One Lone Election Observer

Tomorrow, Silly Season 2017 will be over. What will follow Silly Season though? In an ideal world, we would have elected a government which, with a fresh democratic mandate, will get to work to implement its plans for a better future for our Bahamaland. And an opposition that will constructively criticise the government and ensure that their policies truly benefit all Bahamians, and not just members of one political tribe.

However, there have been signs that Silly Season 2017 may just be the prelude for Election Court Season 2017, and that we run the risk of deadlock administered by a government of questionable democratic legitimacy. Unfortunately, our opposition parties have been suspiciously quiet on the issue so far, perpetuating a pattern that we have observed across the political landscape over the past five years. Instead of playing their part in the responsible governance of our country, opposition parties have sat back and enjoyed watching a train wreck from front row seats – only speaking out when they considered it politically expedient.

This is a list of some occurrences around the 2017 general election that raise doubts about the integrity of the exercise:

  1. Non-Registration of citizens whose outfits the employees of the Parliamentary Registration Department found objectionable. While BJ Nottage, as Minister with responsibility for elections, spoke out relatively quickly on the issue and reminded the PRD of their duty to register all eligible voters, the response from the Parliamentary Registration Department and its then-Commissioner Sherlyn Hall lacked sincerity. More importantly, though, it may have already deterred persons from trying to register again, and thus de facto suppressed their votes.
  2. The Report of the Constituencies Commission was not prepared and submitted to the Governor-General within the timeframe mandated by the Constitution. Article 70 states that this must be done “at intervals of not more than five years.” Being late is not being slack. It’s being in violation of the country’s fundamental law.
  3. The Order by the Governor-General laid before the House of Assembly as a result of the Constituency Commission’s Report contained changes. These changes were made by the Prime Minister after the opposition representative had signed the Report. This is very poor style in a democracy, but, according to the letter of the law, within the realm of what is constitutional in the Bahamas. However, in such cases, the Constitution demands that the PM “lay before the House of Assembly together with the draft a statement of the reasons for the modifications.” Whether the reasons for the change were satisfactorily stated is a matter for debate.
  4. The Voters Register contained glaring errors. Weeks before the election, it became apparent that the information contained was in many cases erroneous, with some voters’ birth dates as far back as the 18th century or as recent as this year. It also became apparent that some voters were registered more than once. Given the level of disorganisation that the Parliamentary Registration Department and its Commissioner Sherlyn Hall have displayed over the past couple of years, especially during the Constitutional Referendum where some results were reported that were not only obviously wrong but plain impossible, the public’s confidence in the Parliamentary Registration Department having discovered and rectified the errors in the short time since is minimal at best.
  5. The majority of candidates filled in their nomination papers incorrectly, and the Parliamentary Registration Department did not check. We all know that the veracity of the information contained in these documents is not checked, but one would expect that the Parliamentary Registration Department would not accept nomination papers that did not even meet the formal requirements. The most common error made, incidentally, was that most candidates forgot to put their names on Form E – the Declaration of Assets, Income and Liabilities. Unfortunately, there were further mistakes made by the Parliamentary Registration Department in the transmission of the candidates’ nomination papers to the newspaper, and by the newspaper in the layout stages, so that for some candidates some or even all of the information has not been published, meaning the electorate is prevented from scrutinising the information.
  6. By the previous Parliamentary Commissioner Sherlyn Hall’s admission, the voter register was certified late. Given the errors mentioned above, it is remarkable that Hall was confident enough to certify it at all.
  7. The certified register must be made available to all candidates upon request but apparently, some candidates are more equal than others. One candidate proudly declared on social media that this was done in the time stipulated by law, however, other candidates not affiliated with the same party suggest that this was not done in all cases in the timeframe stipulated by law, that it was still not done by the end of the advance poll.
  8. The advance poll was a disaster. The lines were so long that this led, in some cases, to de facto voter suppression. In many cases, participants in the advance poll found that their names were not on the lists and were prevented from casting a regular ballot; they were not given the opportunity to cast a protest vote either and thus stripped of their right to vote. Furthermore, many overseas polling stations ran out of ballots; this, too, de facto disenfranchised a number of voters.
  9. The replacement of Sherlyn Hall must raise eyebrows. To replace a Parliamentary Commissioner in the seven days between the advance poll and the general election is unfortunate, though given the level of incompetence displayed by Sherlyn Hall, keeping him on may have been even more unfortunate. However, questions remain. Officially, to save face, Sherly Hall left because his contract happened to expire between the advance poll and the general election, that he did not seek a renewal, that he was going to retire. If you organise an election and overlook the date on the contract of the person in charge of that entire exercise, then you are either incompetent or deliberately want to create chaos. However, a few days later, the Acting Parliamentary Commissioner Charles Albury declares that the previous Parliamentary Commissioner and now retiree Sherly Hall has in fact been retained as a consultant. This makes no sense. What makes the least sense though is who orchestrated the replacement. Newspaper reported that in the aftermath of the advance poll, high-ranking representatives of the governing party have been seen going in and out of the Parliamentary Registration Department, and the announcement that an Acting Parliamentary Commissioner had been appointed came from the Cabinet Office. However, according to law, it is the Governor-General, which at least in theory is a non-partisan position, who appoints the Commissioner, and not the politicians running for (re)election.
  10. By the Acting Parliamentary Commissioner Charles Albury’s admission, the register, despite certification, contains “clerical errors.” Albury’s choice of words – “think” and “would” – does not instill confidence: “I think to that extent in terms of the multiple names or rather the double registering, I think that would have been cleaned up.”
  11. The political parties’ campaigns seem to be fuelled by potentially illegally obtained information about the competition. The political opponents are frequently accused of illegal doings. However, this is only ever done on the campaign trail, demonstrating that our politicians do not care about enforcing the law and making offenders face legal consequences for wrongdoings, but rather use such information for blackmail and politricking. One thing that has been lacking from the campaign is visions and policy proposals and discussions of the same.

