Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Polling provides insights into policy

On the eve of the August, 1995 independence referendum, then-United Bermuda Party MP Wayne Furbert and I chatted outside of Number 1 Shed, where inside a capacity crowd of some 1,000 Bermudians exuberantly expressed their support for statehood. Against the backdrop, the then-UBP Minister and pro-independence campaigner said to me: “Brown, I think we’ve got it.” My response was, “Wayne, I think the people in this room will be the only ones in the country to vote for independence.” Earlier in that year, my company Research Innovations, had polled the country and our results showed a mere 30 percent of the voters would support statehood. The actual result was 25 percent.

The moral of the story is that relying solely on one’s own experience and social interactions is often a poor barometer of public sentiment. It can lead to a misreading of the public mood, and for politicians, faulty policy pronouncements. Polling helps to alleviate that.

Conducting polls on matters as diverse as the economy, to housing, taxes and child care, provides policy makers with insights into issues that resonate with the people. When these insights translate into programmes that work and benefit people both the people and politicians are better off.

Almost as important as what the public feels about the issues is the matter of what people feel about politicians. Any poll is a measure of opinion at a specific point in time. When asking about politicians, respondents will reflect on what they know and feel at that moment; when done at regular intervals we can track shifts in opinion over time.

During the 15 years we have been doing this in Bermuda, the approval ratings of some Premiers have shifted dramatically as the public changed their opinion. Premier Jennifer Smith and Premier Ewart Brown both saw changes by as much as 40 percent in their approval ratings during their respective tenures as people reacted to their (1) policies (2) decisions and (3) leadership styles.

The latest round of approval and favourability ratings provides the first assessment of Premier Cox. A 58 percent approval rating shows confidence in her, especially when examined alongside the very low negative opinion. The large undecided factor at 34 percent no doubt relates to the fact Premier Cox has only held office for two and a half months. This undecided opinion will certainly diminish in the next few months; whether it goes into the approval or disapproval column will depend on public reaction to the same three factors noted earlier.

Since it is inappropriate to undertake approval ratings for all political leaders, the political research community has agreed that favourability ratings allow for fair comparisons in that they measure a leaders’ likeability. At 84 percent, Premier Cox’s favourability speaks to the respect and high esteem she has enjoyed since she entered the political arena. It will be both comforting to her and the Progressive Labour Party. Less comfortable for the United Bermuda Party are Mr Kim Swan’s results. With a favourability rating of 43 percent, this veteran politician sees a majority of residents either not sure or unfavourably disposed toward him. Even more disconcerting are the results for the affable leader of the Bermuda Democratic Alliance, Mr Craig Cannonier. With 75 percent of residents not sure or not liking this leader, it seems clear the BDA needs to engage in self-reflection.

The good and bad news for politicians is that whatever the results are today, they can change tomorrow. Whether the results change in the direction that lends momentum and inspires confidence and longevity, or alternatively, slide down that slope, into the murky realm of political quicksand remains to be seen. For that we must await the next round of polling.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Should government privatise?

Every so often Government is called upon to privatise aspects of its operations so as to achieve greater efficiencies. These calls are typically made around budget time and they almost invariably emanate from right of centre commentators and politicians. Invoking the dramatic actions of US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in this regard, the case for privatisation rests on the assumption that governments are bad business managers and, conversely, that private enterprise does it better.

Such ideologically driven over-simplifications make for good political fodder but they fall far short of making sense out of the complicated reality. The reality is that far from the expansive, some will say, intrusive state we see in Europe and Canada, for example, our government treads lightly. Bermuda’s government has certainly increased its role in society over the past ten years but this has to be seen against the backdrop of previous governments which embodied a political ethos that begrudgingly accepted liberal goals but never got around to providing people with the capacity to achieve those goals.

Proponents of privatisation here will find there are few targets. This is mainly because government has typically involved itself in providing services in areas where the private sector has not seen an opportunity to make a profit or has been prevented from doing so because of the costs to entry. Government builds affordable housing precisely for these reasons.

