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OFF CENTRE: Old Parliament, suspect governance

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Old Parliament, suspect governance

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THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS is a long time for a parliament to not get the most fundamental things right.
But we celebrating we Parliament – how it is the third oldest in the Commonwealth, behind Britain and Bermuda. Big fuss about two weeks ago. Even a Royal occasion!
Yet in the year of our celebrations, the unions can’t even get Government to be transparent about the process/criteria it is using to lay off workers as it seeks to reduce expenditure so as to deal with the country’s fiscal crisis.
Accountability (day-to-day, week-to-week, not every five years), the bedrock of governance legitimacy, missing in inaction.
But who seems to care?   I have heard the talk: “We are better than . . . [China/North Korea/ Nigeria/Russia/Antigua/ Trinidad and Tobago].”
I suspect we are okay with “better than” until we lose our job because Government has no money to pay us and we realise that there are no checks and balances (but maybe strange cheques and incredibly large bank balances on some politicians’ accounts).
We are okay with “better than” until the person who lost the project to somebody else’s palm-greasing is us. We are okay with “better than” until it is our sister or brother whose life has been perilously thrown out of whack because files mysteriously disappear.
We are okay with “better than” until our son comes home crying that police beat him up and made him sign a statement saying he committed a crime. Then we are likely to realise that “better than” is not good enough.
So while we celebrating a long-time Parliament, where is the passionate work going into making sure that governance at its centre (not around the edges) is transparent, accountable, inclusive? That it is in fact operationally, fundamentally, critically legitimate beyond allowing us to vote every five years?
Are we constantly and zealously refining our processes so that misfeasance and malfeasance are not seen as par for the course? Rhetorical question.
Where is the strong systemic imprint that shouts that we are not simply depending on the goodwill of men for good outcomes?
Where is robust legislation covering integrity in public office, freedom of information, bribery and so on, along with the requisite sturdy accountability frameworks?
It is clear that in Barbados governance (for which Parliament is our chief symbol) has been principally about ideology, philosophy, voting, back and forth arguments about ideas (in relation to economics, transport, CARICOM, education, health, agriculture, “culture” or whatever) and technical aspects of executing such. Not about its moral foundation/ backbone/sine qua non – never about the control of it.
Voting, political philosophy, ideas for running this sector or that one and their execution are very important, but do not touch the critical matter of controlling governance itself.
Sans systemic frames for integrity, for transparency, for accountability, for non-elected people to in untrammelled ways investigate, explore, examine and forcefully impact – as auditors, as watchdogs, as law enforcers, et cetera – the nitty gritty areas of how we are governed, we are short of a worthy enough return on an investment of 375 (or is it really 47 and a piece?) years.
Perhaps we should really be looking at our parliamentary run since Independence. Dangerously, we did not begin with an interest in, a charter about the processes of our governance.
We wuz independent; we cuh do we own ting, so leh we get to education, tourism, commerce – and then, not unlikely, to stealing, favouritism, graft, largesse, nepotism, unfairness, victimisation, withholding information – ’cause we never seriously focused, front-burner, on how fundamentally we were going to control governance.
So you hear all of these stories – and they can’t all be untrue – about money passing, about unqualified family and friends getting jobs, about questionable practices, about wastage, about improper use of taxpayers’ money. And we can’t get a handle on it.
And while we grow apathetic or stew in our suspicion and unease – face it, a gnawing sense of governmental illegitimacy despite the presence of the vote – we still pelting full steam ahead with ideas about the same old areas.
But never about the crux of governance: accountability. That should be a fiercest, never-ending national conversation and passion.
The fact that human beings are never going to get rid of all corruption in government should not incline us to a happy coexistence with it, to treating it, as Afra Raymond says, as not a crime and as a “little” thing.
If we don’t have a way to bridle the bad inclinations of men and women in power, crapaud smoke we pipe. Let’s work on that – not the smoking, the bridling!
We make much of the fact that we can vote – and we should. We make much of the fact that we can speak out (to a degree) – and we should. Yet accountable governance is elusive and often illusory. Because it has never been a central, fervent passion.
We foreground ideas, whether ideology (democracy, communism, socialism, neoliberalism) or strategies and ceremony and hold bad governance to our bosom as bad public officials virtually run riot.
Off to the side, we live a “perpetual cycle of elect and regret” (Eric X. Li).
Old Parliament, dysfunctional governance.
Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]