If you can think of any more irregularities surrounding the 2017 Bahamian election, please share them with me, and I will see if I can update this list. In an anxious, nervous way, I am looking forward to reading the reports of the four international organisations observing our elections this year.

 

Why “Save our Bahamas” won’t save our Bahamas

It’s been a long time since I posted to this blog. That is not because I haven’t been writing though. In fact, my topic today has kept me busy for pretty much two years now: our Constitution and the need to amend it. It’s kept me so busy that I wrote – and had published – two journal articles on the subject: “Citizenship as a Fundamental Right: How the Bahamian Constitution Mis-imagines the Nation” (IJBS 2015) and “Bahamian-ness as an Exclusive Good: Attempting to Change the Constitution, 2002” (IJBS 2016).

Opponents of the referendum currently scheduled for June 7, 2016, will have us believe that, in principle, they agree that women and men should enjoy the same constitutional rights in the Bahamas. Compared to 2002, that is progress. Yet they attack the proposals, by making emotional appeals to the widespread homophobia in the Bahamas.

Sadly, the media as well as the political leadership engage them in this discussion. However, this only fans the flames further. This discussion is non-sensical, and should not be given room in the current debate.

The current proposals are far from perfect, and while they will remove some constitutional equality, they will retain other elements of inequality – and they will even introduce new elements of discrimination to our Constitution. This is a debate we should be having. This is the debate I had hoped to encourage through my articles above. However, the noise of SOB’s* sobs drowns out any intelligent debate.

The currently proposed amendments do not pose the threat they are made out to be. What it boils down to is that misogynists in 2016 are simply too afraid to openly admit to being misogynists. But if the amendments do not pose the threat they are made out to be, then there is nothing that “Save Our Bahamas” can save the Bahamas from.

Here is my suggestion to Parliament on how to overcome the current dilemma of having a constitutional referendum about equal rights for women and men derailed by a proxy debate about same-sex marriage:

As both the Prime Minister as well as the Constitutional Commission have pointed out, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1879 defines marriage in the Bahamas as a union between one woman and one man. As they have also pointed out, the Constitution allows marriage laws in the Bahamas to be discriminatory. As they have also pointed out, if furthermore allows laws passed prior to independence to be discriminatory. As they have also pointed out, it does not require a politically cumbersome referendum with an unknown outcome to change the Matrimonial Causes Act. A simple Act of Parliament could bring same-sex marriage to the Bahamas. It could easily do so before June 7, 2016.

Thus, I call upon the Prime Minister, the House of Assembly and the Senate to immediately pass legislation to allow for same-sex marriage in the Bahamas. Not only is it the right thing to do anyway, but this will demonstrate to the Bahamian electorate in general and the SOBs in particular that the upcoming referendum has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. It should then either make equal rights for women and men under our constitution a non-issue – or force the misogynists to admit to their misogyny.

* Their chosen abbreviation, not mine.

What we haven’t learnt from Burma Road

[This paper was part of a panel discussion hosted by the School of English Studies at the College of the Bahamas and the Bahamas Historical Society as part of the Critical Caribbean Symposium Series on June 1, 2015.]

In tonight’s paper, I am going to look at some of the economic realities of 1942 that caused Bahamian workers to protest in what would become known as the Burma Road Riot. I am also going to look at some economic realities in the present-day Bahamas based on various documents compiled over the past five years. This might allow us to rethink the place that Burma Road holds in our national narrative.

