Today, we will debate a ground-breaking Bill that will strengthen the operations of Parliament for the benefit of the Bahamian people. The Parliamentary Service Bill (2023) establishes a Parliamentary Service for the The Bahamas and creates a Parliamentary Service Commission, which will allow for a more independent and empowered Parliament.
There have been calls for such a Bill for many years. Having an independent parliament strengthens our democracy and allows for the work of the people to be performed more efficiently, effectively, and transparently.
These improvements are critical, because the more independent and productive the Parliament becomes, the more efficiently the government’s legislative agenda can be achieved. The ultimate beneficiaries of these improvements will be the Bahamian people – the ones to whom we are accountable for all that we do and the laws that we pass.
In our Blueprint for Change, this administration pledged to implement policies that bring about a “transformed Bahamas.” Our transformative and comprehensive vision for National Development Reforms, includes parliamentary reforms.
Now, we will deliver on that promised reform by facilitating the development of an autonomous and empowered Parliament.
The effects of this Bill will transcend party lines and administrations. Moving forward, every government administration and every opposition will benefit from our vision to enable the Parliament to have more agency in governing its affairs, making its own decisions, and ensuring that there are always enough resources on hand for the parliament to effectively complete its work.
The Parliamentary Services Bill (2023) represents perhaps the greatest reformatory measure introduced to the Parliament since Independence. This historic Bill begins a new chapter in the story of our Parliament – a story that began with the introduction of the Parliament on the 4th of March 1729, continued with the formation of the two houses of Parliament in the 1800s, and the convening of the first Parliament in a self-governing Bahamas in 1964.
In our Independent Constitution (1973), the Parliament as we know it was established by Chapter 5. And now, today, on the 26th of July, 2023, we are taking another major step in our Parliamentary history.
Many have clamoured and fought for this change and are now applauding the government for taking this much-needed step.
This week, I welcomed the opinions of past Speakers of the House who heaped praise on the government’s decision to table and move this Bill forward for debate. In a joint press statement, past Speakers Italia Johnson, Dr. Kendal Major, Alvin Smith, and Halson Moultrie, spoke in a unified voice across political aisles to endorse what they described as “an exciting and historic undertaking.”
If anyone understands the issues we are addressing, it is the past Speakers, many of whom openly spoke of the great need for an Independent Parliament during and after their tenures.
In their joint statement, they went on to support the timeliness of this Bill and its relevance to a citizenry that has increasingly demanded more transparency, accountability, and effectiveness, especially as it relates to the legislative process.
I thank these exemplary Bahamians for their past service and their continued advocacy for progress within the Parliament. Madam Speaker, I also recognise your efforts and continued advocacy for retaining the honour and respect for Parliament. I am sure that, as an advocate for Parliamentary reforms and a passionate nationalist, you are looking forward to the implementation of these changes as well. Thank you for your service and your efforts.
As we celebrate our Jubilee year, we must take steps toward greater transparency and accountability through the creation of an Independent Parliament for an Independent nation.
We are not alone in this effort. Throughout the region, many other nations are considering or have taken similar steps toward expanding the independence of their Parliaments. In fact, we have gone to great lengths to ensure that the Bill before us today represents the strongest aspects of regional laws to create an autonomous and modern Parliament.
For example, you can find the online publication of the Hansard and other relevant Parliamentary information in Belize, Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. We knew that this important expansion of access to information would have to be in our own legislation as well.
If you were to compare the Bill before us to just about any other Commonwealth jurisdiction, we have met or surpassed all of the standards related to developing an effective legislation for the empowerment of an independent Parliament. I encourage members of the public to review the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s recommendations on the development of Independent Parliaments and I think you will find that on virtually every measure we have met the mark.
This Bill is not the only step we are taking to strengthen our Parliament. As you know, we are currently developing plans for the building of a new Parliament building to serve the needs of a modern legislature through the provision of essential infrastructure, resources, and technology. This is yet another change that those advocating for greater Parliamentary efficiency and improved conditions have wanted to see for years. It is now happening under this administration.
On Monday of this week, we passed a Resolution for The Bahamas to join the Inter-Parliamentary Union – yet another step toward a stronger Parliament.
Through membership in the IPU, our Parliament and parliamentarians gain access to a network of 179 member Parliaments working together for progress. This is yet another critical step being taken by this administration to empower our Parliament and modernise its operations as we mature as a nation. In fact, The Bahamas is one of only about seven eligible nations who had not yet joined the IPU. This is perplexing because there are so many apparent benefits and not really any downside to joining. There is no reason why we had not joined until now, but this administration is correcting that oversight. I thank the member for Golden Gates for her role in leading the charge to join the IPU.
