament; a pattern of government secrecy the Free National Movement (FNM) had consistently railed against during its previous terms in office.
Those agreements are between the government of The Bahamas and 4M Harbor Island Ltd. for its $45 million marina and resort project; Global Ports Holdings for its $250 million redevelopment and management of the Nassau cruise port; Baha Mar for its $300 million phase two development; Tyrsoz Family Holdings Ltd. for its $300 million resort and marina development for South Abaco; Carnival Corporation for its $100 million Grand Bahama cruise port; Carnival Corporation for its $80 million expansion of Half Moon Cay; and Royal Caribbean International and the ITM group for its $250 million joint venture resort and port redevelopment project for Grand Bahama.
Failure or refusal to table these agreements is a violation of the public’s right to know what their government has committed them to, and sends the message that the government has something to hide, and that the provisions of agreements signed in the people’s name cannot withstand public scrutiny.
By hosting grandiose agreement signings followed by a withholding of those agreements from the Bahamian people, our governments ultimately train the public to accept a secrecy culture that breeds corruption.
Such action conditions Bahamians to trust their government’s word without evidence, and implicitly encourages the public to revile those who would call government to publicly account for what it claims is being done in the country’s best interest.
With respect to public expenditure, what is thought to be significant sums of money have been spent unsuccessfully prosecuting cases against former Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) parliamentarians, but when questioned on how much these endeavors have cost taxpayers, no answers by government have been forthcoming.
Elected on a mandate of stamping out corruption, the Minnis administration embarked on a series of forensic audits billed as necessary to investigate the handling of public funds in several government departments and agencies.
To date, no public accounting has been given on the cost of these audits, nor is there evidence of the extent to which the Bahamian people have received value for money from the pursuit of these audits.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the most powerful of all parliamentary committees, responsible for examining government accounts, and empowered to summon ministers, parliamentarians and senior civil servants to appear before it.
Due to the Minnis administration’s refusal to turn over to the PAC information requested by it, that committee has been unable to effectively pursue its mandate.
Notwithstanding a controversial ruling on the scope of the PAC by the former House speaker during Parliament’s last session, nothing restricts the government from turning over to the PAC information regarding public expenditure.
In fact, it is the government’s duty to satisfy the requests of the PAC, and a government truly committed to transparency would do so without reservation.
Transparency in the context of governance is about open, accountable and honest decision-making.
Secrecy in governance is allowing the people to access only what you wish them to know, clouding the void of information with pomp, pageantry and rhetoric that pits the public’s right to know against its desire to capitalize on its government’s promises and pledges.
Any administration, be it FNM or PLP, which believes it cannot trust the Bahamian people with information they have a right to know and withholds public information on the basis of that belief, is governing to protect its power through the currency of secrecy.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”