The prevailing theme in this narrative is to interpret the Burma Road Riot as the first manifestation of a political consciousness amongst the Bahamian masses that then directly lead to, practically causing, the formation of the Progressive Liberal Party eleven years later, “Majority Rule” twenty-five years later, and independence thirty-one years later. On the other hand, a competing if marginalised interpretation sees the events of May and June 1942 as a labour unrest caused by dire economic stress, which was “later mythicized and used as a ‘heroic movement’ by the blacks, when a political movement had finally started.” (Gail Saunders, Bahamian Society after Emancipation, p. 151.)

Even proponents of the former interpretation, though, admit that, whether first spark or not, “time, and the remarkable foresight, courage, and initiative of a few dedicated members of that majority were all that were required to crystallize this awareness into a mighty political force.” (Doris Johnson, The Quiet Revolution in the Bahamas, p. 27.) Furthermore, these words by Doris Johnson stem from a time when she herself still stood to gain political capital from the mythification of Burma Road. On the other hand, H. M. Taylor, well past his political prime, was more cautious about ascribing too much importance to Burma Road, merely saying, “The bread and butter questions caused the riot. There was very little public opinion on matters of national importance among the masses before the rise of the PLP in 1953.” (Henry M. Taylor, My Political Memoirs, p. 78.)

So, about bread and butter: in 1936, the minimum wage for unskilled labour was set at four shillings a day, or twenty shillings, that is one pound, a week. In 1938, the year before the outbreak World War II, the cost of living in New Providence was estimated to be nineteen shillings a week. Minimum wage would have just paid the bills. However, with the war came heightened inflation, caused by a variety of factors, such as the militarisation of industry as well as the loss of existing and the reallocation of remaining shipping capacities. By 1942, the year after the United States of America got drawn into the war, the cost of living is estimated to have increased by more than 50% compared to the 1938 figures. A sample price list, though not representative of a person’s weekly needs, comparing 1938 and 1942 shows these prices to have increased – on average – by 96.6%. It is clear that minimum wage no longer amounted to a living wage.

When the so-called “Project” – a combined effort by the American and metropolitan British governments, locally handled by the colonial Bahamian government – was announced, it was hoped that Bahamian workers, perhaps as many as a couple of thousand, would be given an opportunity to earn American wages. Instead, the Bahamian government negotiated that they be paid at the local minimum wage rate. Ostensibly, this was done to protect Bahamian employers from having to compete with “the Project.” As a result, Bahamian workers on “the Project” were paid four shillings a day, instead of the hoped for fifteen to twenty this kind of labour would have paid in the United States.

The role of the white American employees of the Pleasantville Corporation is not entirely clear. They are mostly described as “foreman,” thus by definition not doing the exact same work, or at least not playing the exact same role or bearing the exact same responsibility as the Bahamian workers on “the Project.” They were housed at the still segregated British Colonial Hotel, so there would not have been more than a couple of hundred. Various contemporary commentators as well as present-day authors have reported very different rates of pay for these Americans. With eight shillings at the low end, or forty shillings at the high end, they were thus earning anywhere between two to ten times as much as the Bahamian workers, and, being housed in a hotel, did not have to worry about rent.

However, what is also important to note – and this emphasises the importance of bread and butter – is that after the riots, workers settled for a 25% increase plus a free lunch. Thus, they were now being paid five shillings a day – still significantly less than their American counterparts, and still less than a living wage, thus presumably making the free lunch the most important meal of the day.

Regardless of whether this was the alleged watershed moment in Bahamian racial and political consciousness or merely a spontaneous poverty riot, its results fell short of rectifying both the immediate problem as well as addressing the underlying causes. The Russell Commission, which was appointed in the aftermath of the events, and whose findings were dismissed by the Bay Street controlled House of Assembly, for instance, recognised the systemic social injustices which characterise the Bahamas and recommended, amongst other things, the adjustment of regressive import duties and the consideration of a more progressive income tax.

Fast forward to the present: regardless of whether Burma Road was a watershed moment in Bahamian racial and political consciousness or merely a spontaneous poverty riot later mythicised and exploited for political ends, the systemic social injustices remain. We have yet to discuss a progressive tax reform, and the only adjustment to the regressive import duties made, paved the way for the new and über-regressive value-added tax (VAT) regime. A couple of months ago, at the funeral of a Bahamian lady who had placed great hopes in the political reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, the eulogy concluded with the following words: “She never understood why we replaced one set of self-serving tyrants with another set of the same.”

Allow me to demonstrate how this plays out in terms of wages compared to cost-of-living. 1942’s minimum wage of twenty shillings (or one pound) a week was then the equivalent of $4.04, with the cost of living being upward of $6 a week. We are now discussing increasing the minimum wage, which currently stands at $150 a week – or $7,800 per annum. A look at the 2010 census will show that 5.8% of Bahamian households, more than half of them consisting of two or more persons, have to survive on less than $5,000 a year. An additional 7% of households, more than two thirds of them consisting of two or more persons, have to survive on less than $10,000 a year. As household incomes increase, so does the household size suggesting that a great many Bahamians still live very precariously, often with less-than-minimum wage available to feed each member of the household.

