Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fixing the Education System

Fixing our education system is a necessary priority. With the dedicated members of the Board of Education, the enthusiasm of Education Minister Jennifer Smith, and no shortage of resources, we are well poised to rehabilitate this ailing system. We will get nowhere, however, unless some tough yet necessary decisions are made and within a timetable that suggests urgency.

To begin with, we need to know what the skill sets and competencies are for all students, particularly for English and mathematics. Private school students need to be tested alongside public school students for this to be realised. Under the Education Act, the Minister of Education has the power to require this testing but not a single Minister has ever done so. We need this information to know how are students are doing and to identify the appropriate intervention modalities. 

It may be that the Cambridge Curriculum, now adopted by the public schools and a number of private schools, can provide the basis for a common test. Alongside this we need to cease the Terra Nova test, immediately.Every year teachers expend valuable time preparing students for a useless exam at considerable cost to the taxpayer that does not measure student ability. It merely measures their performance against “similar” groups of students in the United States, a country which has been underperforming in this area for a generation. 

The most important academic influence on a student is likely to be their teacher. It is remarkable how the concern or lack thereof exhibited by a teacher can so dramatically influence a student’s development. I saw this when I was a student; and I saw the infectious enthusiasm of so many teachers at West Pembroke Primary when my three sons attended. But for every three or four dedicated teachers who work hard to educate our young people, we have one teacher who should not be in the system; they lack drive, disrespect or resent students, and seem more concerned about the vacation schedule than student performance. Teachers and principals already know who these teachers are and they need to be expelled. 

Principals are the education leaders on the ground. They set the tone for schools in terms of standards, discipline and overall performance. Rather than have principals spend a great deal of time in meetings with fellow principals, Ministry staff and others, they should be largely left alone to run their schools based on a set of goals agreed by them and the Ministry. Annual assessments should be made based on the extent to which the clearly measurable goals have been met and decisions taken accordingly. As with teachers, underperforming principals, for the sake of our students, should not be allowed to continue as principals. 

Any serious effort to radically improve our education system has to take a hard look at the Ministry itself. Our challenge here is not that there are resource constraints with respect to allocation; rather we have a challenge regarding resource obfuscation.While I am confident every penny can be properly accounted for, I share the view of many in believing too much is spent on too many for which there is little to show. We could shave the education budget by 20 percent, reduce the staff by 20 percent and there would be no discernable impact on student performance. The challenge for the Ministry is to redirect its efforts in a tangible way toward student success and to shed its excess. 

Before we restructured our public education system in the mid-1990s, the biggest criticism was that it was elitist, pushing a minority of students to professional qualifications and relegating the majority to either technical or unskilled jobs. Our challenge today is far more complex and the consequences of not getting it right far more onerous. It is a challenge we have not succeeded at for 15 years and we do not have time on our side. As we look to the Ministry of Education to lead on education, and rightly so, we must too see what role we can play. After all, we all will share in its success.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Getting Beyond Reefer Madness

If we are to make progress and reduce the harm caused by drugs to our community, we must rethink current policy.

Even casual observers know that the damage caused by substance abuse extends far beyond the user and affects one's family and workplace, is responsible for numerous traffic accidents and exerts a considerable cost on society through treatment and prisons. The illicit drug trade has likely exceeded $200 million in sales and a large portion of this is marijuana. 

Let us consider a more effective marijuana policy. I do not support either legalisation or decriminalisation and I am pleased the sensible voters in California rejected a proposition to legalise its use. My objection in this respect has little to do with moral outrage and everything to do with health: smoking anything is simply not good for you. No government that cares about its people should want to validate the use of something that is so clearly destructive. 

I remain unimpressed with the argument that legalisation takes the profit out of the trade; and that it will generate money for government through taxes. It is far more important to think about the example being set for impressionable young people, some of whom already consider it normal to get high on ganja, influenced as they are by the power of parental practice. 

Further, I am unmoved by the juvenile juxtaposition of alcohol's legality and marijuana's illegality. The research is clear: moderate amounts of alcohol consumption can actually enhance one's health, notwithstanding the conclusions just reached by the UK Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. There is no discernable health benefit in smoking weed, although it does ease the pain for some chronically ill patients. And let us be clear, the proponents of marijuana's legalisation do not want to get into the production of hemp shirts. A critical question here is whether or not any use constitutes abuse. 

Efforts should continue on the interdiction side to reduce supply even though the challenges are great. Many jurisdictions estimate they seize less than ten percent of illegal drugs coming in. With new technology, however, there will likely be an increase in seizures and in turn we will see more traffickers brought before the courts. 

