The Minister for Grand Bahama, during the House of Assembly session last Wednesday, followed the government line as the Freedom of Information Bill was debated.
Acknowledging full support of the Freedom of Information Bill 2016, the Minister with responsibility for the Island of Grand Bahama, Dr. Michael Darville, sought to make his case for support to House colleagues and the Bahamian people at large.
He said that the proposed bill is yet another piece of legislation that demonstrates that “his Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government remains accountable and transparent.”
According to Darville, the bill which was highly debated, and researched and would be able to stand in any international arena.
“It is an honour and a privilege to once again rise in this honorable House on behalf of the wonderful people of Pineridge, to lend my support to the Freedom of Information Bill 2016. Over the last four and a half years, I have had the opportunity to be the voice, the defender and to represent them to the best of my ability and to speak on matters that are important to them, the residents of Grand Bahama and by extension the entire country.
“One of the hallmarks of a thriving democracy is a government that is accountable to the people whom they serve and operates in a manner that opens up the idea of being transparent and accountable to those we represent. Mr. Speaker, despite the noise in the market, I can stand to my feet and boast that this administration has one of the best records of openness, inclusiveness and I am proud that after much requests from civil society, special interest groups and the side opposite, we will, through this act, provide freedom of information, and further demonstrate our commitment to accountably and transparency.
“Whether it is negotiation of new concessions and business opportunities for the people of Grand Bahama, or the remobilization of resort projects in New Providence, or protecting the local communities from environmental hazards or ensuring that the public finances are properly spent, from day one, this government has always fully engaged the people of The Bahamas and ensured that they remained informed, educated about its spending and decision making.
“Today’s debate of the long talked about Freedom of Information Act is another clear example of this government’s continued commitment to accountability and transparency,” said Darville.
The MP for Pineridge pointed out that prior to the PLP taking office in 2012, the then governing party, the Free National Movement (FNM), had presented a similar piece of legislation He said however, that the document was poorly written and lacked substance, therefore after careful examination and consultation, it was removed by the Minister responsible for the Bill, Minister of Education, Science and Technology Hon. Jerome Fitzgerald.
“In early 2012, in the midst of criticism and mounting public pressure, due to the negligence and failed economic policies and wastage of public finances and mis-management of many projects, a desperate Free National Movement (FNM) sought to cover its tracks by presenting a piece of legislation referred to as the Freedom of Information Bill. I happened to be in the other place, and was a part of that debate surrounding that piece of legislation. Mr. Speaker, I remember it very well, because the members for Marathon (Fitzgerald), Sea Breeze (Hon Hope Strachan), Golden Isles (Hon. Michael Halkitis) and myself, along with the present Attorney General (AG) (Sen. Hon. Allyson Maynard-Gibson), demonstrated that this piece of legislation was inadequate.
“The Bill was critiqued as being sloppily written, filled with numerous inadequacies, countless errors and would have resulted in mass confusion, and potential legal challenges if it was enacted. I support the Member for Marathon, when he came into office as the Minister responsible for this Bill, to pull it immediately. We looked at it to see whether or not we could build upon it but it was so poorly drafted that we had to pull it and start from scratch. Nevertheless Mr. Speaker, when we came into office in summer 2012, this PLP administration, unlike the previous FNM administration, decided to take the time, and to get it right.”
He noted that professional expertise was sought, to assist in drafting the Bill, and ensure that the process was not contaminated by politics.
“We put it in the hands of the professionals and I stand to my feet today, to support them and to support the minister responsible for this piece of legislation, and to say that this piece of legislation is a well drafted piece of legislation. It may not be perfect, but it is well drafted and can stand the test of time and can actually stand up in any international arena.
“Over the past five years we decided to work methodically, and diligently to put together a practical piece of legislation, that was based on international standards. First and foremost, we engaged a mass public consultation with a wide cross section of civil society including those in local communities, local businesses, community leaders and activists. When this particular group was in Grand Bahama for town hall meetings, many of the politicians who represent the Island of Grand Bahama were not even present. They were so concerned with the Freedom of Information Bill that they were not there to demonstrate their interest by putting their input while the bill was being drafted. We set up meetings with experts as well as posted public town hall meetings where all interested citizens were afforded the ability to voice their thoughts and their concerns. We did this, taking our time, ensuring that we got it right the first time.”
“Mr. Speaker as a government committed to accountability and transparency, and one that demonstrates openness while engaging with our fellow citizens, we understand the responsibility that is necessary, by a government, to make these very important decisions. We also understand the public has a right to be informed and to have the information, but this must be done in a way that the rights of our citizens are respected and our nation’s security is never compromised. I am pleased therefore, that the provisions in this bill will ensure that their rights and the national security of our citizens are protected, by allowing information, in relation to confidential security defense, international relations, legal privilege, heritage sites, commercial affairs and interests and the government’s deliberative processes, reports that will result in prejudices with regards to the conduct of public affairs and records that would be endangering health and safety, and, sensitive personal data must be protected,” stated Darville.
Noting that the revised document allows for the appointment of an Information Commissioner, Darville shared that he is of the view that the bill was drafted in such a way to ensure that it reflects what is happening in other organizations and various boards throughout the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
“Today, after five years of work and effort, led by the Honorable Member for Marathon, I believe that we have successfully accomplished what we have set out to do. Today, in this Honorable House, we once again deepen our democracy and strengthen our resolve for open, honest, transparent, and accountable government by advancing this well drafted Freedom of Information Bill 2016, which is a Bill for an Act to give the public a general right to access records, held by public authorities and to make provisions for incidental and corrective purposes.
“This Bill, subject to the provision of this Act with the exception of an exempt record will grant the general right to access information, held by the public officials, to Bahamian citizens, permanent residents and bodies incorporated or registered under the laws of The Bahamas, partnerships and other un incorporated associations formed under the laws of The Bahamas, or persons who do not fall under the aforementioned categories but maintain within The Bahamas, an office, a branch or agency through which they carry out any business activity,” Dr. Darville continued.
He specified that those categorized individuals named within the provision of the bill, once enacted, will be able to apply for information by making their request in writing to the Information Manager who will then respond to the acknowledgement and receipt of the request and shall, within 30 days seek to honor the request.
“Mr. Speaker, knowledge is power and I am pleased therefore that there is no impediment to receiving information that will become available as a result of the enactment of this bill, as no fees should be charged by the public authority in respect to the request of an act of record and fees should only be applied in relation to reproducing on preparation of the record itself,” he further stated.
Dr. Darville pointed out that “when Bahamians elected this PLP government, in 2012, they did so trusting that we would not only deliver on our promises, clearly outlined in our Charter of Governance, but that we would do so in an honest, transparent and accountable manner. As we have already been doing over the last five years, today, we take one step further, to ensure, in an open and honest manner, that our laws are in alignment with other actions. We ensure that we continue to be open, honest, accountable and a transparent government for all of the people of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.”
He concluded by stating that over the past two years many special interest groups have been crying for the Freedom of Information Act, to which the PLP administration has been working diligently behind the scene to answer the call, which he is pleased, has happened.
Published Monday, February 6, 2017