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THE SHARON TURNER INTERVIEW WITH PLP LEADER

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( From The Nassau Guardian)

PLP leader Philip Brave Davis.

In the contest for who is to capture the mandate to govern, leadership takes center stage, and character makes all the difference in the kind of political leadership Bahamians receive.

As with other pivotal moments in the history of our nation, sound leadership in the midst of current economic and social crisis could not be more paramount.

In an effort to get a better understanding of the quality and standard of leadership the country might experience should his party be successful in the upcoming general election, Perspective sat for an extensive virtual interview with Opposition and Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) leader Philip Brave Davis.

From integrity in public life, to transparent governance, to political victimization, to bridging the social divide created by years of partisan rancor, Davis spoke with candor to questions that sought out the character of the man who desires to be the nation’s leader not long from now.

Integrity in public life

Public trust in a democracy is essential for governments to effectively carry out their mandate, but that confidence can be rubbed raw by violations of public trust for which there appears to be no consequence.

Diminished public trust has resulted in growing numbers of Bahamians becoming so disillusioned with the political process, that they see little use in playing an active role in their democracy — a role critical to holding public officials accountable for their stewardship.

When allegations of conflict of interest or corruption arise, public debate ensues about codes of ethics for ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

Though a Cabinet code of ethics exists, there has not yet been a move to give statutory effect to the provision of the code as has been done in other Commonwealth countries.

When questioned on whether his administration would move to enact a Cabinet code of ethics Davis, who stressed that “it is all about character at the end of the day” and that he “would not tolerate foolishness” said, “Arrangements though in writing, will only be as efficacious as the persons who are parties to it. When we have individuals who are inherently bad or wicked or crooked, nothing you put in writing will prevent them from doing that which is not good.

“There is a code of ethics that is already established for ministers, and the challenge with that is the prime minister also has his residual power to excuse ministers from some of those very same ethical standards laid down.

“I will be having a revision of the [existing] code of ethics for the purpose of enactment, and I would then look at the integrity issues that could apply to politicians. That revision will also include a code of ethics for senior public officials.”

Referencing a scenario where the prime minister’s residual power was used in reference to the existing code, Davis pointed to former Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands’ pro-bono practice of medicine while serving in the Cabinet.

The existing code of ethics calls for ministers to discontinue all private work on assumption of office.

He noted, “We are a peculiar jurisdiction. Our professional pool is very small, we don’t have many persons of his skill, and he goes into public life which shrinks further the availability of that expertise.

“In my case, I would not want to take out of the public service someone who has an expertise that is needed, so that is some of the considerations in deciding who your candidate would be, because invariably you could end up with that conflict.”

The Free National Movement (FNM) was ushered in on an overwhelming mandate, propelled by its pledges to restore public trust through the enactment of legislation including its heavily touted Integrity Commission Bill.

The bill has seen no movement since its introduction in 2017, and the Minnis administration has given no recent indication of whether it will fulfill its pledge to enact the same.

When questioned on whether his administration would re-introduce the bill should it die upon either the prorogation or dissolution of Parliament, Davis said, “The bill as presently before the House is wrought with challenges and difficulties both from a structural point of view, and from an enforcement point of view.

“I would not tell you that I would bring that particular bill back, but the enactment I spoke about in relation to ethical issues to ensure transparency and accountability, will flow from our revision of the present code of ethics that we will then enact.”

Going further on enacting a code of ethics for ministers and parliamentary secretaries, Davis continued, “I would be looking at how we pass a bill to bring transparency and accountability to public life, because Bahamians have a right to believe that their leaders are acting solely in the public interest, and not in a way that benefits themselves, their families or friends.

“How do we achieve that goal? By legislation? That’s one way, but also by making sure you choose persons with good character. I think the tone at the top matters a lot, and so does choosing the right people to have around you, which is a judgment call and sometimes that judgment can fail you.”

It is a judgment call voters will have the opportunity to provisionally scrutinize when the PLP announces its slate of candidates — a slate observers say must firmly demonstrate that Davis and his party are committed to charting a new course from that which led to the party’s crushing defeat at the last general election.

Transparency
and accountability

Key to ensuring accountability and transparency in the use of public funds is the work of the auditor general, whose role as set out in the constitution is to audit and provide annual reports on the accounts of all government offices and departments, and that of offices of the judiciary.

Historic underfunding for the auditor general’s office is said to be a contributing factor to the office’s inability to provide annual audit reports for all departments, and there is currently no statutory provision that compels government to act on findings therein that point to misappropriation or malfeasance.

Davis indicated, “I would take a look at the auditor general’s department, and that ties in with the question of the integrity bills and the code of ethics. Under Westminster conventions, the attorney general is the one who would be charged with ensuring that that accountability aspect is enforced.”

We put to Davis our view that in order to strengthen the role of the auditor general, government should move to codify such conventions so that there are explicit stipulations in law for what actions are to be taken arising from the auditor’s findings.

“That is attractive,” he offered, “and that is something that I can look into and we could do, [because] my attorney general will follow the convention, but that is my attorney general, what will another attorney general do? And so, we probably should enact it.

“I realize that accountability in respect to malfeasance in the public service is lacking and is not there, and is usually very partisan.

“I am open to hearing and listening as to how best we could ensure more transparency and accountability in the expenditure of funds. I do not have all the answers, but I would welcome and would listen to any suggestions as to how we can better manage expenditure.”

Also key to accountable and transparent governance is open relations with the press.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis as well as several of his Cabinet ministers have been routinely criticized for their unwillingness to be responsive to and respectful of press questions.

Acknowledging that the press is a “key component” in government, Davis noted that he “has always made himself available to the press and their questions”.