There have been calls for matters involving tourism to be placed outside of the confines of government, in an authority dominated by people in the tourism business. The rationale here is that an organisation that is able to make decisions quickly by people with a vested interest will always do a better job than civil servants. While there is clear merit in harnessing the talent of the private sector in re-building tourism, when government is providing the funding there is an inescapable control that necessarily follows.

The Department of Airport Operations has also been identified as an area ripe for privatisation; this too has been raised sporadically and follows a model adopted in a number of other jurisdictions. With good traffic and a number of revenue streams, managing an airport can be a lucrative enterprise. Just ask BAA.

Given this, I don’t know why any government would want to give up what should be a profit centre, generating revenue that can help fund more programmes to benefit the people. If the issue is bureaucratic inertia in the civil service that hamper decisions, or perhaps, Ministerial interference that nullifies sensible decision making, there are alternative structures that address these issues while keeping a profit centre under government control. An effective alternative is the establishment of what Canadians call Crown Corporations, a company set up to make a profit where there is a single shareholder, the government. Such a company (or companies) could operate areas in government identified as profit centres where it is practicable to do so. A board would provide oversight but day to day management would be by an executive team who would run it as they would any other company. The profits would be distributed by the owner (government) to fund government initiatives.

Much of what government provides is inconsistent with a “for profit” approach: education for all, health care, social services, negotiating treaties, and so on. For those limited areas which either currently generate a profit or have the potential to do so, we should examine carefully and then pursue vigorously. Good governance requires that we utilise state resources to the optimum benefit of the people.

It requires that we rebuff private sector attempts to cherry-pick the most profitable sectors of government and hand them over to private pecuniary interests. And it requires that we suppress attempts to make ideologically-driven decisions that support a particular worldview yet fall short of sensible and defensible policy.

Confronting the Xenophobes

One of the unfortunate realities of our modern era is that when the going gets tough in countries, some of us descend into the blame game finding convenient scapegoats to “explain” the problem and thereby also pointing to the elements of the solution. Whether it was the diatribes of England's Enoch Powell, the pernicious pugilism of France's Jean Marie Le Pen or the strident hypocrisy of America's Tea Party, each of these voices focused on an immigrant group as the cause of much of their countries' malaise. Each of these groups found receptive audiences in their countries.

Bermuda must be vigilant that it not descend down this path. When thousands of British subjects came to Bermuda in the 1960s they were warmly received; when, in the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of Bermudians returned from studying at US and Canadian colleges with North American spouses this was accepted as a logical consequence of studying abroad. Alongside the sporadic migratory waves of other Caribbean citizens to the island, these immigrants became interwoven into the social and cultural fabric of modern Bermuda.

For reasons too involved to explain here, about 15 years ago much larger numbers of immigrant workers outside of North America and what was once Western Europe were invited here. East European and Asian nationals came to a greater degree than other nationals. This introduced for the first time since the 1840s immigration of Portuguese nationals from Madeira new culturally distinct groups.

In essence, these groups of workers are no different than any other employee on work permit, but in the public discourse on Bermuda's challenges there is a discomforting rise in the tone of negativity directed at them. It is clear the overwhelming number of migrant workers are honest, hard-working and law-abiding. All have come here in search of opportunities not available at home and have sometimes made tough decisions to leave families behind so that they might build a better future. In most cases the work they do is work not desired by Bermudians. In this sense, Bermuda reflects the pattern of other affluent countries where locals seek more lucrative employment. It is, then, incorrect to say “they” are taking our jobs.
One of the more illogical attacks thrown at this group is that they spend little in Bermuda and send most of their money home. Think about this. We are talking about comparatively low paying jobs where one still has to pay, at a minimum, for rent, food and transportation. The relevant question, however, is why should anyone be concerned with how anyone else spends the money they have earned? Equally relevant, no one who makes these comments ever applies it to the highly paid work-permit holding executive.

These murmurs of hostility directed at new immigrant groups may simply peter out when the economy once again becomes robust. But they could also become firmly embedded in a wider discontent with politics and civil society and be strengthened as part of a political movement. That xenophobia was the singular accomplishment of Powell and Le Pen. It cannot be allowed even a foothold on our shores.