However, it is also clear that more harm than good is done by giving people criminal records for possession of marijuana for personal use. Many lives of young people have been adversely affected by this and it has sent far too many on a downward spiral. We should move immediately to end the practice of giving people criminal records for possessing marijuana for personal use. The police could confiscate but not charge. Doing this would be consistent with a harm-reduction approach to drug policy. 

Greater emphasis needs to be placed on demand reduction strategies. Relevant messages communicated to specific audiences – young people, in particular – have the potential of being more effective in the long run than the heavy hand of the law. Media campaigns based on scare tactics simply do not work. We have to first listen and better understand young people before we can begin communicating with them meaningfully on this issue. If we can lower demand we will have made progress. The use of cigarettes has declined steadily since aggressive campaigns were launched in the 1970s; it is no longer fashionable and smokers are increasingly marginalised. Regrettably, cigarette manufacturers are now focused on pushing cigarettes on poor children in poor countries. 

Twenty years ago I had the pleasure of working with Cal Ming, then Executive Director of the National Alcohol and Drug Agency and David Archibald, the UN drug expert, Bermuda Royal Commissioner examining drugs and author of Bermuda's National Drug Strategy report. Concrete steps were taken within the framework of a harm-reduction model and a measure of success was attained. This was an era when the commitment to doing something about our drug problem was palpable. Today we are beset with a seeming inertia rooted in complacency. We need to overcome this. Let us recommence by addressing marijuana policy first and then move on to greater challenges.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Our Political System Broken?

Every so often there is a call for Bermuda to adopt an alternative political structure, with claims that our current system is flawed, divisive, even undemocratic. Most proponents of this line of thinking have no clarity about what an alternative system would look like, rather they simply express the sentiment that “the people” should have power and not the “elites.” 

A few make knowingly futile calls for the abolition of party politics. Of course, the thinking behind this position is that the absence of political parties would eliminate political divisions. The critical flaw in this argument is that no political party is going to pass a law outlawing its existence. For those few small countries that do not currently have political parties they have evolved that way based on unique circumstances, without any legislation in place expressly prohibiting parties.

The main alternative system to the Westminster system we are governed under is that of proportional representation, where essentially, political parties receive seats based on the percentage of votes received. This is the system adopted by most European countries. Two elements are key here: (1) with more than two significant political parties, coalition governments become the norm and (2) because of the necessary ranking of candidates into the top 10% then 20%, etc, parties become more important in determining which candidates serve in parliament than do voters. If Bermuda ever gets to the point where a party is regularly elected without securing a majority of the popular vote, we may have to consider this system. Now is not the time.

Our parliamentary system has served us well and—with the exception of the power retained by the UK over the police, Bermuda Regiment and foreign affairs—we are a strong, stable parliamentary democracy. Every election since 1968 has seen the party with the majority of the votes form the government. In contrast, numerous UK elections have seen parties win large majorities with less than 45% of the vote.

We have a fusing of the executive and legislative branches which allows a government to more effectively carry out its agenda. All of the Cabinet sits in the legislature and the former are comprised of the party which controls parliament. It would thus take an exceptional set of circumstances for Cabinet not to have its way in parliament. The McDonalds fast food fiasco of the 1990s comes to mind.  What this means in practice is that the party elected to office actually has the ability to carry out the promises it made to voters during the campaign.

By contrast, the separation of legislative and executive functions, one of the hallmarks of the US political system is also one of the great impediments to accomplishing political goals. President Obama now has little hope of pushing through his vision of a reformed American now that Republicans have won control of the House of Representatives.

One area in need of reform is that of the Senate. Former Senate President Alf Oughton, on his retirement, reminded me of my critical comments about the Senate twenty years ago. I stand by those comments today. The rationale for a bi-cameral legislature is that the upper house would provide a sober second look at legislation prior to its adoption. The reality is that Senators appointed by a political party are obliged to support their party position. Perhaps more importantly, the balance of power in the Senate is held by three Senators with no political affiliation at all, with neither a party nor a public mandate. While their power is limited they can delay legislation duly passed in the House of Assembly by the body who has received a direct mandate from the people to govern.

Our system is not perfect but it provides a credible, participatory and democratic framework on which to operate. Critics of the status quo will need to carefully assess whether they have identified structural weaknesses in our form of government or whether there is a more obvious agenda they wish to pursue.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Loyalty and Party Politics

Members of political parties are, effectively, members of a team collectively pursuing a common goal—securing political power.  As with any team, cohesion—or at least the public display of it—is a critical factor in success and its absence can do debilitating damage.  In political parlance we call this party loyalty.
My take on party loyalty is that it refers to one actively embracing the philosophical underpinnings and goals on which that party is based: your worldview is largely in tandem with the direction that party wants to take the country. Such loyalty transcends personalities, leaders and otherwise, because the focus is on the work and mission of the party. Mature parties have mature internal debates; members examine issues and policies and try to develop a consensus around the key issues. Such parties reject the hyperbolical and do not demonize those who dissent. Collectively, this helps to sustain loyalty. Its absence weakens it.