The first strategic objective of the IPU is to build effective parliaments through the empowerment of parliaments and parliamentarians to operate freely – an objective which perfectly complements the steps we are taking with the Bill before us today.
Other IPU objectives include:
· Promoting more inclusive and representative Parliaments;
· Supporting resilient and innovative parliaments through technology; and
· Strengthening parliamentary accountability.
These are all objectives that are in line with the Bill before us today and reflective of core values of this PLP administration – we will always be supportive of any measures to make government more inclusive, effective, and accountable.
It just so happens that the current number one policy focus of the IPU is climate change. This is naturally due to the existential threat that climate change poses to the entire world. The IPU has adapted to the times and placed climate change front and centre, and The Bahamas will now be a part of that ongoing conversation.
As a small island developing state, if we don’t speak up, we will most certainly be ignored. We cannot afford to be small AND quiet. Through our efforts, we have amplified our voice and will continue to speak up, because it won’t be said that when faced with the destructive threat of climate change, The Bahamas did not seek every option available to safeguard our country and our people. Whatever the outcome of the global effort, let it be said that we exhausted every avenue at our disposal.
And we will continue to expand our influence in the world as we advocate for our national priorities. IPU membership is another channel through which we will influence the global dialogue.
The steps we are taking are part of an integrated and comprehensive strategy for national development. So much of the work we do as a government – the policies and initiatives we launch – are supported by the legislative work we do in Parliament. Parliament sits at the intersection of it all. Creating a more efficient, effective, and transparent Parliament ultimately improves the performance of government.
I note the Opposition’s support of the resolution to join the IPU on Monday, and I would be surprised not to hear words of support during today’s debate. I would hope that as they use the time allotted today, they would at least take a moment to acknowledge the important step forward this administration is taking with the Parliamentary Services Bill.
Hopefully, at least for a moment, they will place national advancement before the need to score political points and demonstrate their support for an independent and empowered Parliament.
I encourage the opposition to follow the lead of mature political figures, like past speaker Italia Johnson, in recognising the merits of this Bill and not give in to the temptation to let this historic moment be overshadowed in their contributions by the impulse to focus on negativity and divisiveness.
That is my hope, Madam Speaker, for a mature and productive debate on the merits of the Bill before us. I am also hoping for a sense of historical context and self-awareness from opposition members who, just two years ago, bore witness to the greatest power grab by the Executive Branch of government in Bahamian history through the extended Emergency Orders led by the Competent Authority.
It would be in very poor taste to have remained silent during that attack on democracy and freedom under the previous administration, but now speak up loudly in criticising this administration as we take steps toward greater democracy, transparency, and accountability.
So, I hope, that the opposition’s contributions are relevant, fair, and balanced by historical truth.
The reason why the Parliamentary Service Bill (2023) is universally hailed as a historic move is because of the widespread changes it will usher into the Parliament. The newly formed Parliamentary Service will be managed by an independent Parliamentary Commission, which will also oversee the funding and financial management of Parliament.
This Bill establishes the objectives of the Parliamentary Service, inclusive of the creation of the Parliamentary Service and the Commission; the generation of revenue by the Senate and House of Assembly; the promotion of accountability and transparency by the Public Accounts Committee, and, very critically, the promotion of education, technology, and citizen participation in the democratic process.
I am fully supportive of any measure in which we can include Bahamian citizens, equip them with more knowledge, enhance their understanding and engagement with Parliament, and expand democracy.
This Bill also outlines the functions of the Parliamentary Service, which includes the position of Clerk, as well as other staff and officers working directly under the Service.
The staff complement will consist of necessary clerical staff, maintenance staff, security staff, advisory services for the President of the Senate, Speaker of The House, Members of Committees, and members of the Senate and the House with the exception of those who serve as Cabinet Ministers – this exception ensures that the proper separation of powers is maintained in accordance with the objectives of this Bill.
There will also be a parliamentary reporting division, consisting of the Parliamentary Channel, as well as the Hansard.
Under this Bill, there is very specific criteria indicating that the officers and staff of the Parliamentary Service will be independent, apolitical, and non-partisan, and that every member of the Senate and House of Assembly shall respect and honour the apolitical nature of the Parliamentary Service and not seek to influence the employees of the services in the discharge of their duties.
