Freedom Of Information yet to be honoured
In the ruling Democratic Labour Party’s manifesto for the 2013 general election, political leader Prime Minister Freundel Stuart committed a re-elected DLP Government to the practice of good governance.
“Good governance is characterized by the principles of participation, consensus, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency, equity and inclusion and the rule of law,” he explained back then. “It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account, and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making and the allocation of resources.”
Whether or not the ruling DLP has generally lived up to these ideals since its re-election is a matter which voters will eventually have to pass judgement on at the next election. Meanwhile, the nigh daily litany of complaints, especially about Mr Stuart’s failure to engage Barbadians on several important issues, suggests the Government has fallen short on this key objective.
There are two principles in Stuart’s definition of good governance which are of particular interest to us as a member of the Fourth Estate. We refer to the principles of accountability and transparency which are directly related to the media functioning in the historic role as watchdog of Government and guardian of democracy. Public opinion supports the view that the DLP’s adherence to both principles falls below the standard expected in a modern, free and democratic society.
Indeed, were it not for the Auditor General, whose annual reports paint a scandalous picture of wide-scale wastage of scarce public resources, Barbadians probably would not have a clue as to how Government is spending our hard-earned tax dollars. For sure, it is unlikely that our elected representatives would bring such matters to our attention. By and large, Government conducts the public’s business within a legally sanctioned framework of secrecy with little meaningful transparency or accountability.
As the DLP Government approaches the halfway point of its second term, it is perhaps the perfect opportunity to remind it of a solemn promise which it made to the people of Barbados in the 2008 general election. It relates to the introduction of Freedom Of Information (FOI) legislation which, in the spirit of enhancing our democracy, promises to open up the operations of Government to greater scrutiny, not only by the media, but also the average citizen.
FOI legislation, with the least possible exemptions, represents a major boost for good governance. When the FOI was promised at the height of election campaigning in 2008, the impression was conveyed that enacting the legislation, accompanied by a Code Of Conduct For Ministers, which too has not yet materialized, would be high on the priority list of a new DLP administration. Seven years have passed and Barbados is still waiting. How much longer do we have to?
Secrecy and inadequate accountability, often reflected in a stony silence from Bay Street, have been hallmarks of this DLP administration, especially after Mr Stuart became Prime Minister, following the death in October, 2010, of his more accessible and engaging predecessor the late David Thompson. If the Stuart Government is really serious about delivering on its commitment to good governance, bringing the promised FOI legislation without further delay would be a demonstration of good faith and a significant step in the right direction.
As defined, FOI is the enforceable right of citizens under legislation to access records and other Government information, subject only to certain exemptions set by law. The fewer the exemptions, the more effective the legislation usually is.
A situation can exist where access to information exists on paper but hardly in practice. Unreasonable exemptions can thwart the purpose of the legislation.
In 1966, the United States became the first country to place FOI legislation on its statute books. The FOI Act was passed by Congress in response to public clamour for more government accountability against a backdrop of controversial decisions related to the Vietnam War and other issues. Close to 100 countries have subsequently followed the lead taken by the United States, including Canada, which passed an Access To Information Act in 1983.
Prime Minister Stuart recently announced his intention to change Barbados’ constitutional status from a monarchy to a republic by next year when the island will mark its 50th anniversary of Independence from Britain. We believe that improved governance arrangements, including promised FOI legislation, must accompany this constitutional move to ensure greater transparency and accountability by Government.
Unless such fundamental changes are made, it will simply continue to be the “same old, same old” in Barbados. It would be the ideal 50th Independence anniversary gift to confirm our mature status within the family of nations, especially within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Commonwealth.