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EDITORIAL: Engage the people


EDITORIAL: Engage the people

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INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MINISTER Donville Inniss must have raised a few eyebrows last Sunday at his constituency’s branch meting when he said that his Cabinet colleagues, including the Prime Minister, should be more engaging with the people of Barbados.

It was a bold statement and one not usually expected from such a source but it does raise some important issues about the kind of democracy we are operating in this country. The minister has a point.

The hallmark of our democracy is that the people retain the power to get rid of the Government whenever they feel so persuaded. This is so because ministers hold and exercise power as the surrogates of the voters. This arrangement leads to the necessity for the people to be kept informed by the Government about the general progress of the strategies and policies which constitute its programme.

The issue of communication is real. It is an integral part of accountability in a participatory democracy, and it allows the press as the Fourth Estate to put questions to the ministers and to get answers on behalf of the public.

But the minister’s comments are a clear indication that he is at odds with his fellow Cabinet ministers’ on the extent of their communication with the public. He told his audience that he has said “quietly and not so quietly that he would wish the Prime Minister be more engaging with the country”.

We believe his concerns to be genuine, but some of the minster’s critics may attribute his plain talk to pre-election jitters overlaid by a background of perceived diminishing popularity of the ruling party. That would be ignoring the central point that an essential aspect of our political system is that voters need to be kept informed about the political state of their country.

What is even more important in the light of the economic challenges and the strategies which the Government has used is that success in austerity measures requires explicit communication with the public who, after all, will shoulder the burden of such programmes.

Whatever may be said about Prime Minister Sandiford, in the early 1990s he was able to stymie and resist any pressure to devalue the Barbadian dollar because he explained the facts necessitating the approach to the IMF and sought public support on that issue. Such is the power when political leaders communicate with their publics.

Agencies such as the Government Information Service can only do so much, and while press releases and speeches by ministers are informative, these passive aspects of information cannot replace the ministerial press conference in which the minister interacts on point and counterpoint with members of the press.

We hold no brief for Mr Inniss. Rather, our concern is for the public interest, which always demands answers to questions put to the politicians. Even more important is the consequence that the press is handicapped in carrying out its duty to be the fourth estate when Cabinet ministers are not as engaging as they should be with the people.

Communication is important both at election time and when victory has been achieved, and we support Mr Inniss’ call for more engagement, because in our kind of democracy the role of the press as fourth estate depends in large measure on the Prime Minister and his Cabinet ministers engaging with the press and through them with the people.