LETTER FROM MICHAEL STEVENSON ON OIL AND DEMOCRACY

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( This letter first appeared in The Tribune)

EDITOR:

In a previous letter (published on January 12, 2021), I maintained that a legislative ban on oil drilling and extraction would not amount to compulsory possession or acquisition without compensation of BPC’s property under Article 27 of The Constitution.

I also pointed out possible risks with this position – risks the legislative branch of government should not allow to deter it from enacting a ban on oil extraction. These risks are even smaller if the limitations in Article 27 are considered.

In a follow-up letter (published on January 20, 2021), I advanced the point that the executive branch of the government, across both administrations, possibly violated a democratic norm when they agreed to terms permitting oil extraction without considering a very relevant factor – the position of the Bahamian people on such a critical matter.

I also advanced the position that, in considering whether to enact a ban, a consideration for law-makers might be that BPC knew the risk they were taking when they entered into licensing agreements without first knowing the will of the Bahamian people; that Parliament might seek to protect Bahamian democracy and override an irrational decision made by the Executive to permit oil extraction that had not taken into account the very relevant factor like the position of the Bahamian people on such a matter of critical national importance.

I then explained how our Westminster-style of government, on occasion, permits the Executive in Parliament, along with other law-makers in the Legislature, to function as a check and balance on Executive actions and decisions. I wish to now add to the democracy argument.

A key component of the meaning of democracy is self-governance by majority rule guided by the principle of political equality.

Arguably, however, democracy cannot be reduced simply to universal enfranchisement, with each adult citizen exercising one vote in fair and free elections.

Though majority rule is an integral part of the concept of democracy and we should never take for granted the struggle to achieve majority rule and how the quiet revolution in our land set the basis for the precious and fragile tradition of peaceful transfer of political authority in our county, democracy means, in a modern Bahamas, more than majority rule based on fair and free elections.

In between elections, we also expect to participate in governance, as part of an ever-evolving and broadening understanding of democracy and self-governance.

Of course, we do not expect to participate in every governmental decision, for why have a government in the first place.

However, on governmental decisions that have far-reaching national consequences, we demand that some attempt be made by our political leaders to systematically gauge the will of the people, as one of the factors in a rational decision-making process.

Likewise, the guiding democratic principle of political equality, which lays the basis of the concept of one man/woman one vote, means more than merely the guarantee of voting equality.

Political equality also requires us to address the problem of the uneven playing field when it comes to influence over the governmental decision-making process and the factors that contribute to this malady.

Simply put – some individuals, groups, and entities have greater sway over our decision-makers in government than others for reasons that are unacceptable.

The state of political inequality in any community is driven by a myriad of factors.

However, there are some factors that should never be allowed to play a role in the decision-making of public authorities and elected officials.

One such factor is the material or financial self-interest of those tasked with making governmental decisions in the national interest. When an elected or non-elected public official is in a position to financially or materially benefit from an official decision that he or she is about to make, or has made, the public official is placed in position of conflict of interest.

It is a basic rule of good governance, democracy, and the rule of law that public officials should never position themselves to materially or financially benefit from a public decision in which the public official is involved.

Conflict of interest in public decision-making (real or apparent) erodes public trust in governance; it is absolutely one of the greatest dangers to maintaining a national community.

Conflict of interest within government becomes particularly egregious when the benefit that the public official stands to gain from the decision is provided by an individual or entity that has or will be affected by the public official’s decision.

In this situation, the individual or entity is rightly seen as inappropriately inducing the public official to make the decision in a way that will benefit the individual or entity.

Political inequality is a consequence of such real or apparent corruption. The individual or entity able to provide the benefit to the public official – the inducement – is given an improper advantage over others in the process of influencing the public official’s decision.

The interests of the influencer is given a special weight in the calculation of the interests that have to be weighed in the decision of the public official because the public official stands to personally benefit by giving the influencer’s interest special consideration.

Across the globe, political equality and democracy are assaulted on a daily basis in two principal ways:

 (1) special interest influencers are provided with a disproportional amount of influence over the decision-making of government because of corruption; and

 (2) the special advantage given to corrupting special interest influencers is not based on a rational, public interest factor, but rather the personal interests of a corrupt public official.

An inquiry is needed to determine the possible conflicts of interest involved in the decision to grant BPC exploratory and extraction drilling permission.

Allegations have been made that politicians involved in the decision had financial interests in law firms handling the licensing and approval process for BPC.

If this allegation has any basis, then Parliament should conduct an inquiry to determine if improper influence (real or apparent) was exercised over elected public officials linked to BPC through the local law firms hired by BPC to conduct BPC’s licensing-approval work.

While BPC has announced that Perseverance #1 will be, “permanently plugged and abandoned”, BPC says it will seek to continue to monetise its Bahamian operations through farm-in agreements.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the oil industry concerning Peak Oil and the movement of oil prices in the future.

What we do know is that oil reservoirs that are not presently viable for commercial purposes can become commercially viable in the future depending upon supply and demand factors with the oil markets.

We are therefore not out of the woods when it comes to having to deal with the risks of big oil companies coming knocking on our doors for the hydrocarbons in our seabed.

The executive branch of government would be wise not to renew the BPC licenses that are set to expire soon.

If it cannot find a way to break with BPC, then a legislative ban on exploratory oil-drilling and extraction is an option to stop the madness.

Perhaps Parliament should enact a moratorium on exploratory and extraction drilling in any event, after a thorough review of the situation and the position of the Bahamian people on the matter.

Our nation should have a firm position on local oil extraction, in keeping with the concept and practice of self-governance. We should also seek to put in place, in keeping with the concept of political equality and deepening our democracy, mechanisms to control conflict of interest.

Our courts, when presented with the opportunity, will interpret and enforce Article 1 of our Constitution: “The Commonwealth of The Bahamas shall be a sovereign democratic State.” All of us, however, should strive to shape the meaning and practice of democracy.

MICHAEL STEVENSON

Nassau,

10 February 2021.