National Review

The politics of transparency

New govt has important opportunity to be different 

Since assuming office roughly eight weeks ago, the Davis administration has made a number of revelations regarding the Minnis administration’s botched handling of the people’s affairs.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis made the claim in Parliament that the former government did not account for $1 billion in liabilities in its Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update Report.

As debate on the supplemental budget gets underway in the House of Assembly, we expect the prime minister to more clearly explain this yet to be substantiated charge.

There were other revelations, whose veracity we do not question.

On several occasions, the housing minister, JoBeth Coleby-Davis, told the country that the much-touted Prospect Ridge housing development for young professionals was an “election ploy” with no real work being done to make the project a reality.

In this column back in March, we questioned whether the planned project would be a “piece of the sky or pie in the sky”. We concluded it was a pie in the sky promise by then Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis.

Coleby-Davis also tabled the Town Centre Mall post office lease, a controversial deal with former Cabinet minister Brent Symonette, which the former government had refused to make public.

We also recently learned that a probe into controversial matters at Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) had been submitted to the government a year ago, yet it was never made public. Three months ago, Prime Minister Minnis told reporters there was no update on that matter. Not once did he reveal he had the report in hand.

The Davis administration has promised to table the report in Parliament.

On Monday, Attorney General Ryan Pinder revealed in the Senate the Minnis administration spent $1.1 million on failed prosecutions in the corruption cases of former PLP Cabinet minister Shane Gibson and former PLP Senator Frank Smith.

Former Attorney General Carl Bethel, despite repeated requests from the media, had refused to reveal how much money the government blew on the foreign lawyers, no doubt aware that such wastage on what the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) termed “political witch hunts” would anger the electorate. 

Bethel had been much more open to revealing how much money the government paid out through the Office of the Attorney General in respect of a legal matter over the disclosure of private emails in Parliament by Jerome Fitzgerald when he was minister of education in 2016.

That scandalous conduct by Fitzgerald was all in an effort to substantiate his claim that the environmental activist group, Save The Bays, was really a well-financed political organization intended to bring down the Christie administration.

In August 2016, Supreme Court Justice Indra Charles ruled that Fitzgerald was not legally justified when he tabled those private emails.

She ruled his actions were an infringement on the constitutional rights of the applicants and ordered that the minister pay $150,000 in damage for that breach.

Attorney General Bethel informed in the Senate in 2017 that the matter had racked up “huge legal costs, just on the government’s side alone”.

Bethel revealed the Christie administration had engaged the equivalent of three QCs – one from the UK, a local QC, and one from the region – as well as a team from the AG’s office. He said $178,348 had been spent up to that point on legal costs for the foreign lawyers.

“…  I could not find any convincing legal or other reason for continuing to mount this expensive litigation at such an enormous expense to the taxpayer,” he said in June 2017.

It was thus interesting, but not really surprising, that Bethel was mum on the more than $1 million payments to foreign lawyers in relation to the failed prosecutions of Gibson and Smith, which caused tremendous political damage to the Minnis administration.

We expect more revelations will be made in and outside of the House of Assembly now that a new administration is in the chair.

Secret government

To date, the Davis-led government has been a picture of transparency, using its honeymoon period to spill the beans, so to speak, on the Free National Movement’s (FNM) malpractice while in office, but time will tell whether this commitment to transparency and accountability becomes a hallmark of the new team in place.

The enthusiasm with which new governments shed light on that which their predecessors clearly wanted hidden is not unique to the Davis administration.

Upon coming to office in 2017, the Minnis-led government dropped a series of political bombshells in the House of Assembly, exposing the Christie administration’s wastage of public funds and making public previously suppressed information the public had a legitimate right to.

During the budget debate which ensued within weeks of the FNM’s election, minister after minister accused the former government of misfeasance, with then Public Works Minister Desmond Bannister saying the attorney general would need to consider whether to hold any former minister legally accountable for monetary losses suffered by the state as a result of their poor decisions.

