The wait for deeper accountability continues

As we approach the halfway mark of the Minnis administration’s term in office, little to no forward movement is apparent on landmark bills that if enacted could have a transformative effect on transparency and accountability in governance.

The effect could be transformative to the extent that these proposed laws place a level of power and access to information in the hands of the citizenry yet uncharted in The Bahamas, which lags many years behind its regional counterparts in the implementation of freedom of information, public advocacy and parliamentary autonomy laws.

Notwithstanding the varying factors that can impact a legislative agenda, it is not unreasonable to question whether a divesting of power traditionally held by the executive is at the heart of why successive administrations have waffled on bringing such laws to fruition early in a term, if at all.

The Ombudsman Bill, which to this administration’s credit was tabled in 2017, has since seen no further movement in Parliament. An ombudsman is a critical authority in a democracy, as he or she is empowered to be the people’s advocate; investigating and taking actions on complaints from members of the public regarding alleged inappropriate and abusive actions by government agencies.

Given that many Bahamians refuse to lodge such complaints, due to a lack of confidence in a fair resolution – since those investigating complaints would invariably belong to the same agency accused of maladministration, an ombudsman can be central to deepening accountability and improving government efficacy — both of which augur well for the country.

Also seemingly stalled at the starting gate is the much-touted Integrity Commission Bill, tabled in 2017. The bill seeks to establish an Integrity Commission to promote and enhance ethical conduct for parliamentarians, senators and public officials and aims to provide measures for the prevention, detection and investigation of acts of corruption.

Having been elected on a strong anti-corruption platform, it was expected that the Integrity Commission Bill would become one of the Minnis administration’s first acts of Parliament, but no indication has been given on when the proposed legislation will be debated.

Last year, training workshops were held to prepare the public sector for the full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), whose shelf life has spanned several administrations. Part V of the act, which has already been enacted, provides for the establishment of the Office of the Information Commissioner; an autonomous official who is to oversee the Freedom of Information Unit.

The FOIA gives the public a general right of access to records held by public authorities.

Attorney General Carl Bethel in April of last year said he expected the FOIA to be fully enacted within the current 2019/2020 fiscal year.

In December of last year, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said he hoped the information commissioner would be appointed “very soon”; an appointment he said was part of the ongoing process of full FOIA implementation.

But given that no budgetary allocation was set this fiscal year for the creation of the Freedom of Information Unit or the appointment of the information commissioner, it suggests that full FOIA implementation has been put off the administration’s immediate radar yet again.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Service Emoluments and Pensions Bill 2019 (PSEP), a draft bill which seeks to grant autonomy to the Parliament, has been circulated among all parliamentarians, though reports reaching us indicate that some members of the Cabinet may be less than supportive of its tabling. We understand that opposition members have indicated unanimous support for this bill.

The PSEP Bill seeks to establish an independent parliamentary service. At present, the public officer responsible for The Bahamas Parliament is the secretary to the Cabinet, who, by course, takes his or her instruction from the prime minister.

The importance of this bill is in its aim to make separation of powers between the legislature and the executive actual, by vesting the authority currently held by the cabinet secretary in the clerk of the Parliament as an officer of the Parliamentary Service.

In its 2017 manifesto, the FNM pledged an unwavering commitment to good governance. Ongoing delays in progressing laws that deepen democracy and strengthen modes of transparency and accountability can be viewed as running counter to that stated commitment.

We urge the government to renew its priorities in this regard.

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