It is critical that we preserve the independence of Parliament, and this Bill speaks to the obligation of all parties involved to work in accordance with that objective and not seek to undermine what we are setting out to achieve.
The Parliamentary Service Commission will be established to provide the resources and support necessary for the Parliamentary Service to do its work; as well as make recommendations on the salaries and allowances for parliamentarians; determine staffing needs; establish a contributory pension scheme; provide necessary services for staff; manage the parliament’s financial and administrative affairs; and promote the principles of good governance, the separation of powers, and the rule of law, among other duties.
The Commission will appoint a clerk who, supported by a Deputy Clerk, will function as the Chief Executive Officer, as well as the Financial and Accounting Officer of the Commission. This Clerk will be a person who has a minimum of ten years of service in the parliamentary service – this ensures that the candidate is experienced and will never be someone appointed solely based on social or political connections. They must also hold a recognised Bachelor of Laws degree in addition to the experience requirement.
In lieu of these qualifications, they can have twenty years of experience and serve as acting Clerk for more than 12 months. They will not be eligible if they have served a sentence on conviction of a criminal offence or have contested an election for political office within five years of the appointment. In other words, they must have a clean criminal record, and they must not be actively involved in frontline politics.
The Commission will be comprised of:
· The Speaker of the House of Assembly as Chairman;
· The President of the Senate;
· The Deputy Speaker;
· Six members nominated by Government; and
· Four Members nominated by the Opposition.
· The Clerk will serve as Secretary to the Commission.
As you can see by the composition of the Commission, the objective is to create a fair and balanced body comprised of relevant stakeholders who will ensure that the work of the Parliamentary Service is carried out as intended.
The Commission will meet a minimum of once every quarter and may invite other Parliamentarians to participate in meetings as necessary. Decisions are made by a majority vote, and the commission also has the ability to appoint its own committees to take on specific functions.
There is mandatory disclosure of interest for anyone who has personal interests or who has a relative or associate with interests in the proceedings.
Unauthorised disclosures of information related to the work and proceedings of the Commission are prohibited under this Bill and subject to a fine of not more than $50,000, imprisonment of not more than one year, or both.
And, of course, the Commission will provide a detailed report on its activities and operations each year, as well as audited financial statements. Operational and financial transparency are built into the legislation.
So, Madam Speaker, as you can see, this Bill is thorough, it ensures that the proper transparency and accountability measures are in place, and it assures the Commission and the Bahamian public that the intent of this legislation will be fulfilled through the implementation and enforcement of this legislation.
I know there may be some concern about the funding of the Parliamentary Service and the Commission.
Under this Bill, the Commission and Parliamentary Service will be funded by Parliament. But there will also be opportunities for grants, donations and the raising of funds through the provision of services.
Ultimately, by giving the Parliamentary Service the ability to raise funds apart from any direct government funding, we will seek to alleviate costs and further preserve the independence of Parliament by allowing for independent funding sources. This will be encouraged, as any steps towards self-sustainment would be beneficial to all parties involved.
The Commission will take care of all recruitment and staffing needs, and will have the ability to recruit from the Public Service. There is a provision to ensure that any members of the public service who transition to the Parliamentary Service will receive salaries, pensions, gratuities, and allowances that are no less favourable than those granted to public servants.
With these reforms come a number of changes to the Hansard in the Senate and the House, as we seek to modernise and expand access to information. The live broadcasts and recording of debates will continue via the Parliamentary Channel. Any recordings will be made available within two hours of suspension or adjournment of debates and proceedings.
Every debate and proceeding will be recorded and published verbatim. Digital copies will be made available so that members of the public will have access to word-for-word transcripts and recordings. There will also be educational and public engagement initiatives launched to enhance citizen knowledge and engagement with the work of Parliament.
Delivering better governance through enhanced transparency and efficiency forms a major component of this administration’s mandate. Through the Parliamentary Service Bill (2023), we are delivering enhanced transparency and efficiency at every level of operations for the Senate and the House of Assembly.
We will create a more efficient and independent parliament to strengthen democracy and improve governance.
The Parliamentary Service Bill (2023) moves us closer to our goals of maximising operational efficiency and transparency while getting Bahamians more engaged with the principles and levers of democracy that make our nation what it is today.
As we move forward with today’s debate, let’s do so knowing that the very process we are engaged in will be forever changed by the Bill before us.
As always, it is an honour to represent the beautiful people of Cat Island, Rum Cay, and San Salvador. I look forward to a progressive and spirited debate.
Thank you, Madam Speaker.