In February 2017 when Parliament passed the Freedom of Information Bill, we opined in this space that the passage of the bill may represent a new era of transparency and accountability in governance, but it will take some time before we know if that is indeed the case.
Nearly three and a half years later, the current administration, which had continuously pressed for the legislation while in opposition, has not prioritized full enactment.
Members of the public do not have the benefit of requesting and receiving information they are entitled to.
There is still not a new era of transparency and accountability in governance.
The secrecy culture has lingered from one administration to the next.
Consider the fact that questions on the agenda of the House of Assembly that were asked since 2017 have still not been answered by government ministers.
The basic functions of Parliament sometimes appear to be lost on politicians.
Under our constitution, Parliament has two roles: primarily, it makes laws. It is also mandated to hold government accountable.
Under House rules, the Parliament is mandated to hold Opposition Day — a day the opposition should use to make the government more accountable.
House Rule 59(1) states, “Question Time shall be held on the second Wednesday of each month provided the House is sitting during that month and shall be for a duration of not more than 30 minutes.”
Rule 59(5) states, “A minister may decline to answer a question and, if he does so, shall state his reasons which shall not be open to further question or debate.”
In our February 2017 column, we noted, “Opposition Day appears to be a thing of the past. The opposition is not raising hell over it.”
We easily adopt this line again as there has been no change in culture in this regard — and the opposition is not demanding it, at least not in any forceful way.
Days should be allocated to the opposition to raise subjects of its choosing, providing an opportunity for opposition members to better scrutinize government policies.
Asked why the current opposition is not demanding Opposition Day be held, Leader of Opposition Business in the House of Assembly Picewell Forbes said yesterday, “We all have found a way to wiggle around it. I think the PLP observed it more in the early days of the Christie administration. It appears it slowed down as we got closer to election. The FNM has not tried to adhere to it at all.”
Forbes said Opposition Day has never taken place this session. We have no record that proves him to be wrong.
Asked again why the opposition is not pressing for Opposition Day to take place, he said opposition members have been weaving questions in their various speeches in Parliament but the speaker has been difficult in not allowing questions to be asked, consistently raising the issue of relevance.
We think Forbes understands that his side has not been effective in pushing more forcefully against the super majority on the other side.
Notwithstanding the Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP) poor record of accountability, he and his colleagues should remember that the effectiveness of Parliament depends largely on the strength of the opposition.
Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis said yesterday the opposition has been demanding Opposition Day. He said it would be good if independent voices do the same.
“Everybody looks to the opposition to hold them accountable and it is right to do so, but also, any responsible citizen should also be calling for it. Often when we call for it, it is relegated to the pile of politics,” Davis said.
The Christie administration left office with more than 200 unanswered questions on the agenda. This is disgraceful. The Progressive Liberal Party was the poster child for secret government, shamelessly disregarding accountability demands.
The Minnis administration is not doing much better on the accountability scale.
Among the questions that went unanswered during the last session of Parliament was a series of questions asked by Dr. Hubert Minnis, at the time leader of the opposition, about the controversial signing by Bamboo Town MP Renward Wells in 2014 of a letter of intent (LOI) with Stellar Waste to Energy when he was parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Works.
There are just under 50 questions on the current agenda.
Many of the questions, placed on the agenda by way of notices, are directed to now Prime Minister Minnis.
Chester Cooper, the Exumas and Ragged Island MP, asked him to lay on the table of the House evidence of financing/funding for the controversial Oban project, planned for eastern Grand Bahama.
Cooper also asked the prime minister to provide full disclosure of the beneficial owners of Oban Energies, including the K Family Trust, and whether they have any experience in the business contemplated in the heads of agreement signed in February 2018, and whether due diligence was done on the principals.
Those questions were asked in March 2018.
Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin asked the prime minister to provide the House with a full accounting of all travel and related expenses by himself and all ministers of government with effect from May 2017.
That question was asked in July 2019.
In office, Minnis had criticized the Christie administration for “extravagant” travel, accusing the government of wasting taxpayer dollars.
Upon coming to office, the prime minister committed to providing details of the cost of all travel undertaken by himself and his ministers.
While Minnis reported in Parliament in February 2018 that a trip he had taken to Texas cost $37,000, he has not lived up to his commitment to provide other travel costs.
In November 2017, Hanna-Martin asked then Transport Minister Frankie Campbell to confirm whether the government intends to continue the work of the prior administration toward the roll-out of a unified public transport system.
These are among nearly 50 questions asked since the start of the term that remain on the agenda.
There is a growing reluctance to answer questions. Equally worrying, there also appears to be a general lack of knowledge among ministers as it relates to their portfolios.
We saw this play out in the recent exercise to pass the 2020/2021 budget. In many instances, ministers were unable to answer on the spot critical questions related to their ministries.
“I’ll get back to you on that,” was a familiar refrain.
A concerning number of questions went unanswered during that exercise. We will not hold our breath for these ministers to get back to Parliament on these accountability matters.
If we had more citizens who take their civic duty more seriously than they do allegiance to party, and if we had an opposition party that better understood its role and effectively executed that role, we would have a better chance of forcing the government to develop a culture where every minister must answer questions within a set time.
We would be demanding that our government explain what it is doing on our behalf all of the time.
But our democracy is not yet there.
What we see play out in the halls of our Parliament is more gamesmanship than effective governance.
With the executive being the largest voting bloc in Parliament (more than 50 percent of government MPs are Cabinet ministers or parliamentary secretaries), Parliament is essentially a rubber stamp.
It is not meeting its function of effectively holding the government accountable.
On the issue of accountability, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the queen of all committees of Parliament, is not functional.
The PAC, whose majority members are opposition members, can touch every aspect of governance. There is no boundary beyond which the PAC can’t go. It has complete oversight of the government’s financial matters.
This committee provides the opposition with an important opportunity to make the government account. Sadly, this opportunity is being wasted.
The committee has not met in over a year.
According to current speaker, Halson Moultrie, a ruling handed down in 2015 by then House Speaker Dr. Kendal Major determining that the committee can only examine documents tabled in Parliament still stands.
That ruling “castrated” the PAC — to borrow a term used by Hubert Chipman, who was PAC chairman at the time of the ruling.
Peter Turnquest, at the time shadow minister of finance, declared that the ruling represented “another nail in the coffin of democracy in this country”.
Fred Mitchell, at the time Fox Hill MP, declared in Parliament, “We stand behind your ruling. We support the decision that you have made and the opposition (FNM) is absolutely wrong on this.”
Mitchell is today PLP chairman.
Davis has said the committee is still hindered in doing its work as a result of the current speaker’s interpretation of the ruling.
Moultrie has said unless a case is made to him to disregard the ruling, it will stand.
But Davis said yesterday the speaker is misinterpreting the 2015 ruling.
“Recall now that what happened is the auditor general’s report (into the Small Home Repair Programme) was leaked and the PAC then decided to embark on a review of that report to see if there is anything else that they needed to advance in that report,” he said. “Kendal’s ruling was that report had to be laid for them to look at it.”
Davis said that should not extend to the work of any future PAC and the ability of its members to investigate financial matters of the government.
Asked why his side has not pressed for the ruling to be set aside, Davis said he formally requested to the speaker that the PAC be allowed to move on unhindered, but the speaker is cemented in his position.
“They only want me to look at matters that the auditor has already looked into,” he said. “The auditor has already audited those accounts and there is no reason for me to look at them again.”
With more than half the term gone, it appears increasingly unlikely the PAC will do any meaningful work this session.
The Bahamian people are the ones who ultimately lose out on an opportunity to see accountability play out more effectively.
Our democracy is weakened as a result.