The world of partisan politics is never dull. The Budget Communication certainly makes for a lively few weeks, full of debate, pontification, and a range of emotions. It is probably the time we are most attentive to the government and political maneuverings aside from election season. It gives insight into the real agenda of administrations and reveals values like nothing else. In their contributions, our representatives show us, in practice, what is important to them. They speak to specific parts of the budget as we listen for signs that they are just another cog in the wheel, or thinking representative giving due consideration to the everyday realities of our lives before taking a position.
More information please
The 2018-2019 budget could keep us talking for days on end. The controversy and confusion that arise from the budget debate often lead to conversations, arguments, research, and critical thinking, increasing our knowledge and understanding of governance and government. Other events — like the vote of no confidence by the rebel seven in 2016 — become practical teaching tools and open our eyes to what was previously unknown. Many of us only recently learned that the official Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is not necessarily the opposition party leader. We are learning as we go.
How is that working for us?
Sure, there is always more to learn. Yes, it is great that we are able to start and sustain conversations in the aftermath of political events that lead to an expansion of individual and national knowledge, but are we figuring it all out too late, and too piecemeal?
We are in desperate need of a national civics lesson. Yes, some schools have civics class, but not all of them. It should be a requirement at every school in The Bahamas. If we can give five-year-olds projects on the governor generals of The Bahamas, we can offer civic education to school-age children. There should be educational programming on television and radio, supplements in newspapers, open online courses, and resources in public libraries. If political parties and candidates can go door-to-door with their paraphernalia, they can make information about the Westminster system, political history, and governance easily accessible to every Bahamian resident.
Voting against party position
Over the past few days, we have been talking about the four FNM Members of Parliament who voted no on the bill to increase Value Added Tax to twelve percent. Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine, Bain and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson and Centreville MP Reece Chipman did not support the VAT increase, and seven other FNM Members of Parliament did not show up to vote. This came after Attorney General Carl Bethel said “the whip is on” and suggested to anyone voting no, “you may as well tender your resignation at the same time that you vote with the opposition.”
Many people of varied political allegiances expressed disdain, shock, and disappointment at the Prime Ministers actions yesterday. Robinson and Miller were terminated from their parliamentary secretary positions at Ministry of Tourism and Aviation and Ministry of Social Services respectively, and McAlpine was terminated from his position as chairman of the Hotel Corporation. Their termination letters referred to Part III, Section 21 of the Manual of Cabinet and Ministry Procedure.
Following their budget contributions, it was made clear to these Members of Parliament that they had a decision to make. They could support the budget in its entirety, including relevant bills, and keep their appointments or they could represent their constituents by not supporting every aspect of the budget and be terminated. They chose to stand for the people, knowing the consequences stipulated by the Westminster system.
The Minnis mistake
Minnis is obviously trying to look strong. He is opposed to compromise. He is not interested in engaging the press, or communicating with the Bahamian people. He wants to eat lunch. He disappears and goes quiet, pushing other people to the fore. Maybe he thinks we will not see him as the bad guy. Maybe he thinks if he is not the one to deliver the bad news, we will not know where it came from. One thing is certain — he does not take kindly to being opposed, questioned, or criticized. That is too bad, especially since opposition, questions, and criticism could be instructive, especially for someone so clearly out of touch.
Minnis does not seem to understand the implications of the budget. He has not grasped the fact that the Bahamian people are not interested in any of the spins being offered. We are especially not going to accept the idea that we have to suffer now to benefit later.
Minnis said, ”My budget is not necessarily about VAT. My budget is more about a better tomorrow for the young people of this country, the future.”
In two sentences, he took ownership of the budget, demonstrated his lack of awareness of the general understanding of the budget and the most dominant component, and suggested that there is a focus on youth and the future. There is too much in that statement to refute here and now, but young people are not buying it; especially not after Robinson’s termination yesterday.
The Robinson effect
Many people are confused by what has taken place. Some are likening Minnis to dictators and fascists. There have been numerous questions about the validity of this move, whether or not it was necessary, and possible loopholes. More than anyone else, Travis Robinson has the attention of the Bahamian people — especially young people. For many, his termination feels like a punch to the gut. We have to remember, however, that he remains the representative for Bain and Grants Towns, that was what he wanted at the beginning, and his current situation is the outcome of fulfilling his duty to the people of that constituency. He has done what many others have failed to do. He consulted with his constituents and spoke on their behalf, even when it was to his own detriment. He has proven that a young person who is new to politics and has been courted by a major political party can truly represent the people.
What will this do for Bahamian politics? Maybe we will see a wave of more inspired leaders and leadership emerge. There could be new boldness. Perhaps we can expect present and future Members of Parliament to give careful consideration to everything put before them, consult with constituents, and truly work for them rather than the party. We may get representatives who care more about our communities than their own titles and salaries. Didn’t this seem unrealistic a short time ago?
Whether or not we see change, incremental or substantial, in the practice of politics depends on more than one person. Travis Robinson, at the very least, took a risk. What about us? What is our response going to be? Beyond the initial social media posts and paraphrasing of what others have said, what are we going to do?
At this point, our action is just as important as his. If we want to see more representatives truly representing us, we have to show it with our support. That means resisting the urge to make jokes about his lost income, and going beyond the lazy explain-it-away method of posting a screenshot of the relevant Westminster rule or section of the cabinet manual. Okay, the system brought us here. What now? What of that system? Is it serving us?
We talk about democracy in very general terms, and most of us have done very little to learn more about it. We go through the motions of a specific part of democracy. We vote every five years, and spend all the time in between making threats about what we will do with our one vote when the time comes again. Democracy is and must be more than that. We have to be able to talk about what it has and has not been for us, and co-create a better functioning democracy that goes beyond a vote. We can have our say on any day at any time, if only we learn to tap into the power of the collective. When we do, as Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper put it, “The day of reckoning is going to come. And that is the beauty of democracy.”
Published in The Tribune on June 20, 2018.