The 2013 Household Expenditure Survey, conducted by the Bahamas Department of Statistics with the “support of the Inter-American Development Bank” suggests that 12.5% of Bahamian residents live below the poverty line. In contrast, figures presented by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce during their campaign against VAT, demonstrated that even the “average” Bahamian household, pre-VAT, could not make ends meet.

The 2013 Household Expenditure Survey and its supporting IDB personnel suggest that the poverty line in the Bahamas is $11.64 a day, of which $3.82 a day are earmarked for a “balanced low-cost diet of 2,400 kilocalories a day,” leaving $7.82 a day for “essential non-food needs (clothing and footwear, housing, education, health, transportation, etc.).” Minimum wage then, which translates into an available $21.37 a day, should be more than sufficient to keep a single person above the poverty line; however, reading between the lines and numbers of the Chamber of Commerce’s report, a living wage in last year’s pre-VAT Bahamas should have been closer to approximately $15,000 per capita per annum.

Never trust any statistics that you have not manipulated yourself. However, I am not sure how to survive on these IDB figures without supplementing one’s diet by hunting and gathering, or begging for a lot of other necessities and services – in which case the Household Expenditure Survey approach is flawed for it fails to take charity received into consideration.

In 1946, the Rev. H. H. Brown during a widely noted sermon expressed concern that the government had failed to learn the lesson of the riot, and further warned the powers that be that Burma Road would “seem pale and insignificant in comparison with its successor.”

I posit that, if we continue to look at Burma Road as merely the beginning, whether mythical or real, of a development that was in any way completed, finished, in 1967 or in 1973, we have still not learnt our lesson. As a nation, we like to pride ourselves with having the third-highest GDP per capita of any independent nation in the western hemisphere, but we fail to acknowledge that GDP per capita does not feed the nation if this goes hand in hand with the second highest income inequality of the western hemisphere. If we fail to learn this lesson, then Burma Road will indeed seem pale and insignificant in comparison with its successor.

The so-called New so-called Immigration so-called Policy

On the surface, the Christie administration’s New Immigration Policy should not be controversial. Because, on the surface, one may think that it is merely a renewed resolve to enforce existing laws governing immigration in the Bahamas. Because, on the surface, it has unanimous support across the political spectrum, from PLP to FNM to DNA. Because, on the surface, it enjoys the vast support of the Bahamian electorate, a purported 85%, according to some polls. And that is all that matters in a democracy, right? Wrong.

Wrong, because it continues the long-standing misunderstanding of the meaning of democracy in the Bahamas. Majority Rule, a term carelessly thrown around in our country, is a misnomer, for a democracy is not, must not, be the tyranny of the majority. A democracy must always protect the rights of all individuals – majority and minority, supporter and dissenter.

Wrong, because if governments enforce one set of laws by violating any given number of other laws in the process of doing so, the Rule of Law becomes the first victim of the process. However, without the Rule of Law, what ought to be the guaranteed rights of the individual versus state authority become random acts of kindness – or not – at the arbitrary whim of the state and its executioners. Citizens are asked to trade in their constitutional rights for politicians’ promises of favourable or benign treatment.

Wrong, because it does not really address the challenge that immigration may pose to the Bahamas in any meaningful way. The Bahamas may have an immigration problem, although conclusive empirical data demonstrating that the presence of immigrants indeed negatively affects Bahamian realities is sorely lacking. However, one must not solve an immigration situation merely by victimising immigrants, yet that is what this so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy does. The Bahamas, however, depends on some immigration to alleviate the effects of a failed education system that politicians for generations have refused to address. Furthermore, if there is an immigration problem in a destination country, it is naive to suggest that it could be resolved without addressing the emigration problem in the country or countries of origin. That is what this so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy does not even attempt to address.

It is, therefore, a purely domestic measure, devised by demagogues, to placate an ill-informed electorate in an attempt to reverse the PLP’s dwindling popularity resulting out of other botched domestic measures such as the dual referendum disaster, or the implementation of a regressive value-added tax in an economy already characterised by extraordinarily high income inequality. It is these conditions that disenfranchise large groups of Bahamians socially, politically and economically. A 2005 study by the International Organization for Migration observed that the Bahamian “media does not attempt to help the average Bahamian to understand these important issues, but instead focuses on the negative aspects of the migrant population.” It is these conditions that make the Bahamas such a fertile ground for scapegoating, in this instance expressed through an irrational xenophobia.

