The PLP, Women’s Rights and Referenda

Last week, Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell announced in the House of Assembly that the PLP government would put a referendum before the Bahamian electorate to amend the Constitution to remove from it the inbuilt gender discrimination regarding citizenship. That is a good thing.

Many observers of Bahamian politics were surprised, however, for this question was already put before the Bahamian electorate in a referendum ten years ago, and ten years ago it was the same PLP that campaigned against the referendum, that told Bahamian voters, and thereby Bahamian women, to vote against equal rights. How come the PLP supports constitutional change in 2012 that they opposed in 2002?

Thankfully, Prime Minister Perry Christie was not far behind and explained his party’s position to the Nassau Guardian:

“We opposed last time on a specific ground. … I went to the Seventh Day Adventist annual gathering. I remember the then leader of the Seventh Day Adventist [Church] saying they weren’t consulted and that because they weren’t consulted they couldn’t participate. I then checked and found out that all of the churches were saying they weren’t consulted, and I went to my colleagues and said, for the purposes of the lack of consultation, we must oppose this unless Ingraham decides to stop it and consult, and he didn’t and that is how we got to do it. … the PLP’s opposition to the referendum was that you should never do something against the will of the people, and the FNM was actually acting against the will of the people. It was not a question of a judgment as to the substance of it; it was a judgment of the process. We attacked the process and we were successful in attacking the process. Now the by-product of it was that you say it wasn’t passed. Yes, it wasn’t passed, but we were never motivated against any issue on the referendum. We were motivated against the fact that it was being imposed on the Bahamian people against their will.”

To say that Ingraham and the FNM imposed women’s rights on the Bahamian people against their will is disingenuous, to say the least. The Bahamian people were consulted on the issue. Twice. By definition, a referendum is a consultation of the people. Furthermore, a quick look at the FNM’s 1997 election platform shows that the FNM was reelected to office that year with this issue being a part of their agenda. Surely, the leader of the opposition can be expected to read the competition’s manifesto.

The Free National Movement’s “Manifesto II: Agenda to and for the 21st Century” includes a chapter on women’s affairs. On page 35 it states that the FNM would “continue to recognise women’s rights as fundamental human rights, and to address all areas of gender discrimination that exist under the law at present,” and that the FNM would “move for the Constitution to be amended so as to grant Bahamian women all privileges and entitlements afforded to Bahamian men.”

This means that the FNM went into the 1997 general election with this issue before the Bahamian electorate. Surely, Christie understands that a general election is indeed a form of consultation of the voting public, for otherwise all measures the current government is implementing have to be considered to be against the people’s will?

As for the Seventh Day Adventist Church and whatever other Churches Christie may or may not have spoken to… The Bahamian people elect politicians to make political decisions. No decision-making power is vested in the Churches by our Constitution. If Ingraham did not consult these institutions, he in no way violated our Constitution, but rather strengthened the sovereign in a democracy, the people. Besides, it is not like the Churches in the Bahamas did not make their opinions heard on whatever issue, whether asked for or not.

The PLP cannot have opposed women’s rights in 2002 on procedural grounds. It did so simply to show its opposition against Ingraham and the FNM and to damage the political opponent in anticipation of the general election. It was a cheap manoeuvre in which women’s rights were instrumentalised, indeed sacrificed, for political gain, and it shows a number of disappointing parallels to the behaviour of our political actors in the marital rape issue that the FNM attempted to address half-heartedly during its last term in office.

Using the Churches as an excuse to oppose women’s rights in a referendum carries another important significance in the current political situation of our country. Leading up to the 2012 general elections, the PLP promised the Bahamian electorate that their voice would be heard, via a referendum, on two issues: oil and gambling.

Since 7th May, the PLP has already begun to backtrack on the oil referendum, claiming that the costs of an oil referendum might be prohibitive. One could suspect that the promise of a referendum was intended as a campaign ploy to create the illusion of transparency on an issue muddled with suspicions of conflicts of interest, in which case the backtracking is the logical conclusion to the outcome of the general elections.

The other referendum item, gambling, has been discussed at length over the past couple of years. It is no news to anyone following – or involved in – Bahamian politics that many, if not most, clergy in the country officially oppose gambling. If Christie now cites the lack of consultation of the Churches as a reason to oppose a 2002 referendum, he may in fact be preparing the ground for cancelling a possible 2012 referendum on gambling.

