Oban, the Glass Window, and other cautionary tales – Part III

In the first part of this three-part meditation, I examined my reasons for spoiling my ballot in 2017. In the second part, I looked at some of the issues that are current in March 2018, which are, I argue, the inevitable consequences of our not giving deep enough consideration to the ways we are governed, how we approach elections, and whom we elect. In this final part, I want to look at the fundamental principles of government versus the game of politics, and make a case that if we are to survive, we must all change the way in which we approach these critical issues.

Playing politics vs governing nations

Playing politics

Much of what lay behind my actions in the last election rests on the knowledge that governing nations requires far more than the game that is politics. And after all, what is that game anyway? A group of part-time powermongers who need nothing more than party affiliation and (perhaps) popularity come together and, based on how badly the other group(s) have performed before them, conduct a campaign of ridicule and rhetoric to stir up followers and to play on the most volatile emotions to sway the citizenry to cast their votes in their favour. These campaigns take place within political parties as well as on the national stage. What they have in common, though, is that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the responsibility that comes with victory: the responsibility for the well-being of half a million people whose representatives they are.

Put very simply, the qualities that win elections in our Bahamas are very often the very worst qualities required to govern nations. Electioneering thrives on strategy, competition, and division; governing requires policy, cooperation, and collective planning. The principles of democratic government assume that representative leaders make decisions based on the best outcome for the widest number of citizens. And it is here that we have all, collectively, failed.

Governing nations

The governments we have elected since the 1990s have created no remarkable or lasting policy. This is not because they have not tried; both administrations have attempted to implement things they call “policy”, but nothing has changed in the long term because of it. I would argue that there was a move towards a policy shift in the 2002-2007 Christie administration, when discussions began to be had about national development plans, a new focus on culture, new ways of addressing urban decay, and the like, but in almost every respect these impulses were stillborn, and rarely materialized as action. The primary policy enacted by the Ingraham administrations post 1997 was the extension of infrastructure, largely in New Providence, but the approach to that was superficial. What was needed at that time was an understanding of what happens to towns when they turn into cities, what dangers are faced, and how to plan for and manage those dangers—things that are commonplace for us now, like waste disposal, provision of basic utilities, management of population shifts, and the like. What we got was road improvement, “shantytowns”, and the pervasive toxicity of an obsolete electricity plant and a sprawling, untamed landfill.

The problems that face us in Nassau are not unusual. They are not strange. They are foreseeable because they have happened to all cities. Our so-called solutions, our continued errors, are equally unremarkable. They are all absolutely, tiresomely predictable, and all the more so because the people implementing them are part-time dilettantes, people who are better at tearing down opponents and fighting elections than solving problems on a collective basis.

Neither are the problems that face the rest of The Bahamas peculiar either. They are the problems of rural populations everywhere, especially throughout the developing world. Cities are over-developed and attract people because they promise jobs and education; rural areas are depopulated and degraded because of neglect. What is peculiar to us, though, is the archipelagic challenge.

But this, for The Bahamas, is not strange either. This is our reality. This is our country. That people we elect to govern it are incapable of doing the necessary job is both their fault and ours. Theirs, because they are unprepared to govern, being partisan and part-time, many of them without any experience in public policy whatsoever. And ours, because we are happy to elect them in spite of it.

Dream better

Our problems are cyclical and pervasive not because Bahamians can’t do better. We are a nation of under half a million people in a territory that occupies the most strategic position in the entire Atlantic Ocean, with waters that still (although threatened) are rich with ocean life, as much land as Jamaica. We are survivors of islands that were too inhospitable for full colonization, and time and again Bahamians, when we go elsewhere, shine because as individuals, we overcome. Our problems are fixable. Our prosperity could be assured.

Democracy: our power

Democracy is our only tool to ensure that our nation develops as it can, or must. I began the meditation with a personal litany of those things that I, as a citizen, expect from my representatives. They also happen to be the very things that we have been trained not to receive from our elected officials. Our lack of education about ourselves, our nation, our system of government, our rights, our constitution, have created a citizenry that misunderstands the power and the responsibility that come with the democratic system of representative government. We have been trained to believe that democracy is not more than a simple matter of casting a vote.

But we have not been trained to understand what that vote, when cast, actually means.

Democracy is not a simple matter of choosing individuals who go to the house of assembly to conduct the business of the nation for five years with no oversight. No. True democracy is a contract between the people—who constitute the actual government—and people that they entrust with conducting their business. This is called a social contractand under this contract, political representatives are beholden to the will of the people, not the other way around. In mature democracies, democracies that evolved over centuries to govern people who celebrated and valued their freedom and their equality, the democratic systems themselves have checks and balances built in that require elected officials to seek the will of the people before acting on their behalf. The political class is bound by laws that apply to them, that ensure that they are always mindful of their place in the government—servants of the people.

In postcolonial societies, however, many of these oversights, these checks and balances, are lacking. For many of our nations, what we have inherited is a modification of the top-down, unequal colonial system whose purpose was to extract as much from and inject as little into the dependent nation as possible. This is one reason why, in The Bahamas, the system we practice is over-simplified, single-tiered, and under-representative. This is why there are so few checks on the power of the Prime Minister, why our post-independence laws give so much discretion to Cabinet Ministers, why, indeed, the Cabinet has so much power, and why we, the voters, the true-true government, are not even considered important enough to be added to the electoral rolls unless we take it upon ourselves to go and register in person.

The great advantage of democracy, though, is that fundamentally and finally, the power rests with the people. When the system fails us, when our elected representatives fail us, it is our duty as the actual government of the nation to take our power back. In our country we have yet to build the institutions that assist us. But we have our voices, we have our hands, and we have our feet. We can demonstrate our will through petitions, through protests, through think tanks, through activism. We did it before, after all, in a system far more oppressive and unequal than the one we find ourselves in today.

And, if we love our country, we must.

The only reason we continue to flounder, to suffer, to kill ourselves with violence and poison and food is simple. It’s because time and again we, the people, elect individuals who are unable to govern this nation we are part of.

And that? That’s because we, the people, whose representatives they are, demand nothing more than a good football game come election time.

It’s time to dream better, Bahamians. It’s time to look forward and upward, and move onward together once again.

End of meditation

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

2 thoughts on “Oban, the Glass Window, and other cautionary tales – Part III

  1. Any system of government can be open to abuse. The concept that party systems can benefit the people when in power is overridden by the short term desire to being re-elected. Alternatively, one party systems can do away with these symptoms, yet ‘strongman’ politics can easily be swayed with purges and corruption in tow.

    It’s the character of people in politics which will change a nation. I think perhaps politicians are too easily inured to the honey. How about two-term limits, for both MP’s and PM’s?

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    1. Yes, Chris, These are indeed the problems inherent in the kind of party-based representative democracy that we have inherited from the late 20th century. But they aren’t inevitable, I would argue. Dislodging this model will take time but I believe it’s run its course. It needs to make way for a more direct, 21st century firm of democracy.

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