Definitions of “national interest” appear to be as numerous and varied as grains of sand on a beach. In the fast-paced, heavily contested, climate, terrorist, arms-race, greed-challenged 21st century, the “national interest” is a political and personal football that is being kicked about to the point of irreversible deflation. In the national interest game, the major players are generally the various decision-makers—mostly governmental and corporate—party politics, various special interest groups, such as the labour unions and a brand of public morality that is often a strange and often contradictory mixture of ill-digested bible verses and old wives’ tales.
Like Humpty-Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “national interest” and other such words are pressed into service to mean what we want them to mean, when we want them to, independently of real circumstances, time and space. We conjure them up to add weight to our arguments, so as to ensure that, in the end, the ball ends up in our goal-scoring area, no matter who or what else loses and no matter the cost.
It must be noted that this essay, when speaking to national interest, is not concerned with The Bahamas’ international profile and foreign policy, as is the most talked-about aspect of national interest. As a small, developing country, our foreign relations tend to be at the mercy or favour of larger, more powerful nations in their tennis game of geopolitics. This writing is concerned with the national interest from the domestic viewpoint; that is, matters that we can and must influence for our survival as a free and progressive people.
A series of comments reported in the media at the beginning of April made this discussion of how Bahamians interpret national interest in the latter sense unavoidable.
When it seemed impossible that the local unions could come up with anything more script worthy, I read in the first week of April that a five-day suspension without pay of a Water and Sewerage Corporation (WSC) trade union member prompted fellow members of the two WSC trade unions to withdraw their services in what they called a “withdrawal of enthusiasm”. Enthusiasm? Really?
What would government have to do to slake these newest union fires? Apparently, the intent was to bring the prime minister and the relevant minister to their senses and fire the WSC board chairman ‘post haste’. The unionists have accused corporation executives of attempting to minimize trade union influence. In support of their claim, they released a volley of big words to condemn the sins of the establishment—disrespect, intimidation, victimization and discrimination, while accepting no union responsibility for the fast-deteriorating status quo in the supply of an essential good.
An exasperated public, of which I am a member, learned that water supplies were cut off in several areas of New Providence recently. Not only were households inconvenienced, but no less than the Princess Margaret Hospital, Doctors Hospital, the Baha Mar resort and many businesses were impacted and prevented from making their necessary contributions to the national well-being.
Let’s consider the cost of this latest union gambit in three instances. The two major hospitals care for sick people, some of whom may be fighting for their lives, while Baha Mar is a major hospitality property servicing one of the best tourism seasons The Bahamas has enjoyed in some time. Anyone of sense can appreciate that water is vital in all three cases.
We next heard that the WSC executive was attributing the shutdown to deliberate tampering with major valves in the water distribution system. Did many Bahamians unassociated with WSC workers find this accusation extreme? Hardly likely, when the 2019 water woes seem an echo of an old, familiar, discordant song. It is one usually sung loudly by public utility workers engaged in disputes with their employers.
In January of 2018, for example, New Providence experienced another of the water failures that tend to manifest when WSC labour take issue with the corporation. At that time Bahamas Utilities Services and Allied Workers Union (BUSAWU) President Dwayne Woods said that the water pressure was just as low as employees’ morale.
From the same source, at another point, came similarly flippant statements in response to executive allegations of theft of corporation property. When denying that WSC employees were involved in industrial action, Mr Woods was reported as claiming “the workers were sick because the weather was cold” and employees “were stressed due to the unwarranted theft allegations”.
It is useful to view these and the recent union agitation in light of the WSC’s long history of insufficiency—to put it mildly. By March of 2017, audit results laid before the House of Assembly showed that WSC had, by then, accumulated a deficit of $147 million and continued to operate at a loss.
Now to consider the central matter of this essay—the national interest.
Eyewitness News Online has provided us valuable input in this regard. They reported the BUSAWU president as claiming, “We will not do anything to affect the general public or the populous (sic) of this country in that demeanor.” (The word is ‘populace’, good Sir)
Not unexpectedly, Progressive Liberal Party Chairman, Fred Mitchell inveighed against government for allowing matters to reach this pass and advised that the issues must be settled amicably in favor of the workers as soon as possible and in the interest of the people.
So, just what is the national interest or the interest of the Bahamian people? What mental scales are the union pundits and an opposition politician using to weigh cause and effect? Might their weights and measures not be a tad uncalibrated in this instance?
Sadly, they are not alone in the belief that the personal must always triumph over the common good, no matter how strained the legality or the justice of one’s personal claim may be. This seems to be the mindset of far too wide a segment of our population. Territoriality, rather than the long-term survival of the country, is the order of the day.
In the case of the unions, for the most part, it smacks of political realism and the pursuit of absolute power. It is an arena in which universal moral principles have little validity. Winning is the only propulsion, no matter the long-term damage to the economy, society or even the jobs and quality of life of the workers the unions purportedly serve.
Just the other day, the media reported the following hopeful statement from Water & Sewerage Corporation leaders: “The board of directors remains steadfast and hopeful of fostering a harmonious work environment; bring about real change in the public’s interest, and executing a reformist agenda. Gone are the days when it was business as usual.”
I congratulate the WSC directorate on their stance; it’s courageous. Taking a reformist stance in The Bahamas has nearly always meant losing political power. Happily, it has happened a few times to great national good—the freeing of broadcasting in the 1990s, for example. It must happen for our continuance, however. We can’t hope to put the new wine of progress into the old corrupt wineskins of special interests or unwieldy and unproductive ancient hierarchies and practices. Reform will require common aspiration for a good that embraces the greater good of the greatest number. Can we do it?