Reviving the idea of a referendum that would grant women equal constitutional rights regarding citizenship – an issue I could not find mentioned in the PLP’s 2012 Charter, and I am therefore (pleasantly) surprised to see on the government’s agenda – could then serve as a smokescreen behind which campaign promises disappear, and it might appease a lot of people who were downright disgusted with the campaign against gender equality ten years ago. Like 2002, there is reason to suspect that the PLP’s stance on women’s rights is dictated primarily by political strategy as opposed to convictions, beliefs or ideology.

Let us hope that the opposition this time around will agree to do the right thing, and support a good cause, even if it may have come about for the wrong reasons.

So Long, Farewell, Au’voir, Auf Wiedersehen

Last week, Hubert Ingraham delivered his resignation letter as Member of the House of Assembly for the constituency of North Abaco effective 31st August, 2012. He had announced that he would not serve as a mere parliamentarian during his concession speech after the results of the general election on 7th May, 2012 had come in. Most observers agree that his delaying the resignation to that date is for no other reason but to ensure that his preferred candidate, Greg Gomez, will by that time meet the residency requirements to be eligible to run in a by-election.

Today, the House of Assembly was in session, and Ingraham was set to deliver a farewell address to the nation. He wanted to do this early during the session, but when he saw that his address was only tenth on the agenda, he decided to leave and not make his speech. FNMs were outraged that their former leader, the country’s previous Prime Minister, was denied his right to speak. Only he wasn’t.

He chose to leave because the agenda did not suit his ego. He left the House of Assembly and he left the constituency of North Abaco, whose voters elected Ingraham on 7th May to serve a five-year term, without representation. If it had not been for his delayed resignation, his concession speech ought to have been his farewell address.

This is problematic, because this behaviour – and his resignation in general – both suggest that Ingraham’s running as a candidate in North Abaco was not for the representation of the people of that constituency, but merely a means to an end, which was getting a fourth term as Prime Minister.

In fact, this is where I see a difference between what is happening to Ingraham, and what people call payback for his resolving parliament before giving some members, such as Cynthia “Mother” Pratt, the opportunity to say their goodbyes. These were MPs who had served their full terms but decided not to seek reelection.

The House agreed to afford him the honour, as a former Prime Minister, to make a formal farewell address. Some say, he deserved a special sitting of the House, as was the case when Lynden Pindling said goodbye in 1997.

Ingraham’s legacy must not be underestimated. The current government would not lose face if it changed the course, overlooking the controversy that ensued today. However, in a democracy honours – of any kind – are bestowed upon people by the decision of others. Honours are not to be demanded for honours are not an entitlement.

In our democracy, we refer to politicians, at least those in the front row, as “leaders.” In reality, these leaders are (supposed to be) our servants. We recognise them for the services rendered, and while they may deserve special recognition, they deserve it for being first among equals.

Urban Culture Renewed

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending “Summer Theater in the Parks.” This is a series of performances of two play by Tennessee Williams (“This Property is Condemned” & “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen”) staged in various public parks throughout New Providence, produced and directed by Leslie Vanderpool, who is probably best known as the founder and director of the Bahamas International Film Festival (BIFF).

This experience was well worth writing about for several reasons. People often lament the lack of cultural offerings in Nassau. In the words of one expat who came here on a work permit, moving to the Bahamas was a “lack-of-culture shock.” I believe his judgement was overhasty, and Mr. Expat most likely did not look around very much, though I will concede that we have also not succeeded in publicising cultural events effectively enough.*

Cassandra Miller and Lorenz Wright, cast of “This Property is Condemned” – Photo © by Stephen B. Aranha

The actors last night were young Bahamians for whom the participation in “Summer Theatre in the Parks” marked their stage debuts. They undoubtedly rose to the opportunity to showcase that we do indeed have talent to boast about in this country. This is one reason why, apart from the cultural enjoyment provided to the audience, this programme deserves recognition.

