Small Island States shouldn’t be forced to pay the price for Australia’s high carbon “lifestyle choice”

Vanuatu Cyclone Pam

Australia is one of the world’s top carbon emitters and its Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is increasingly isolated globally in his staunch defense of the status quo. Highlighting his hypocrisy, the Vanuatu disaster is a prime example of what’s at stake if he refuses to budge.

.Digital.Disclosure./ ALISON LOWE

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — As Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott surveys the wreckage of Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam, he would do well to think hard about how his high carbon “lifestyle choice” for Australia contributes to the tragedy – a situation in which most of the island nation’s population have been left homeless.

Having stoked outrage last week when he suggested the Australian government should not “endlessly subsidise the lifestyle choices” of Aboriginal people, Vanuatu now demonstrates why Abbott would have done us all a favour by instead applying this misplaced logic to his dangerous stance on climate change.

For in his conclusion about paying your way for costly “preferences”, he could just as easily be driving home the case for why neither Australians nor vulnerable small island nations like Vanuatu and The Bahamas, my country of birth, should be put on the hook financially for the policy decisions of the Abbott government.

Taxpayers in developing countries like mine, already facing a myriad of complex challenges, cannot easily afford to respond to the disastrous and well-documented externalities of the type of high carbon growth strategy that Abbott irrationally clings to.

By blindly expecting our small island states to pick up the ongoing recovery and re-development tabs that will result from more frequent and intense cyclones and sea level rise that go hand in hand with his policy choices, it is the Prime Minister who is demanding an unreasonable subsidy for his unfair lifestyle choice.

As a gesture that apparently recognises the moral duty of a wealthier, developed country towards a poorer and more vulnerable neighbour, Australia’s offer of $5 million in aid and disaster relief is better than nothing.

But by tipping a hat towards this principle, it primarily serves to highlight the gaping divide between what is, and what should be, as far as Abbott’s commitment to grappling with Australia’s disproportionate contribution to the root of the problem.

To many who feel the brunt of Abbott’s approach, it is likely to appear akin to offering someone a headache pill as you defend poisoning their water well.

U.N. chief Ban Ki Moon recently described climate change as, “intensifying the risks for hundreds of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states and coastal areas” – risks such as those now illustrated with horrifying magnitude in Vanuatu.

And as former New Zealand Prime Minister and U.N. development bank chief, Helen Clark, put it at the UN’s world conference on disaster risk reduction, underway in Japanwhen the cyclone struck: “Unless we tackle climate change on the global level we are making the task of building resilience to disasters almost impossible.” So much for $5 million.

There is a strong argument for maintaining remote Aboriginal communities – which, much more than simply a “lifestyle choice” like whether to join the gym, reflect a traditional way of life and an ancient connection to the land.

It is a similar sort of arguments as to why islanders of countries like Vanuatu and The Bahamas would like to remain there, rather than becoming climate refugees (as some already have), likely looking to countries like Australia for refuge when they are forced to leave their homes.

But the Abbott government’s polluting approach to economic growth is indefensible on any level. It is also one that threatens to export Australia’s problems all over the world.

Abbott is increasingly isolated in his stance. He has a duty to change course.

Aboriginal communities may be remote, but it is Abbott’s chosen approach to climate change that is truly “out there,” and set to cost us all dearly.

“Not a corrupt country!”? Let us see for ourselves

The government should act on longstanding calls for openness rather than patronising the public when it comes to corruption. Transparency International’s methodology falls short in its failure to acknowledge our governments’ lack of transparency.

.Digital.Disclosure. / ALISON LOWE

“The Bahamas is not a corrupt country!”, the government declared in an emailed release to the media this week. It came after the publication of Transparency International’s index which ranked the Bahamas in the best 14 percent of countries for its “perceived” levels of corruption, and therefore among the least corrupt countries in the world.

When I received this email from the government’s chief information officer, with a note from the Minister of National Security adding that, “it is a shame our media outlets only wish to publicize and promote negative reports on The Bahamas”, I grimaced. Besides the hypocrisy of it in a month when other international organisations, Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, have been dismissed as ill-informed after criticising the government, an index designed to discourage corruption is now being used to laud our less-than-stellar status quo in this respect.

Don’t get me wrong; The Bahamas is indeed a lot less corrupt than many other places in the world. I have traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam, where public officials ask poor citizens for hefty bribes in the street. But “not a corrupt country”? That’s pushing it; quite far in fact.

The Problem With ‘Perception’

The challenge is that Transparency International’s well-intentioned methodology is just not nuanced enough to show that the “perception” it measures can be quite far removed from reality. To become aware of something we must first have in place the tools to do so. The Bahamas is not well set up, institutionally or culturally, to “perceive” corruption or act upon it.

We lack a Freedom of Information Act, transparent and fair public procurement rules outlining how the government spends public money to buy goods and services, protection for whistleblowers who reveal corruption, or campaign financing laws that would require political parties to disclose election contributions.

