The National Debate: What We Know

Last night, The Bahamas witnessed its very first National Debate in a series of National Debates. It’s not easy to be the first to do something. You’re literally pioneering a path into nothingness, hoping for something, anything, to work. 

It’s exceptionally difficult to do something new in a young democracy like The Bahamas. In a community this small and a people so averse to airing their failures, certain things haven’t been done before. Generally speaking, being the first person to loudly and boldly position yourself as the forerunner allows you to dance delicately on a tightrope. It’s a balancing act of being innovative, forward-thinking and history-making while also battling mediocrity, ill-preparedness, and lack of awareness. The debate yesterday shone a very heavy and the brightest of lights on the latter of this waltz. This very-painful-to-watch waltz.

Last night’s debate was fodder for meme culture. Between learning that Martin Luther King Jr. apparently traveled in time to free the slaves, to learning that the answer to depression is less junk food, we’re probably well-stocked on national inside jokes for possibly the next 6 months. 

Beyond the clearly visible embarrassing moments of last night’s open mic standup however, here’s what else we learned: There is no political party in this country that is actively discussing policy in their ranks, and if they are, last night’s group was a poor excuse for their translation of said policy. 

This may be a bold claim but we saw this showcase itself in the way in which every single candidate on last night’s stage spoke. There was no question asked that was properly answered. What we learnt was that political parties in this country saw the National Debate as an extension of a party rally and no talking point went beyond the superficial soundbite of the mass rallies that these young people have been accustomed to attending. 

The Pandemic hasn’t lasted long enough for us to forget the groups of pensioners, taxi drivers and bus drivers that sit down in a McDonald’s and Wendy’s to discuss politics and the ways in which they would do things better. If you close your eyes you probably can envision the exact table they’re sitting at with several copies of “The Tribune” “The Punch” and “The Nassau Guardian” sprawled out among them. The clear-cut difference between a would-be Member of Parliament and someone discussing politics in Wendy’s and McDonald’s is the transition of  issues to action. Part of a politician’s job is to create policy solutions and translate ideas into action. At what point does your theory translate to policy and then translate to action?

Here’s why I’m disappointed.

With last night’s debate being the first in the series of National Debates, one in which my generation gets to participate, I didn’t feel properly represented by any of the youth candidates.

Last night we saw a disappointing extension of the flowery words we’ve grown accustomed to hearing during an election season. We heard surface-level answers to deep-rooted issues that every candidate should have been able to properly address on a national platform. I felt disappointed and for fear of sounding hyperbolic, betrayed. I saw women and men the same age as me adopt the methods of our parents and grandparents and the politicians that came before us in the hope of blinding us with a vision they themselves do not even have. 

As a millennial on the older side of youth, I thought I would hear a clarion call of other young people willing to not just reinvent the wheel, but to break it. Instead, last night we got a panel of ill-prepared candidates willing to keep the same spare tire that has been rolling around for decades and simply put a shiny new rim on it. This may sound harsh, but none of them represent me. 

Dr. Betsy Leimbigler once said “effective policy needs to be actionable. It needs to be feasible and there needs to be a plan. A roadmap.” She’s right and those roadmaps were sorely missing in the debate. In the coming series of debates, all viewers and voters need to be hyper-focused on the way each candidate utilizes the two minutes they are given to address their questions. It’s a simple notion but when you have a candidate fumble with the concept of expunging the records of citizens that have been incarcerated for minor possession of marijuana you’ll understand why this is the method that will separate the politicians from the changemakers.

The argument has been made by many who would have watched last night that we should applaud the young people that stood on stage and put themselves forward. Those that watched indicated that we should at the very least cut them a little bit of slack. It is this acceptance of mediocrity however, that has consistently put The Bahamas in dire straits. No one running for leadership of an entire Commonwealth should be given a free pass on criticism. Uncritical applause has never actually gotten us anywhere. Their bravery to face a nation should be commended, but their lack of preparedness in doing so left much to be desired.

There should not be a rush for one candidate in particular to claim victory over last night’s events and if there is, it is simply because the vessel on which every candidate was on crashed, sunk and left debris for any desperate soul to latch on to. 

My criticism is not personal and my political alignments remain neutral. If we’re going to partake in democratic practices that allow us to hold our representatives to a higher standard, then constructive criticism is a key part of what comes with that practice. 

Last night was the first National Debate this country has ever seen. I’m hoping to see future debates aired on all media platforms so that it may truly be National. I’m proud that something like this has happened within my lifetime and I’m excited to see where our next debate takes us.