A central problem of representative democracy is how to ensure that the government’s policy decisions are responsive to the interests of citizens and residents. If, in a democracy such as Barbados, the government fails to be responsive to the expressed expectations of the people, that democracy may not be working as it should for the benefit of the wider population.
This article argues that although the current Parliament and Cabinet may be trying to meet the expectations of the people, they have regularly operated with a measure of abandonment and insensitiveness to the needs of thousands of Barbadians.
Parliament, as constructed, appears outmoded in relation to what true representativeness would demand in Barbados today. On the other hand, Cabinet appears too bent on self-preservation and achieving narrow and partisan political objectives which then tend to spurn more than encourage.
Professor of Public Management, Evan Berman, stated in 1997 that cynicism toward government is largely a function of trust and social capital. He reasons that when the relationship between a government and its citizens has become strained, it is usually a fall-out from various things.
For example, (1) the citizenry feels as though government officials abuse their powers in the interest of self-aggrandisement; (2) citizens feel disconnected from government; and (3) government service delivery is perceived to be inadequate. Clearly, all three of these core aspects are indisputable in Barbados.
In terms of the institutions of governance, Barbados is witnessing almost daily, the expressed dissatisfaction with, and lack of confidence in, the functioning of several of its more important institutions. A first point of scrutiny is with the Prime Minister’s Office and the executive – the Cabinet.
The current administration would have re-entered a phase of governance in 2008, spouting a rhetoric of change; this was accepted by the electorate. Indeed, by December 2008, the then Prime Minister, David Thompson, was contending:
“I do not want to perpetuate the same wrongs that I criticized the former Government of committing . . . . There must be structures and procedures. There must be transparency and accountability. I am very concerned about the issue of governance in this country.”
Lo and behold in 2016, Barbadians are being goaded along the perilous slopes of secrecy and a broadening information deficit. The withholding of information from the public has netted screams of frustration. People are fed up with the administration.
The displeasure is uttered in accusatory tones on radio and wherever else freedom of voice allows. The national discourse has become heavily tainted with allegations of deals, corruption, and wrongdoing; these sentiments have been expressed inside and outside of the legislature.
By its own admission, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) felt it necessary to include in its 2013 Manifesto the observation that: “One of the most worrying phenomena in our country is the alienation of people from the political system. Barbadians of all ages and from all walks of life often perceive the political system as corrupt, ineffectual and not serving their interests.”
How then does one account for things worsening rather than improving regarding the need for an informed citizenry actively participating in formulating policies and being part of the decision-making process in Barbados?
Gladly, there are numerous persons unyielding to party loyalty. Many individuals are refusing to blindly support when better must be done for country. Patriots have been calling for improved levels of debate within the House of Assembly. The debates have become uninspiring. Most times, the public gallery is host to empty seats and persons tune out rather than listen in on the public broadcasts.
Regardless of political persuasion or affiliation, probing questions must be advanced regarding the efficacy of the two main political parties. For instance, discerning persons want to know whether important parliamentary reforms that need to be undertaken as a matter of priority will be undertaken any time soon.
Also, how do Barbadians safeguard the nation’s integrity while reshaping the practical mechanisms for good governance? After all, Barbadians are living in the 21st century and the political demands for representation have become acute as well as increasingly complex.
Noteworthy, page 5 of the DLP’s 2008 Manifesto reads: “Only enlightened and competent people can make a country truly independent. To participate meaningfully and productively in the major institutions of the society, people have to be empowered. It is the completion of this process of political, educational, social and economic empowerment that will enable ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ to become the true craftsmen of their fate and real participants in the process of social economic progress.”
This writer believes that this statement was intended to chart that merited course for accountability and transparency, and that through information being given to the public, Barbados would venture safely into matured levels of political deliberation and participation.
Today, Barbadians wait with bated breath because recurring incidents that include the Cahill debacle appear to make empty the talk of accountability and transparency. One can take the Special Audit on the National Housing Corporation’s high rise apartments at Grotto and Valerie, as reported by the Auditor General, as indicators of the ‘tempted to touch’ but ‘never to discuss’ pestilence that remains in our midst.
If Parliament, and especially through the Public Accounts Committee, cannot investigate, reprimand, and remedy the wrongs, then where are our democratic institutions? More pertinent, can Barbadians get answers to an observation made wherein: “The National Housing Corporation – did not carry out any proper financial planning and failed to comply with the procurement requirements as prescribed by legislation in the awarding of the contracts for the high rise units at Valerie and the Grotto; and – was unable to provide housing for lower income earners in a cost effective manner with regard to these two (2) projects.”
Surely, an erosion of confidence in the major institutions of society, especially those of representative democracy and the public finances, is a far more serious threat to democracy than a loss of trust in other citizens or politicians. As is the
case, approximately every five years, political leaders and their teams will come and go with swings of the electoral pendulum.
The fact is that trust in them may rise and fall with the citizens’ evaluation of their performance in office. Trust in leaders or administrations is subject to scrutiny and change; but that reservation ought not to erode confidence in our institutions. Hence, it is our institutions that must be able to withstand the stern tests of times and circumstances.
Barbados’ institutions must be kept durable while being made sufficiently nimble as to stop unwarranted behaviours that destroy the people’s trust in the very institutions. Certainly, our justice system cannot be exempt from any scrutiny as we seek to reform and correct existing ills.
The former and respected Chief Justice, Sir David Simmons, laments that: “failure to give decisions . . . is inefficient, unfair to residents and their legal representatives.”
Without trust, and without the people being emboldened with ample levels of comfort, a stubborn sense of mistrust develops. This anxiety leads to antipathy and to the wide perception that nothing is being done barring the continuation that the ‘politicians’ are looking out for themselves while laughing at we the people.
In fact, public involvement in policy determination strengthens rather than threatens representative democracy. This mode of action requires that citizens become informed, and that they are encouraged to formulate considered opinions while discussing their opinions with others, especially with those whom they would not otherwise interact.
In the process, social capital, social trust and civic knowledge are strengthened.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a part-time lecturer in Political Science at the UWI-Cave Hill Campus, and a political consultant.