While it might be nice to imagine ourselves the only country in the world that just does the right thing without needing such legislation, what is more likely is that because of their absence we are simply failing to identify, or overlooking, corrupt acts. This state of affairs has also contributed to our laxity in enforcing the laws that we do have; there has never been a conviction under the 1976 Prevention of Bribery Act.

Sense and Sensibility

But the red flags are there. Just look at the many decisions in our country that don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense if we are trying to decipher the public interest. In 2012 and 2013 the government spent a lot of time drafting, debating, and passing legislation to allow for stem cell treatment. While such a bill could lead to some new business for certain specific individuals who lobbied for it both overtly and covertly, we later discovered, the benefit is unlikely to be felt broadly.

Meanwhile, the government sidetracks the more obviously beneficial agendas of well-established groups, such the Bahamas Contractors Association; groups who have been pushing for “their” legislation for decades, legislation that could clearly impact many Bahamians in a positive way.

Some developers’ projects and permits move exceedingly quickly through opaque approval systems, and elicit complaints that developers are being allowed to run roughshod over environmental standards, while others’ proposals languish for years. These nonsensical scenarios all point to a certain way of doing  business.

Corruption is all the more likely when a public sector is often inefficient and frustrating, when everyone knows everyone, and there is a history of disregarding or downplaying it, as it is in The Bahamas. In these circumstances, we are more inclined to take it easy on those who transgress, or to transgress ourselves, doing “favours” for “friends and lovers”. This may or may not be “for private gain” in a monetary sense, but it is still corruption. Improper “gain” can come in many forms.

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

And so with the information officer’s email, the words “The lady doth protest too much” came to mind. This email did, after all, come in a year when the government had to defend itself in the face of a U.S. State Department report which spoke of improper “interventions” by Bahamian government officials in investment decisions and complaints by U.S. companies about the same. That report was met with strident denials by the government and attempts to vilify its authors.

It also came in a year when the prime minister openly admitted personally stepping in to stop tax official Ishmael Lightbourne, from having his home repossessed over unpaid debts to a local bank. Other politicians jumped to the prime minister’s defense. In fact, so did many members of the public.

Inconsistency

It is not that Transparency International generally ignores the importance of access to information and its role in relation to corruption. It makes much on its website of what is necessary to discourage, unveil and root it out. Top of the list? Public access to information.

“In the fight against corruption, information is a powerful weapon. And when it’s not freely accessible, the corrupt can get away with hiding evidence of their crimes. That’s why it is vital that governments around the world put robust laws in place to enable citizens to get the information they need to hold their leaders to account.”

“It is an important part of Transparency International’s work to first, advocate for strong access to information laws globally and second, ensure they’re properly implemented so that citizens can exercise their right to know safely and effectively.” Yet in announcing its findings, its index ignores the fact that the public in The Bahamas are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to “perceiving” the most insidious forms of corruption.

We Are All Adults Here

So rather than declare that “The Bahamas is not a corrupt country!”, we should recognise that we must still strive to minimise corruption by changing how we behave and making our legal framework less friendly to it. We’re not there yet – not even close. Getting there will take effort from each and every one of us.

Transparency International should review their methodology. We should all consider how small or large “favours” we might seek or give contribute to corruption and hold The Bahamas back from development that benefits society more broadly.

Most importantly, the government should act rather than patronising the public with declarations that we are corruption free and criticising the media for doing their jobs. We are all adults here.

If we are so squeaky clean, then why not do what no government has to date had the guts to do: have full and frank disclosure and let us see for ourselves? Pass a Freedom of Information Act to give us access to what we have a right to know, and protect whistleblowers. Pass a campaign finance law. Reform public procurement. And while you’re at it, undo the bureaucratic roadblocks that cause corruption to fester and enforce the laws we have on the books. I’d happily receive an email gloating about that any day of the week. Denying corruption exists for the sake of public relations – or taking someone else’s word for it – does no one any good in the long run.

Comments? Leave feedback in the form at the bottom of this post or send an email to digitaldisclosurebahamas@gmail.com.

 

The ‘Original Sin’ of the Haitian-Bahamian?

Morality, empathy and immigration

.Digital.Disclosure. / ALISON LOWE 

The Bahamian government has won praise for its immigration initiative at home but disturbing questions remain about how it fits with what is moral, what is legal, and what is economically and socially beneficial. The move highlights the startling xenophobia and lack of empathy surrounding Haitians and those of Haitian descent.

Those who have taken issue include Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell has claimed there is no evidence that Haitians are being “rounded up”, mistreated, or denied access to due process. He said criticisms that the policy and its deployment are inhumane are based on “misinformation” or the trumped up claims of pro-Haitian activists. Some have reveled in telling international organisations to, effectively, “stick it”.

We seem happy to let this one slide with no local scrutiny, happy that “something is being done” about an over-growth in immigrants. We should not be so quick to do so. While the government says claims of “round ups” have not been proven, it is what they admit in black and white that highlights the problem.