David Maycock, who played the male protagonist in “Talk to Me Like the Rain…” offered that acting “is another avenue kids can take. There are so many other things they can do out there that are negative. If we go out there and perform for them, it gives them a sense that there is more to life than sitting around on the blocks doing nothing.” This is an important reason why Vanderpool is correct in asserting that this programme fulfills some essential functions of what is known as Urban Renewal in present-day Bahamian discourse.

Even more, “Summer Theatre in the Parks” allows us to reclaim our city and its parks. There is something to be said for utterly unrepresentative impromptu polling, and when I asked some members of last night’s audience at Fort Montagu how many of them would usually come to the park after dark, the count was zero. Yet “Summer Theatre in the Parks” succeeded in drawing a good crowd. There were no more seats to be had. Some families were sitting on blankets on the grass, others were standing in the back.

After the each play, the audience has the opportunity to ask the actors and director questions – about the plays, their acting, theatre in general. Thus, “Summer Theatre in the Parks” already is more than your ordinary theatre experience where the curtain falls and the only ones you can discuss the play with are fellow audience members. However, Vanderpool takes the interactivity one step further. After the two plays were over, she encouraged audience volunteers to take to the stage and improvise scenes based on the plays they have just seen. This not only heightened the audience’s appreciation for the actors’ performances, but it had a very educational aspect to it, as the audience learned some basic things about acting, and volunteers, through their reactions during improvising, learned something about themselves.

Stacey Stubbs and David Maycock, cast of “Talk to Me Like The Rain and Let Me Listen” – Photo © by Stephen B. Aranha

The atmosphere at Fort Montagu was enthralling. The wind may have presented an acoustic challenge to the actors, but they coolly mastered it. The trees around the stage created a cozy setting, and the fort in the background served as a reminder how we as a society have been shaped by our history that far too few of us know enough about, ironically because I would argue that Fort Montagu, built in 1741/42, is one of those historic structures in Nassau that is revered for all the wrong reasons.

Historically speaking, Fort Montagu was the site of the 1776 Battle of Nassau when the Continental Marines, the predecessor of the United States Marine Corps conquered it during the American War of Independence. This marked the Marines’ first ever amphibious landing. Arguably, the military structure preserved there is more important to U.S. history than to Bahamian history.

However, for Nassauvians, the park and beach have become an important recreational area during the twentieth century, until more recently it became less used due to beach erosion, pollution and crime. The government’s (and Kerzner’s!) efforts in restoring the beach are important in reviving that part of our city, and “Summer Theatre in the Parks” is another key factor. For too long, Nassau has suffered from a vicious cycle of areas being abandoned or neglected for fear of crime, but it was the abandonment and neglect that created many of the problems. Urban Renewal programmes must encourage us to reclaim our city and its parks, to use them more, not less.

So please seize this opportunity and see how uplifting an experience it is when young Bahamian actors take to the stage. The remaining schedule for “Summer Theatre in the Parks” is as follows:

Montagu Park, East Bay Street
July 26, Thursday 8pm – 9pm

Fox Hill Park, Fox Hill
July 20, Friday 8pm – 9pm
July 27, Friday 8pm – 9pm

Mason’s Addition Park, Centreville
July 21, Saturday 3pm – 5pm
July 28, Saturday 3pm – 5pm

Sarah Ingraham Park, Centreville
July 22, Sunday 3pm – 5pm
July 29, Sunday 3pm – 5pm

* Thankfully, traditional media nowadays offers a wide variety in Nassau, but that also makes it easier to miss events that are promoted through one particular outlet, be it newspaper, television or radio. Social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, have their strengths, but also their weaknesses, and unless a critical number of users share an event, its reach remains limited. This effect is intensified by Facebook’s practice of filtering its users newsfeeds based on what Facebook’s algorithms think its users want to see.
      Given the small size of our island, one of the most powerful channels of advertising events is the completely old-fashioned, non-digital, pre-analogue word-of-mouth, which is great if you are already in the loop, know the right people and happen to bump into them at the right time. The Nassau grapevine is far from being ready for retirement. More predictable are online resources that do not rely on users checking their Facebook feed at the right time, but that allow users to actively seeking them out. Well established is the Nassau Weekly Newsletter, and my new favourite is Smith & Benjamin’s Bahamian Art & Culture Newsletter. Both offer e-mail subscriptions, too.