•Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column 'Front Porch' is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prime Minister Ingraham faces a thick patch of thorny questions amidst a severe economic crisis as the run-up to the 2012 general election approaches with what may initially be a gradual and sluggish recovery.
His Government’s answers to a riddle of policy and political questions might be best communicated in a series of near-term events. One of these events, the 2009/10 budget is a set piece of political drama and policy choices.
But there other discretionary events of which the Prime Minister may take advantage to communicate to the Bahamian people the values which underpin and the vision which animates his daily decisions, as well as the grounds on which he may contest the next election, due in three years.
In addition to the budget presentation and possible adjustments to his cabinet soon thereafter, other events within the Prime Minister’s power also afford him significant opportunities to inform and inspire.
While the form and protocol of these events are important, the substance and tone of the messages delivered on such occasions are of greater significance, especially amidst lost jobs, lost homes, lost dreams, lost businesses, lost savings, and other losses of faith and hope.
The Bahamian people have a torrent of questions for the Prime Minister and his ministers. They want public officials to explain the severity of the crisis and give their best judgement about how long it might last. They want to be fully informed regarding the strategy for recovery.
And, they want to be inspired. In addition to seeking strength through their religious faith, family ties and community associations, they want to know that our political leaders truly understand their daily struggles, their anxieties and their fears.
On various occasions the Prime Minister has formally addressed the country on the currents of this crisis, marshalling the facts and figures while introducing a variety of programmatic and policy responses.
Meanwhile, the FNM remains stuck in an old bad habit: a failure to communicate consistently and effectively its considerable accomplishments, vision, story, and -- passion. Though public relations without competence can be politically disastrous, competence without good public relations is hazardous.
The best communicators -- whether in politics or religion, whether individuals, organizations or countries -- are storytellers with a compelling narrative that captures public imagination and personal loyalty.
The PLP is often a better storyteller than the FNM, whether in government or opposition. There is a unifying theme that binds the PLP’s public communications as the party of majority rule, independence and social justice, while the FNM often bills itself as the party of competence.
But there is a great deal more to the FNM story, and the current crisis offers an opportunity to rethink and fine-tune its master narrative. Today, Mr. Ingraham has multiple opportunities to link current events with longer-term goals underpinned by enduring principles.
US President Obama is famously effective in this regard, reluctant to waste a crisis, consistently linking his policy announcements with larger goals beyond the issues of the day.
He did so in his State of the Union and again in a recent economic address at Georgetown University, explaining the contours of the current crisis, detailing actions he has taken and future plans, with a view to how his plans will lead to recovery and eventually a stronger America.
Though Mr. Obama has toned down the poetry of the campaign, there is a compelling narrative thread and there are recurring themes in his public pronouncements. In highlighting the heroism and struggles of average citizens he reminds Americans that the crisis at hand is primarily about people and the potential loss of the American Dream for millions.
Moreover, even high school students are aware of Mr. Obama’s oft-repeated core goals such as universal health care, energy independence and education reform, and his relentless invocation of the virtue of responsibility, both individual and social.
Since its re-election, the FNM has significantly increased social assistance to various groups, launched a temporary employment scheme benefitting thousands, instituted a contributory unemployment benefit, and indicated its intention to introduce an initial prescription drug benefit and a national retraining programme.
Well and good. But how are these initiatives related? What are the underlying principles linking one to another and collectively to a broader vision regarding the type of country we want to become? What are the connections between economic advancement and social development?
The thousands these safety nets and springboards serve are not simply mass figures for a budget presentation. They are also individual stories and symbols such as a discharged hotel worker who is also a single mother learning a new skill while maintaining her dignity and keeping her head above water because of a variety of temporary social assistance programmes.
The FNM’s often defensive posture when challenged on matters related to social justice are not the fault of others, including the PLP. It is the fault of a party, whether in or out of government, that often fails to effectively communicate in compelling language beyond facts and figures its demonstrated commitment to the social welfare and the social development of Bahamians.
If you don’t communicate your accomplishments, nobody else will. Moreover, the story they might tell may be of their liking, not yours. If Mr. Ingraham tweaks his cabinet portfolios near the second anniversary of his return to office, he should link those changes to the current crises, and as he did in last year’s shuffle, to long-term objectives.
But those objectives should not simply be stated in the form of projects to be accomplished. They might also be communicated as key national goals linked to the principles which have animated Mr. Ingraham’s public service of over 30 years, including good governance, environmental protection, democratic freedom, economic development and social security and cultural development.
Moreover, during his budget presentation, the Prime Minister might offer a broader narrative regarding the depth of the crisis ahead, the successes of programmes instituted since the crisis began, measures coming on stream in the short and intermediate term, and the country’s resilience in past crises.
But because the budget is also a moral document, representing the values and priorities of the country, the Prime Minister may want to speak to how the public purse must be balanced with the compelling personal needs of ordinary Bahamians, connecting broader facts and figures to the daily struggles of individuals, families and businesses, large and small.
When the Minister of Finance introduces his next budget it should of necessity be a mixture of detailed analysis, civics lesson and sermon, weaving together the prose and poetry for which Bahamians are hungry.