In fact, “irrational” seems to be the best word to describe almost any aspect of this so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy. Not only does this “policy” not genuinely address immigration, but the systematic victimisation of vulnerable groups can hardly be considered a new phenomenon. However, most surprising is the Christie administration’s insistence on calling it a policy in the first place. A policy, by definition, as an action guide for the administrative executive branches of government “should solve a public problem without violating the legal boundaries set down by … laws. It must encourage an active citizenry, furthermore, as well as the democratic process.” In contrast to this definition, “policy” in the current Bahamian context would appear to mean an arbitrary system of chicanery, either without any legal foundation, or, at best, pre-empting a legal framework that may be brought forward at some point in the future, that may sanction current infringements upon fundamental rights ex post facto.

Fred Mitchell, Minister of Immigration, himself implicitly admitted that not only the government’s historical approach to immigration was not fully compliant with existing law, but that also the procedures constituting his new stance beginning 1st November, 2014, lack support in Bahamian law. Said Mitchell, “The detention centre was set up without any governance procedures and rules so it’s just going on general principles of management. What needs to happen is similar to the prison – there needs to be a set of regulations which govern the detention centre.” And: New legislation is “already drafted. With these things it’s just working its way through the system. I hope that as soon as parliament reconvenes in January we can move it forward. … [Until then] I can’t say that you must carry your passport, that’s not for me to decide. What is prudent is to have something which identifies you with the Bahamas and the right to live and work here.” In other words, there is no legal requirement for a Bahamian to carry identification with them, but if officers of the Immigration Department encounter you without such identification, you may find yourself in the Detention Centre regardless – even if the Immigration Act (Section 9) clearly stipulates that Immigration Officers do not have the power to arrest citizens or permanent residents.

To make matters worse, it is quite possible – and legal – for a citizen of the Bahamas to be undocumented. If you choose not to drive a land-based motor vehicle, you do not need a driver’s license. If you choose not to vote, you do not need a voter’s card. If you choose not to travel internationally, you do not need a passport. Even taking into consideration the recent introduction of the new National Insurance cards featuring the insured’s photograph, it must be pointed out that signing up for National Insurance is only mandatory for employed or self-employed persons, but not for unemployed persons, who may never choose to seek (self-)employment. (National Insurance Act, Section 12.)

Thus, Bahamians should not fool themselves into believing that they stand to benefit from the current administration’s actions. Their civil liberties as citizens of the Bahamas are being eroded by this “policy” purportedly directed at – and against – immigrants. Human Rights lawyer Fred Smith of the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA), makes a strong argument for this scenario in a lengthy response to the Punch’s Nicki Kelly, which he published on Facebook.

Smith asserts that in the Bahamas, too often, “might makes right.” Part of the problem is that the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy, inherited from our colonisers, was not designed for a body politic as small as ours. In a parliamentary democracy, the elected parliament is supposed to control the executive branch of government, and reign in any abuses of power that may occur. In the Bahamian manifestation of the Westminster System, however, parliament is too small to play that role. After the last election and by-election in 2012, the PLP was left with 30 of the 38 seats in the House of Assembly. Of those 30 MPs on the government side, before minimal re-shufflings and/or firings, every single one of them was not just an MP, but also a cabinet minister, parliamentary secretary, speaker, ambassador or chairman of a government corporation. The way the spoils were distributed thus ensured that instead of parliament controlling the executive, the executive now controls parliament. In reality, the Bahamian Westminster System is therefore a Tyranny of Cabinet.

With both the official opposition of the FNM as well as the extra-parliamentary opposition of the DNA jumping on the populist bandwagon, political relief from these infringements on our civil and human rights appears unlikely. It can only be hoped that legal recourse can be found through the courts, which in the past have already ruled some features, such as roadblocks (or “checkpoints,” the Ministry’s euphemism), of this New Immigration Policy unlawful.

Equally Distracted: Losing Sight of the Referendum

[This paper was part of COB’s School of Social Sciences’ lecture series, Diners’ Debates, hosted at Mojo’s Restaurant on 20th November, 2014.]

In July 2014, Prime Minister Perry Christie announced in the House of Assembly that, on 6th November, 2014, the Bahamian electorate would be asked to cast their votes in a constitutional referendum. The only surprise should have been that such a referendum might finally happen, because it has been on Christie’s to-do list ever since he announced the appointment of the Constitutional Commission on 1st August, 2012.

When the Commission submitted its report on 8th July, 2013, that document came close to 250 pages, and made many recommendations. Addressing all of them in a single referendum would indeed have been impractical; this, perhaps, was a lesson learnt from the failed attempt at constitutional reform undertaken by Hubert Ingraham’s administration in 2002.

