ANOTHER day, another setback for the government at the Supreme Court.
This time, the setback comes over the demolition of shanty towns – and yes, if you’re thinking that has been an area where the government has lost before, you’d be right. In 2018, the Supreme Court brought a halt to disconnections and evictions pending a judicial review. Indeed, it is an area of long-rumbling dispute, with Attorney General Carl Bethel vowing in December last year that the government “will prevail” against injunctions filed to stop the demolition of shanty towns.
Certainly, there is an ongoing problem – we do not want people to be living in unsafe conditions, and the recent sprouting up of new shanty properties in Abaco shows it is a difficulty that is not going away. Simply put, people need a roof over their heads. Kicking people out of properties doesn’t take away that need – so where do those people go? And, if the government is going to follow through on evicting people, they must make sure the process is transparent and fair.
The article in today’s Tribune sees 177 residents of shanty towns file an application. To stop the demolition? No. To let them stay where they are? No. Just to see the documents about the demolition.
The court ruled that Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis, Works Minister Desmond Bannister, Carl Bethel, Bahamas Power and Light, and the Water and Sewerage Corporation were not exercising their “duty of candour” during proceedings.
Applicants said they were “in the dark” over the plans – not the first time BPL will have been leaving people in the dark, but a damning indictment of those members of a government that has repeatedly trumpeted the importance of transparency and accountability.
So now the government has 21 days to hand over all documents relating to the shanty town plans. We’ll see if they can hit the target.
More to the point, though, why does it have to come to this? This far into the 21st century, why are such documents not routinely made available to citizens for all manner of matters? Whether it is Bahamian citizens or residents, whether it is someone living in a Lyford Cay estate or a shanty town shack, why do we make it so hard for people to see the documents that relate to their lives?
We do not anticipate this case will change the government’s mind on such access – but it should. Keeping such information out of sight makes it harder for people to make their case in the courts – whether citizens or immigrants – but if the law is fair, why make it harder for anyone at all?
Transparency should not just be a buzzword that gets thrown around on the election trail – it should be a commitment to finding every way possible to make it easier for people to see the work and processes of government.
Had the government published these papers, they would not have faced this particular challenge in court, or this particular defeat. Of course, they may fear their opponents will now be better prepared for a different legal challenge – but shouldn’t the government just make sure they get the legalities right in the first place?
We await to see the next developments.
One rule for all?
How many of us have known someone who has lost a relative or friend in the past months, and endured the agony of not being able to say farewell because of restrictions on funerals?
Funerals have been delayed to try to fit around the rules that limit the number of attendees. Each family has had to make agonising decisions at a time when all they should have to do is mourn. Instead, they are working out which family members should be allowed to attend, how to honour the memory of the person they loved, and who to exclude from final farewells.
And people have abided by these rules – because they have been told this is what needs to be done, this is how we defeat this virus that has laid the world so low.
How, then, must those people who abided by the rules feel when they see a funeral service going ahead for a police officer that clearly contravenes the emergency orders about only ten people being gathered at the site?
The service was live streamed on the Royal Bahamas Police Force’s Facebook page – leading members of the public to ask why can they do that and we can’t?
Police Commissioner Paul Rolle said that officials will do their best to ensure that it does not happen again. Happen again? Why did it happen in the first place? If officers can arrest people and take them to court for offences such as selling coconut water by the side of the road, why then do police have free rein to change the rules to accommodate themselves?
We of course extend our sympathies to the family, friends and colleagues of the fallen officer for their loss – just as we extend our sympathies to those who were not able to bend the rules.
COVID-19 will not turn away just because someone is wearing a uniform. This virus will not flinch at the sight of an officer’s badge. These rules are there to reduce the chances of the transmission of the virus. Every event such as this that exceeds the number of people gathered increases the chance of the virus spreading.
Commissioner Rolle asks what do you do if you arrive at a ceremony as an officer and find a large crowd: “Do you stop and run the people out?”
That’s not a question you should be asking, Commissioner. From the time the rule was put in place, you should know what action you should take – or else the rule isn’t worth the paper it is written on.
Don’t leave people feeling that there is one rule for them and a different one for others. Treat these emergency orders the same for everyone.