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I recently wrote to the government on a matter challenging a decision that was made and I was told by a civil servant, the government is under no obligation to explain itself. At first that seemed perfectly reasonable, but then I thought about it some more. In fact, it caused me to start seriously thinking about the rights of a citizen and the obligations of the government.
Does the government have an obligation to explain itself to the people?
I thought about this long and hard and decided I cannot agree with the perspective expressed by the civil servant. I understand why a civil servant might feel this way, because civil servants are in fact also employed by the government. However, the position fundamentally reflects an upside down view of the government’s role.
A friend of mine was so kind to remind me: the people are the employers and the government is the employee. Because we have such a disengaged citizenry that has typically given the government free reign (or has itself been compromised by partisan politics), there has been a reversal of roles. The government has so much freedom it believes it is the boss and the people have so little power they believe they are the employees.
“Think of a typical office environment: if the boss is absent, distracted or clueless, chances are the employees will slack off. Work ethic is a beautiful thing that unfortunately the vast majority doesn’t have. The government has definitely proven to be the type of employee that needs to be watched surveyed, supervised, kept in line.”
These may very well be ideological arguments, because as we both know, our parliamentary democracy invests you, as the prime minister, with some serious legal power. My political friends would say, Noelle, get real. However, these issues go to the heart of our common understanding of the Bahamian democracy.
One of the reasons why there is so much frustration over the government’s failure to fully implement a proper Freedom of Information Act is because on the matter of transparency and access to information the government also seems to have it all wrong. The civil service maintains this view as well. Civil servants often believe the people have no right to government information.
Sitting in your seat of power, it may be counter-intuitive to appreciate where I am coming from, but I am sure you understand. We the citizens deserve and rightly demand government accountability and access to information. I mean no disrespect in saying so; it is simply the truth.
The world is changing and sadly our politics is struggling to keep pace. My fellow Bahamas Free Thinker Marlon rightly points out: “It was only 24 years ago that we only had one local government TV and radio station. Today, media is diffused and information and perspective can be shared all day, every day. This has and will continue to change how governance happens. And politicians will have to adjust to an electorate that will demand more input and more transparency.”
It is not easy for a private citizen to challenge the government. And sometimes it is not neat and pretty. But without the freedom to do so without fear, and without an obligation for the government to be accountable to the people, we would have no democracy. We would have a “parliamentary dictatorship”.
I certainly hope you share these view of democracy. With my kindest regards.
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