When the referendum was finally announced and scheduled, and when the Constitutional Amendment Bills were read in the House of Assembly, the overarching theme under which they could have been presented to the public, should have been that of gender equality. Christie, when announcing the appointment of the Commission, laid out in about a page and a half which aspects of the Constitution he expected the Commission to scrutinise. He begins this list by asking the Commission to “pay particular attention to the need to strengthen the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, including the need to end gender-based discrimination against women consistent with United Nations Conventions and more enlightened views that have developed globally since the attainment of our Independence. The Commission’s inquiry into this particular matter will necessarily entail close examination not only of the antidiscrimination and fundamental rights provisions but the citizenship provisions of the Constitution as well. Indeed there are other difficult Citizenship-related questions that will no doubt exercise the Constitutional Commission as well.”

Gender equality thus almost became the theme for the first set of four Bills tabled in the House of Assembly. The Constitutional Commission was then charged with a public education campaign to ensure that Bahamian voters could make an informed decision. While officially – again – without a horse in the race, it would be naive to believe that Christie did not task the Commission with selling the four Bills, thus ensuring their passage in both Houses of Parliament as well as the referendum. A successful referendum would be a much needed ‘win’ for the embattled administration, which is headed by a Prime Minister who at times seems overly preoccupied with constructing his personal legacy. And what a legacy that would be: Perry Gladstone Christie, the Prime Minister who brought about gender equality. However, in an act of anticipatory obedience, the concept of gender equality never reached the floor of the House; instead, Christie introduced the referendum as eliminating “discrimination in The Bahamas based on sex.”

Gender, a social construct, had been replaced by the biologically interpreted word sex. This should have been straight forward: 53% of our population and 55% of registered voters are women; the workforce in today’s Bahamas is almost equally comprised of men and women, and in some key sectors, women clearly outnumber men; in today’s Bahamas, approximately 39% of households are female headed; as household sizes increase, that percentage increases, too, suggesting that the number of children raised in female headed households exceeds that figure of 39%; of persons with associate degrees, 66% are female, with bachelor degrees, 62%, with masters degrees, 61%. In such a society, a campaign for equality between the sexes should not be a contentious issue, right?

However, it is interesting to note that, as we continue to climb this ladder, amongst persons with doctorate degrees, only 46% are female. In the Bahamas, women are the sandwiched sex, who, despite doing most of the qualified professional work, are still a minority in the boardrooms of the country, in the political leadership of the country, or in the religious leadership of the country.

In its Report, the Constitutional Commission themselves had warned that “there was a fear that the interpolation of ‘sex’ into Article 26 would open the door for constitutional interpretations to embrace other collateral rights – i.e., a right to same-sex marriage and recognition of other rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender persons… This was opposed by many persons as being fundamentally repugnant to the established moral code, and indeed to guard against such a possibility there were calls for constitutional protection to be given to the institution of marriage…”

As predicted, the national conversation on a constitutional referendum for equality of the sexes was quickly hijacked by homophobic speech, which soon dominated the discussion. This, I posit however, was a proxy discussion. The social realities just mentioned are not a secret, and many who oppose women’s rights have come to realise that doing so openly and honestly would likely not gain sufficient traction. On the other hand, homophobia is alive and well in the Bahamas, and can be used – abused – misdirected – to derail many a discussion. In other words, homophobia was a tool consciously chosen by misogynists to sabotage the referendum process, for fear that old-fashioned misogyny would no longer be effective enough.

That this strategy worked, I further posit, is partly the fault of the government-sanctioned educational campaign, which entertained the topic too patiently, thus suggesting a validity of the subject. This was, too, largely the fault of the media which, doing away with any editorial responsibility, jumped on the bandwagon knowing that loud vitriolic rants about LGBT persons translate into ratings and sold newspapers.

Other main topics, if one can still call them main, of debate tended to be twofold:

  1. A constant criticism of the government’s education effort: it is true that the Constitutional Commission’s approach of educating voters through town hall meetings was decidedly twentieth century. It is equally true, however, that given our nation’s geography and infrastructure, town hall meetings are still necessary, at least as one element of any national education campaign. So while only half-heartedly defending the approach, I would like to hold the mirror in the media’s face. For instead of playing their part, and becoming a part of the educational effort – and qualified contributors had offered their services on numerous occasion – they chose the easier life of the armchair quarterback.
  2. A feigned feeling of being overwhelmed by having to think about equality, crime, immigration and ‘VAT coming’ at the same time. Having successfully demonstrated that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, we cannot seriously be proposing to run a single-issue nation. In fact, I strongly suspect that, if the government announced this as their new approach, we would demand more multi-tasking from them.

The fourth Bill, which should have been the most straight-forward, received most of the attention, to the point that, if they are ever brought forward to referendum, it now seems likely that we may just include a dictionary definition of the word ‘sex’ in our Constitution. In this climate it was almost impossible to have a genuine conversation about the Bills’ very real weaknesses, which were rooted, in part, in sloppy preparation, and in part in a conscious disregard for the Constitutional Commission’s own recommendations; and which, in a best case scenario, would have retained several other existing levels of discrimination in our Constitution, or which, in a worst case scenario, had the potential to effectively add new elements to the already existing levels of discrimination in our Constitution.