All parties have a critical mass of members who exemplify party loyalty. Similarly, all parties also have members who reflect what I refer to as “conditional loyalty”: those who support the party only if their specific interests or desires are met. We have seen supporters of this ilk and it doesn’t take much to conclude they are more concerned about self-interest than any other interest. When developments do not turn out as they wished for there is a predictable public response, followed by a departure from the public stage.

There is less clarity about the meaning of party loyalty when a party does an about face on a long held policy without consulting its supporters and members have to reassess where they stand. I found myself having to confront this in 1998. For thirty years my party, the PLP, argued against the acceptance of Queen’s awards since they were a manifestation of an outdated and demeaning colonial apparatus. I embraced this position prior to 1998 and still do today.  The fact that successive PLP governments have made such awards places me at odds with them on this point but creates no distance between my vision for Bermuda and the core principles on which the party is based.  The litmus loyalty test here involves the weight one places on specific policy differences.  

While some supporters may have moments of quiet reflection when they question whether their political—and perhaps moral—compass is still aligned with that of their political party, others reflect blind loyalty. This type of party loyalty will defend virtually any position of their party or their leader; they also tend to be the sort of supporter who will hurl invective and ad hominem argument in their wars of words against the opposition, whoever that may be. While admired by some elements in the party and therefore encouraged, these supporters actually make it difficult for the party to expand its electoral base. 

This brings us to the issue of personalities, policies and loyalty. If the purpose of a party is to either win or to secure power there has to be an honest assessment of the personalities best able to help in this respect; and those who will hinder.  Here, loyalty is a necessary but insufficient component.  Placing the wrong people in position can erode public confidence and thus electoral support. While some may view this issue as a daunting one, given the multitude of factors parties have to consider, it becomes a lot less complex when you revert back to the core party philosophy and direction.

Loyalty to party is a mantra often heard and demonstrated on our little island home; and it helps to strengthen our democracy. Alongside these loyalists, though, is that decisive group of voters who move from party to party depending solely on their assessment of the political parties and the issues.  It is perhaps ironic that the least ideological, the least loyal voter ultimately holds the balance of political power.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Obama in India| Brown in India

President Obama's speech before the Indian parliament this morning was a clear recognition of India on a level that has not previously been seen by the United States. Speaking of a shared commitment to democracy by both countries, Obama went on to dispense with the language of the North South divide and commented that India was not emerging--it had, in fact, emerged. And, in a move likely to generate global backing almost immediately, the US President proceeded to back India's quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; something which should have been accomplished a long tie ago.

Of particular significance during this trip is Obama's belief that this century is one in which India will truly make its mark on the world. India has a burgeoning IT sector, a strong vibrant and growing middle class and its captains of industry are scouting the world for investment opportunities, as did American, European and Japanese investors in the last fifty years. Its billion plus population make it attractive for international companies seeking markets for their products and services and the barriers to entry are significantly lower than those formidable obstacles in china.

President Obama's trip to India was a necessary part of his Asian visit; and he will stay there longer than he will in any other country. The billions of dollars in contracts signed will help sustain American jobs and inject much needed money into the US economy. Americans get this.

When Premier Ewart Brown went to India in search of a relationship all we heard about was the cost of the trip and accusations of a farewell tour. In retrospect, he may well be seen as having tremendous foresight in forging a relationship, now, with a country many expect will become a dominant player in the global economy.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Enhancing the Government Tendering Process

One of the most critical changes announced by Premier Cox is the establishment of a Procurement Office to handle the review and recommendation of all major government contracts. Amidst sustained public commentary regarding nepotism, back room agreements and outright corruption, this office will firmly place the decision-making process in one central location at the Cabinet Office, where transparency and objectivity will prevail. With this single decision those companies and individuals seeking government contracts should know the playing field has been substantially leveled.

I do think, though, there should be three necessary qualifiers: (1) those competent companies who have not had opportunities should be given opportunities. This is not to say small construction companies who have never built anything large should get it; it means they should get smaller ones and be allowed to demonstrate their capabilities; (2) no company should qualify for contracts if they have shares held by a trust company, for obvious reasons; and (3) no member of Cabinet should be allowed to have any interest in any government contract, again for obvious reasons.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Talk Radio as Public Therapy

The proliferation of talk radio provides two clear benefits for people: access to information directly with very little effort and the ability to participate in public discourse easily. This has opened the door of democratic participation in ways unimaginable even ten years ago and, in my view, far more dramatic in its impact for communities than any of the social network sites populating the internet.