Bannister pointed to the Christie administration’s “mismanagement” of the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI), the STAR Academy, and a primary school in Lowe Sound, Andros, as examples.

Minnis pointed to $8 million worth of hurricane cleanup contracts the Christie administration gave to a single vendor. He also pointed to millions of dollars in contracts given to PLP supporters without proper procedures being followed.

Under the last Christie administration, transparency was a buzz word with no meaningful action behind it.

In September 2017, when the PLP was gone from office, the million-dollar Bahamas Power and Light business plan, which the PLP government had refused to make public, was finally revealed. Imagine then, that the Minnis administration sat on the BPL probe report when it had an opportunity to demonstrate it was different from those who came before it.

Under the Christie government, then Deputy Prime Minister Davis had repeatedly told reporters the plan would be released. It was all talk.

More egregiously, that administration had for a whole year suppressed a consultant’s report that warned that Marathon residents faced potential health risks due to a fuel spill at Rubis gas station on Robinson Road.

The PLP’s own post-election study revealed that that controversy contributed to it losing the government in 2017.

When it was in office the last time around, the PLP became known for secret government.

After it took office, the Minnis administration placed into the public domain the agreement the Christie administration had entered into with Import-Export Bank of China for the completion and sale of the Baha Mar project – which was a major political football in the lead up to the May 2017 election.

While noting during the Senate debate in June 2017 that the agreement had finally been made public, Bethel, the then attorney general, said, “… It has been done to engender a culture of governmental transparency, as was promised during the campaign.” 

But in various respects, this culture of transparency never really took hold.

The Minnis administration became what it claimed to have despised: A government that cherry-picked what it would reveal to the public about the public’s business, hypocritically paying lip service to transparent governance.

As the Christie administration did before it, it left office in 2017 with a long list of unanswered questions on the House of Assembly agenda.

The Minnis administration’s approach to transparency in government was a departure from the “government in the sunshine” approach taken by Hubert Ingraham upon assuming office in 1992.

One of his former minister’s, Zhivargo Laing, said Ingraham often said to him, “the people’s business is the people’s business”.

“Allowing for what might be demonstrated by Prime Minister Davis, it would be hard to find a prime minister more committed to transparency than Hubert Ingraham,” Laing said.

“Just look at his approach to dealing with matters of public business, beginning with heads of agreement and his insistence that they be tabled; beginning with his bringing the whole parliamentary process into the public sphere; his availability to the press to answer questions and require the same of his Cabinet ministers; he would go away, come back, hold press conferences, etc., etc. I don’t think you in the media would have found him coy in answering and addressing questions put to him about what he was doing in his government.”

Even in the hard moments, he added, Ingraham was willing to speak to the public.

True test

Despite the PLP’s dismal record on transparency and accountability the last time around, many voters who had had enough of the Minnis administration, decided to give Davis and his “new day” PLP a chance to govern.

If it truly wants to be different, the new government ought not ignore its obligation to be fully accountable to the public, and it ought not seek to suppress the voice of the official opposition, which has a constitutional role to play in governance.

It should also give priority to ensuring the Freedom of Information Office is properly resourced and that it is soon ready for full functioning so the Bahamian people can finally begin to make requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Minnis administration had been slow to enact the important legislation, but it finally announced earlier this year, the appointment of Information Commissioner Keith Thompson and his deputy, Shane Miller.

In September, Thompson told us that his team was still in the consultative stage, and the office was in need of staff to be able to function effectively.

Transparency must not be about scoring political points, as we have seen play out repeatedly over so many years of different administrations. 

The true transparency test for the new government will come, not through its revelations on what its predecessors did or failed to do, but in keeping the spotlight on its own dealings throughout its term in office, and respecting the public enough to demonstrate it has a genuine commitment to being accountable.

The Davis administration has an opportunity to do things differently. It has set a refreshing tone thus far. 

Only in the fullness of time will we know whether this will be sustained.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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