He added, “The press should always be treated with respect. [My Cabinet’s] mandate will be to be responsive, and it will not only be because of who I chose, but it will be because of my style of leadership that will lead them to know that that’s what they would have to be doing.

“We are not going to be perfect and I don’t think the Bahamian people expect us all to be perfect, but they want to know what’s going on, and they want to understand what government is doing for them.”

Continuing in the vein of enhancing accountability and transparency, Davis also pledged to bring about the separation of powers with respect to the Parliament, which continues to sit under the administrative control of the secretary to the Cabinet, and by extension, the executive branch.

He stressed, “We need to de-link the parliamentary institution from the Cabinet Office. We will bring a bill that makes the Parliament an effective deliberative body.”

Political victimization

A primary stumbling block to national development continues to be deep societal divisions rooted in politics, together with the lengths some politicians and supporters travel to cement such divisions through the meting out of political victimization.

Fear of political victimization continues to be cited by Bahamians as a reason they opt not to take a role in their democracy beyond voting on Election Day, with a pledge to bring an end to the same being among the hallmarks of the Ingraham administration in the 1990s.

We questioned Davis on how he plans to respond to this dynamic, particularly within the public sector, should he become prime minister.

Davis answered, “With respect to the public sector, what I care about is that people do their jobs and do them well. Persons who are serving the public well should feel safe in their jobs. The discharge of my duties as deputy prime minister and minister of works are evidence of that; there were no complaints that anyone was treated unfairly.

“The questions you pose are really questions about character. In both my private and public life, I see people as Bahamians first. I’ve never denied help or opportunities to anyone because of their political views.”

When criminal cases that ultimately proved unsuccessful were pursued against former PLP parliamentarians this term, Davis described the pursuit as the substance of “victor’s justice”, pointing after the Shane Gibson trial to the adage, “when you dig one ditch, dig two”.

Referencing this, we asked Davis whether his statements were a foreboding that the country might witness victor’s revenge should his party be successful at the polls.

“The answer is no,” Davis said assuredly.

He explained of his comments, “In trying to hurt others, the current government ended up hurting themselves. Bahamians were really angry about how those cases were handled. There was no evidence to support those prosecutions. They spent millions, embarrassed the country, and tarnished our democracy.”

We further questioned Davis on how his administration would work to prevent the kinds of activities involving the Royal Bahamas Police Force that were alleged during both criminal trials.

Davis stated, “In my administration, questions about criminal behavior will be independently investigated and decided in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, not the Office of the Prime Minister.

“My government is going to make it clear that laws will be enforced and law breaking will have consequences. Decisions about investigations and prosecution of criminal behavior will be made independently and free of political interference.” 

Secure leadership

Complaints from various sectors continue to arise about what is seen as an insular approach to governance taken by the prime minister, who party insiders say is often unwilling to take advice and abide differing points of view.

Following Dr. Sands’ unpopular resignation from Cabinet, PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell accused Minnis of using the pandemic as an excuse to “get rid of Duane Sands”, thereby eliminating “his rival” in the FNM — an opinion shared by other noted observers.

Against this backdrop, we asked Davis if he is a secure leader who will allow and enable his ministers and caucus members to excel in their respective areas of responsibility, even if doing so results in their popularity eclipsing his own.

We also asked what the country can expect in terms of consultation and advice gathering in a Davis-led administration.

The PLP’s leader said, “My Cabinet ministers will have the expertise and experience to hit the ground running. I wholeheartedly agree with the saying that ‘the best leaders focus on creating more leaders, not followers.’ I will have a Cabinet of ministers who are very capable in their own right, and it will be my job to make sure they have every opportunity to succeed.

“Regarding your question about political popularity, I certainly hope and expect the ministers in my Cabinet will earn the support of the public; that will be evidence that we are making the changes the country needs to finally move forward on our hardest problems.

“I plan to consult widely outside of Cabinet, too. Good policymakers are inclusive, and good listeners; it’s crucial to understand the impact your policies will have on all kinds of people and communities. We can see for ourselves the cost of doing otherwise.”

Transformative
governance

Both the PLP and the FNM can be duly credited with bringing about historic transformation to and for The Bahamas.

According to Davis, transformation he calls “big change” is what he wants to build upon and bring about if his party is elected, though he acknowledges the challenges ahead.

He conceded, “There will be fairly serious resource constraints, but we have to bring a lot of innovation and new thinking to solve old problems and address new ones, too.

“This current government has really suffered from a poverty of ambition and a lack of planning. We need a strong plan in place and we need to start moving forward.

“Even before Dorian and before COVID, I felt strongly about pushing for big change, and I don’t want the scale of our dreams to be diminished by these crises. The suffering that is so widespread now only increases my sense of urgency.”

The PLP leader uses as his moniker “compassionate leadership”.

Compassion is precisely what disaffected Bahamians decry as lacking in their nation’s politics, as more and more voters insist that political parties only show concern in order to secure the votes they seek.

It’s a public sentiment Davis believes his style of leadership will work to change.

He asserted, “In contrast to this present government which seems to be lacking in compassion or in understanding the needs of people and how to respond to those needs, as a leader I see myself as a servant of the people.

“I believe our lives should be measured by the impact we have on others. We should always stay close to the people, and leadership never stops listening. A leader should see his job as bringing people together, building solutions that work, and a servant leader would respect the people he represents.”

Davis rightly concluded that most of our questions were inherently character questions that sought to get a clearer view of who he is, and what his approach to governance and the Bahamian people may be.

To his credit, Davis responded to our queries and concerns dispassionately, demonstrating a willingness to listen to our points of view, and an openness to ideas that may not have been originally his, but that could serve to better promote the best interests of the Bahamian people.

Should his party be successful at the polls, it is an approach to leadership the Bahamian people deserve, and one that should be consistently delivered in the public interest.