Retired Justice Rubie Nottage, spearheading the government’s educational effort, convincingly argued that equality between the sexes was a common theme of the four individual Constitutional Amendment Bills. However, if read closely, these Bills speak to a number of issues. The first three Bills addressed the Chapter on citizenship in our Constitution, more specifically, they addressed how children are entitled to, and acquire citizenship from their parents.

Currently, these citizenship provisions treat mothers and fathers differently. They treat married and unmarried persons differently. They treat parents differently depending on how they themselves acquired Bahamian citizenship. They treat persons differently based on their date of birth. Or, more precisely, they treat children differently depending on how all the above criteria apply to their parents. Some of these differences were resolved, others modified, and others retained. And: new ones were added on. As it stands, we have groups of Bahamian parents, male and female, whose children may not, or may only conditionally, qualify for Bahamian citizenship. Even with all four Bills passed, we would still have such lesser bahamians-with-a-small-b. In the Bahamas, citizenship does not make you an equal citizen.

The discrepancy of these proposals with the Constitutional Commission’s recommendation that “[t]he ability of a Bahamian father or mother to transmit their citizenship to their children born overseas should be a right not conditioned on how the parent acquired citizenship”, has been discussed at great length at the numerous sessions of COB’s School of Social Sciences’ own educational campaign.

In short, for the beautiful simplicity of four Bills presented under the theme of equality between the sexes, the four Bills were remarkably complex. They would have addressed not only the rights of women and men, mothers and fathers; they would have addressed the rights of parents and children, they would have said something about the institution of marriage (though not what the public outcry might have us believe). They would have had citizenship implications, and that means immigration implications.

This brings us closer to closing the circle of distraction. While I argue that much of the discussion about the constitutional referendum has been a distraction from the core issues of the Constitutional Amendment Bills, others have claimed that the constitutional reform exercise itself was just another move in a game of distractionary politics played by the Christie administration.

Both the PLP and the FNM realise that a successful referendum required for constitutional reform depends on bi-partisan support for the process. This is not just a democratic desirability, but a mathematical necessity, because despite their overwhelming majority in Parliament, the PLP is a minority government of 48.7% of the popular vote. Furthermore, this number only represents the valid ballots cast in the last general election. Adjusted for participation of eligible voters, that is taking into account the spoilt ballots, the no-shows and the adult Bahamians who did not register to vote, the PLP is currently governing with the votes of approximately 36% of Bahamian adults. It is also not unreasonable to suspect that the current administration’s popularity has declined since the last election. While the PLP could, provided there was no dissension amongst their ranks, easily pass these Bills through both houses of Parliament today, success at the polls cannot be guaranteed through the PLP’s voter base alone.

The prospects of broad political support of the Constitutional Amendment Bills may change significantly depending on the outcome of today’s FNM convention. However, given the nature of Bahamian politics which some observers describe as tribal, any constitutional referendum on gender equality may well be doomed as long as it is being driven by Christie, at whose hands it was defeated last time. An alternative approach, where for instance the leading women of both parties were to become the driving force, seems an unlikely scenario in our leader-centered society.

Partially out of hurt for the defeat at the hands of a destructive Christie-led campaign in 2002, partially out of oppositional obstructionism, yet understanding the merit of this constitutional reform effort and the role that a responsible loyal opposition ought to play in it, the FNM has thus far failed to convincingly indicate a clear and unified party position on the four Bills.

For example, the FNM MP for the Montagu constituency, Richard Lightbourn argued in the House of Assembly, “The filing of these [four constitutional amendment] bills was clearly a diversion of the public debate  on the ramifications surrounding the signing of the letter of intent by a  parliamentary secretary.” This controversy of course, is still ongoing, and while some observers have, only half-jokingly, suggested that the current administration might deliberately produce one blunder after another to divert attention from previous blunders, the so-called LOI affair demonstrates that, first and foremost, this administration has a serious communication problem and deficit.

