What is fair and open government?
Today, in Bermuda, we live in a political climate founded in a form of democracy referred to as representative. What exactly is Democracy however? The very word is an interesting concept, but by many definitions, does it encompass our needs, does it entitle each Bermudian to fair and open government?
Alan Corenk once described democracy as; "Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear." Will Rogers suggested the following of American democracy; "On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does. " Winston Churchill said "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried".
How would you rate our own democracy? Is the very definition of the word not subjective, being that there are so many different variations and interpretations? Should we as a people not be entitled to a form of government that is fair, open and accountable to the very electorate that handed them the reigns of power and control over our country? Or perhaps, should we instead sit back in a nonchalant manner as we feel content that our form of democracy means we get to choose new dictators every five years?
Should we not be proactive and strive to achieve the best form of democracy possible? Is it not the right of the people to know more of what our government is doing and thus be able to hold them accountable? How many scandals, examples of waste, corruption, and abuse of the system can you recall over the many years Bermuda has been governed? Not just limited to one party at the helm, but examples can be found for both who have led our country over the years. Inherently does this not suggest that perhaps the flaw does not lie so much with the parties themselves, but the very system and structure under which they rule?
Our present government did the most honorable thing in moving to change the very structure of our political system for the better. In the 2003 Throne Speech, our Premier pledged to introduce freedom of information legislation to entitle all Bermudians with the ability to access information on our government. In December (2005), the Premier brought a take note motion on the Public Access To Information (PATI) discussion paper. Premier Scott said, “Government has not been seen to be as open as the public wants. It was once hard to find, get and share information but that is all about to come to an end. We will now work to open up Government. Information will go from a ‘need to know’ basis to a ‘right to know’ basis.”
Such a wonderful initiative, however quite unfortunately, implementation of it is not slated to begin until between 2007 and 2009, and the actual laws will not be active until 2010 or 2011. Does this not seem to be an awfully long time to wait for legislation that the Premier himself admits we need? How much longer shall we need to sit idly by as we watch whistleblowers like those who brought attention to the dire situation of the Berkeley project, are needlessly silenced and targeted? How much longer will we need to wait before the public has the right to ask the very questions that should be answered?
By comparison, the people of Trinidad and Tobago only had to wait two years for their Freedom of Information act, which went into effect in 2001. Jamaica’s people only had to wait two years for theirs which went into effect in 2004. The Cayman islands has already started debating some actual draft legislation. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a non-government organization concerned with implementation of human rights reviewed their draft legislation. They suggest that "delays send mixed signals of government intention and pander to the penchant for secrecy. Often justified on grounds that time is needed to put in place systems to enable efficient information-giving, delays often mask a battle against openness being waged within the bureaucracy. Delays can range between the reasonable, such as in Australia and Canada where laws were operationalised within a year of enactment, and the unreasonable, such as the United Kingdom, which has been heavily criticized for insisting on a five year gap to get its house in order."
So if one year is considered reasonable, and five to be considered extreme, why is it then that our government has a plan in which our own legislation will be introduced perhaps in 4-5 years? Especially when so many other Caribbean countries have set the precedent in having established theirs in two? Beyond this, in July 2004 our Premier said that PATI legislation would be tabled in the next parliamentary session. Certainly one doesn’t need to be an expert on parliament to realize that we’d have at least one session in the last 3 years? Yet, PATI legislation has yet to have been tabled.
Are we to be burdened with unreasonable delays in achieving legislation that we as a people so deserve regardless of which leadership we elect into power? William H. Borah said it best when he claimed "The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments." Are we burdened unnecessarily by the lack of freedom, by a lack of a fair and open government?
Bertrand Russell said, "There is no nonsense so errant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action." Perhaps adequate government action is talking more about taking action then actually taking any action. How long shall we delay the inevitable before we can achieve a democracy worth living in?
So, may that question again be asked, what is fair and open government?