The medium of talk radio has, however, become a place where far too many participants have substituted calling-in for social and political activism.  This group believes the passion with which they articulate their argument is sufficient for them -- that they have played their part in helping to address important issues. This is the clear sense I get having now hosted Bermuda Speaks for a couple of years now.

Upon closer reflection, it may well be this medium provides a necessary outlet for both the frustration and powerlessness so many people feel in modern society. There may be, then, a deeper role talk radio plays as part of the range of tools available to the people in a democratic society.  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Transcending the Race Barrier

Some years ago I was introduced, by a mutual friend, to the owner of China White, a famous London nightclub in one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities. Within a few minutes our discussion touched on the issue of immigration and race relations in the UK. Sitting directly across from me he leaned forward and declared, “I am a racist!” My eyes narrowed and I look across to my friend, Charlotte, a Romanian Jew—silently asking her why had she had introduced us—then I looked back at this 50ish, white Englishman. Before I could respond to this offensive remark, a smile crept on his face and he added, “I hate all races.”

A few months ago, while being interviewed on CNN, US Congressman and veteran civil rights activist John Lewis addressed the issue of whether or not presidential hopeful Barrack Obama was “black enough” by stating Obama had “escaped the shackles of racism.”

In both instances, the reactions acknowledge the damage done by racism while attempting to chart a way forward that transcends the limitations imposed on a racially stratified society. We must work to accomplish the same for Bermuda.

Bermuda is currently beset with racial unease; it overflows into political debates, social interactions and the ubiquitous yet therapeutic talk show programmes. Race is the prism through which all social, political and economic discussions are refracted today; it cannot be our primary framework for interaction tomorrow. We must move beyond this if we are to build a strong, prosperous, self-sustaining Bermuda; one which all of us feel a part of and are committed to improving for the benefit of all.

How, then, do we move in that direction?

There is no panacea which will immediately cure the ills of racism but there are a number of steps the Bermudian community—all who live here—can start to take which, collectively, can help ameliorate our present condition.

First, we must understand our history. Knowing Bermuda’s history is less about memorizing the dates of successive events and more about understanding the forces that have shaped the present. It is important to understand, for example, how the economics of slavery worked very differently in Bermuda compared to most other slave societies in the Western hemisphere; or that Bermuda’s economy has long been service oriented and externally focused. And of course, in the context of this present discussion, that racial segregation ended a mere generation ago, with Bermudians in their 60s and older having been both oppressed by and the beneficiaries of a racially divided country. All of us need to understand, as Karl Marx once commented, how “the past hangs like a nightmare over present generations.”

To understand history will help to ensure it is not used as a crutch or to prop up silly ideas—that black people have a superior claim to Bermuda than whites, for instance. It will also help dispel the equally silly notion that Bermuda today should be assessed without reference to its past.

Secondly, we need to create a framework that credibly ensures people are given real opportunities in the workplace without regard to race. There is an abundance of data pointing to the under-representation of blacks at the senior executive level and from this many have inferred discriminatory practices. As a consequence, we have had extended public discussions on this matter and a wide range of views about how to end racially discriminatory practices in the workplace. On the issue of opportunities in the workplace, I propose what some may see as an overly simplistic approach: focus action around a policy that ensures every qualified Bermudian is gainfully employed in a position for which they are competent and that they are on a track for upward mobility. With 10,000 work permits issued this cannot be a difficult undertaking. By shifting the focus to job satisfaction for qualified locals—irrespective of race—we will be able to move beyond requiring companies to meet what are likely to be artificial and impossible to reach targets.

A third area is one which each of us can act on immediately: tone down and work to eliminate the racial rhetoric in our public pronouncements and private discourse. Of late there have been an embarrassing abundance of racially inflammatory comments by politicians, talk radio commentators, and members of the public to one another. This type of dialogue does nothing to progress the country on any front and actually sets us back. Before we use racially constructed language in our discourse we should first assess whether if said in reverse by someone of the opposite race whether it would offend us. If it would offend that should be your guide to refrain from making that comment. The racist, of course, will persist. But then we must challenge him or her every time. Privately, there are racist comments made in segments of the black community, much of which is a reaction to the subordinate position blacks were subjected to in the past. From my white friends, I know there are racist comments made in segments of the white community, much of which stems from an inherent sense of racial superiority. This is more difficult to challenge but will certainly abate when we make progress in the public arena.

Bermuda has historically been a bi-racial society; we are now increasingly multi-cultural and this can only be a positive thing as we move forward. We must work actively to break down the racial barriers that divide us and we must work collectively to build a stronger Bermuda. I am undertaking my part to achieve this goal and have been doing so for more than fifteen years. What are you prepared to do?\

* This article was first published in October 2007