When discussing the actual content of the Constitutional Amendment Bills, Lightbourn had this to say: “One of them relates specifically to bill number three, which grants the citizenship to children born to a Bahamian male [by a foreign mother who is not his wife], and I think this is something that the government needs to consider very seriously. You’re going to grant citizenship to children who are born to a Bahamian male who have had perhaps a very casual relationship with a woman either in The Bahamas or outside of The Bahamas, and that simple fact would give that child the right to citizenship, even though the mother may have no connection whatever to this country. You can go on a trip to wherever in the world and you have a casual relationship with some woman in whatever country and you come back to The Bahamas and you find out nine months later that you had a little baby. That child is entitled to be a citizen. So if that child is going to be a citizen of The Bahamas then surely the child is entitled to be here. Are you going to have that child come here without its mother? I would think not. I would think that would also give the mother the right to be here with her child, so you now have to consider what rights you’re going to grant to that person. Same thing in The Bahamas, you have a child with a person who is not a citizen of The Bahamas, an illegitimate child, many of whom perhaps are illegal in this country. So you have a child with [her]. That child then is a citizen and then you have to decide what happens to the mother who is here illegally. But now that mother becomes the person who in all likelihood will be looking after her child. So she stays here, so what are you going to do with them? You certainly can’t ship her out of the country. So it has a lot of side issues, which I think they need to consider before proceeding with a bill such as that.”

Not only do these comments come alarmingly close to invoking the stereotype of the oversexed African male stemming from the era of chattel slavery, they also demonstrate a very old-fashioned understanding of gender roles, as well as an ignorance of current reproductive patterns in the Bahamas. What could have been discussed as the rights of children, and what, in the context of the other Bills was discussed as the rights of mothers, is, in this instance not phrased as a discussion about the rights of fathers, but as a discussion about their responsibilities. Even more: denying the existence of men’s responsibilities for their “casual relationships,” these children and their mothers are portrayed as the responsibility – read ‘burden’ – of the state. And these children and their mothers are identified as would-be immigrants.

We were supposed to have a constitutional referendum on gender equality earlier this month, a constitutional referendum that would have had immigration implications. We did not. Instead, a few days before the abandoned referendum date, the government rolled out a New Immigration Policy, which, predictably, dominated the discussion. However, this so-called policy amounts to little more than a renewed articulation – or a new rearticulation – of existing practices which have long proven ineffective, but which, if temporarily exercised with heightened visibility, carry a number of short-term benefits for the government. As the impact of homophobia on the constitutional discourse had shown, our society, characterised by large groups that are socially, economically and educationally disenfranchised, reacts positively to scapegoating; if homophobia can be exploited to divert from gender equality, xenophobia can be exploited, too. While a majority of Bahamians praised the government for coming down ‘tough on illegals,’ very few voices of concern for civil and human rights could be heard through all the noise. On 6th November, hardly anybody noticed that they did not get to cast their vote in a referendum.

What are the reasons for the delay? The Perry-Late-Again-Christie narrative is too simplistic. The official justification was that more time was needed for public education. While the effort has indeed been lackluster, the Bills are not rocket science, and, given a real mandate and resources, and utilising additional approaches beside than the traditional town hall format, three months should have been ample time for an educational campaign. In fact, we have repeatedly demonstrated that this already exceeds our national attention span. However, unlike a non-binding opinion poll, a constitutional referendum requires that a certain process must be followed. In a constitutional amendment, voters cannot be asked just a vague question, but are asked to vote on a Bill that has been duly passed by Parliament. The four Constitutional Amendment Bills however have not been passed by the House, let alone the Senate; they are still in ‘committee stage.’ This means that amendments to the amendments are still possible, and possibly likely. It is frivolous to expect any educational campaign to educate anyone on a matter that is still subject to change.

While the debate in the House suggested that some of our MPs could have benefitted from some more education on the Bills – and on the concepts contained in these Bills – there may be other reasons for the delay. Bernard Nottage, Leader of Government Business in the House of Assembly, and as Minister of National Security responsible for elections and referenda, has indicated that the Bills, before coming to a vote in Parliament, would be given to the so-called Bahamas Christian Council for final approval. While this speaks volumes about our understanding of the role religion ought to play in a democratic state, it may indicate the government choosing the path of least resistance following an analysis of the gaming ‘referendum’ of 2013.

Like so many other projects that could – as it is often phrased – deepen our democracy, constitutional reform will not occur without the express demand by civic society. As long as we as citizens follow suit every time the topic of conversation is changed, the conversations will never conclude, or yield results. This also means that we must take more responsibility in educating ourselves about political issues. In fact, I am not sure why we expect the government to educate us on their agenda, rather we should suspect that any such effort would be to sell us their agenda. We cannot have a democracy, if we do not act like democrats.

Please Elaborate

“We have persons who get into politics for the wrong reasons. We have people who enter the political arena to become members of Parliament to make money for themselves.” – Branville McCartney, June 2014 (The Nassau Guardian).

“The Public Disclosures Act was created to prevent people from stealing. We’ve had MPs, some of whom are still in Parliament, come into politics as broke as the day is long and now they are millionaires. That cannot be right. Something is drastically wrong there.” – Branville McCartney, June 2014 (The Tribune).

Financial disclosure of Candidate Branville McCartney in 2007: $2.0 million
Financial disclosure of MP Branville McCartney in 2012: $6.5 million
(Bahamas Local).