In a September 17th speech to the House of Assembly on the issue, Mitchell said: “Those people who have been born here will get a particular residence permit which will allow them to work and live here until such time as their status pursuant to any application (for citizenship) under the terms of the constitution is decided.”

He then went on to add: “This will not apply to the children of those who are here illegally.”

In The Tribune on October 24, Mitchell said: “If you are here lawfully in the Bahamas, born in the Bahamas lawfully, you should get the passport of your citizenship and you will get a resident stamp to live in the Bahamas.” The government minister had previously confirmed that children born in the Bahamas to illegal migrants “will be deported with their parents”.

The Bahamian constitution states that, “Any person born in The Bahamas after 9th July 1973 neither of whose parents is a citizen of The Bahamas shall be entitled, upon making application on his attaining the age of eighteen years or within twelve months thereafter in such manner as may be prescribed, to be registered as a citizen of The Bahamas”.

There is no statement within this law about this right applying only to those who were “born lawfully” in the country.

There is a serious need for more effective immigration policies and enforcement. But in its approach to those who have been born in The Bahamas to undocumented parents, The Bahamian government is exercising its power to dehumanise those of Haitian descent, enforcing a view that they are simply “wrong from birth”.

This is a position which can only be maintained if we accept that they are guilty for their parents’ transgressions; if we believe they are subject to a type of “original sin”.

The government has confirmed it plans to deport the children born in The Bahamas to migrants without legal status. PHOTO: Alex Penwill.

The government has confirmed it plans to deport children born in The Bahamas to migrants without legal status. PHOTO: Alex Penwill.

DOES ‘MIGHT MAKE RIGHT’?

In the New York Times, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of The Ethics of Immigration, Joseph Carens, claimed recently in an interview about President Barack Obama’s immigration initiative that there are several distinct questions which are often confused in the debate over this issue. Among them: who has the authority to decide who gets to enter and remain in a country? And is their decision morally acceptable?

Assuming the citizens of a country do have a moral and legal right to determine who they let into their country, the award-winning professors added: “Someone can have the right to make a decision and still make a decision that is morally wrong”.

Carens argues that “quite apart” from the question of who should be admitted and if they can remain, there is the question of how you treat those already there.

“Living and working in a society makes immigrants members of that society over time, even if they arrived and settled without permission. This is clearest for those who arrived as young children… they can’t be blamed for coming here because they were only children when they arrived. So it would be morally wrong to kick them out.”

“We should recognize them, too, as members of society and give them legal status,” he said.

WRONG ON A MORAL AND PRACTICAL LEVEL

In its treatment of children born to those without status The Bahamas’ new immigration policy is unfair and counterproductive. It suggests that the best a child born to illegal parents in The Bahamas can hope for is to leave the country and come back when they are 18 to lodge an application. Even if this right is honoured: would we prefer to have people applying for citizenship who have been living in, assimilating into, gaining the values and appreciation of our country, or people who have been forced out, only to come back? Many of those who would be affected by this policy have already been going to our schools, using our resources – should we not capitalise on that, in turn allowing them to reap the benefits of having done so in our own country?

The alternative is for them to go into hiding in The Bahamas. Perhaps they drop out of school, never present themselves to a health clinic, just to avoid being forcibly sent to a country where they have never lived. Or maybe if they have the means they will get a lawyer and sue. Either way, we shoot ourselves in the foot, economically, socially and legally.

Ethics aside, the lack of logic and forethought is demonstrated by questions generated. For example: what if the parents obtained legal status after the birth? What if one parent is or was legally residing here, and the other not? What if their status at the time was simply not recorded? None of this is addressed. Anyone in this position must be confused and frustrated at least, and at worst, vulnerable to abuse. Meanwhile, the government has yet to provide any statistics suggesting how many people  this policy will impact. Exactly how many children are there in this position?

If we are going to change the rules, we should at least be clear on what those rules are: provide some clarity so that those affected can do what is now considered right. And we should back up our thinking with data.

“IT’S ALL ABOUT EMPATHY”

Much wrong can be done out of a lack of empathy.

On listening to a recent radio interview on the Ferguson, MO. killing by police of Michael Brown and the subsequent grand jury decision, Mark Mathabone, South African author of Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid, said the crime and grand jury response boiled down to a lack of empathy between races in U.S. society.

“Michael Brown was never provided a context. He was dehumanised, and now we are rounding up the usual suspects for the post-mortem.

“It’s all about empathy. Michael Brown could have been my kid, or anyone’s kid, so let’s feel his humanity,” he urged.

Without developing this empathy for those whose “contexts” we do not understand, or chose not to, Mathabone said, “America will eventually self-destruct.”

“I’ve been to the ghettos, I’ve been to the prisons, and I’ve seen the future there dying.”

Some might say he could have been speaking of The Bahamas..

Perhaps we are legitimately angry at those who we see breaching our laws. But this goes both ways. Like President Obama, the Bahamian government should accept that its own failure to create effective immigration-related policies to date leaves it with responsibility to bear to the innocent children of those who have already come and remained for many years. What we do after that is up for debate.

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