This week Monday Americans celebrated the life and accomplishments of one of the world's great leaders, Dr Martin Luther King. Let us take a page from the struggle for civil rights and call for all who live here to be treated with dignity and respect. Let us not divide based on country of origin or whether or not English is one's first, second or third language. Let us eschew mere tolerance as a viable national goal and actively embrace the diversity that continues to build this country.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Reforming the Regiment

As another group of Bermuda Regiment recruits prepares for camp and the necessary training, we should revisit the primary means of recruitment today—conscription—with a view toward its abolition. There may well have been historical justification for this but I is difficult to  see how such an argument can be sustained today. Calling for the abolition of conscription for the Bermuda Regiment, however, takes away nothing from the excellent service to our country delivered by these men and women over the decades and today; nor does it denigrate the strong, effective leadership we have always seen at the helm.

Our regiment provides for our security in the event of internal unrest—as they did during the 1977 riots—and they provide a critical role during natural disasters, such as hurricanes.  Their function could perhaps be expanded to some aspects of border protection and drug interdiction on our territorial waters and this may well already be under consideration. Suffice to say, the Bermuda Regiment will remain an important part of modern Bermuda. 

The annual draft that is the means of getting recruits is resisted by significant numbers of young men and has created an undertone of dissension and discontent. Out of this emerged Bermudians Against the Draft who have fought a long battle to have conscription outlawed. While their objective is noble, they were destined for failure in the courts by arguing conscription was tantamount to forced labour. The European Union constitution has already established the distinction between conscription and forced labour and it was therefore unlikely, if not impossible, to expect that any court  falling under the ambit of the European Court of Justice would render a differing view. That conscription is not forced labour does little to alleviate the discontent of so many young men selected in the random annual draft.

An obvious way forward is to contemplate a regiment which is composed of the men and women it needs and to have these soldiers as willing participants. The current structure of the Bermuda Regiment is 300 part-time recruits secured largely through conscription and a permanent staff. Motivation and discipline levels among soldiers vary widely because of this and therefore greater effort is necessarily expended to create a cohesive force.

An alternative structure could be developed along the following: (1) a voluntary regiment comprised of 100 full-time men and women, recruited in an extensive campaign; (2) these recruits would be paid a full salary; (3) they would have room and board provided for by the Regiment; (4) they would have an opportunity to pursue further education in a range of areas; (5) they would make a minimum three year commitment. This could be an ideal option for a number of our young people and eliminate the need for conscription. There would be a cadre of dedicated men and women serving our country; and we would have adequate numbers to carry out the duties required of the Regiment.

Too much of the discussion about the Regiment and conscription has revolved around what is does for the young recruits: “It gives them some discipline” or “Straightens ‘em out”. But these goals are better left to parents. 

The Bermuda Regiment is an important part of our system of government and the training, discipline and morale it embodies is a central part of its ability to perform its functions effectively.  We tend to take its role for granted because their dedication and work ethic during hurricanes and we admire the pomp and pageantry of regimental parades. But with the obvious tension brought about as a result of conscription is it not time to contemplate a more harmonious way forward?

The Political Year Ahead

This year will be a pivotal political period.  There almost certainly will be a general election in either the summer or early December, and this will provide an opportunity for our political parties to connect with residents—and voters in particular—as they each seek to present themselves as the only viable party to govern.  Each party, though, has its own electoral challenges, which if either ignored or mishandled, will cost it both support and seats at the polls.

Enjoying some twelve years in power, the Progressive Labour Party Is a formidable political force. Its current longevity, however, is less than half the amount of time it spent in opposition trying to win power.  The tides began to change for the opposition PLP under the leadership of Mr Frederick Wade in the 1990s when he actively courted middle class voters. It is this critical mass of middle class votes (almost all of whom are black) that represents the difference between the 49% of the vote the party received in 1993 and the 53% it received in its 1998 victory. The black middle class vote is cast where it sees its best interest; it is not ideologically driven; and it is not persuaded by the banality of racial rhetoric. The PLP’s electoral success will be determined by the actions of this group. Its base will be enhanced when it can extend its support to include significantly larger segments of white voters. This has not yet been a demonstrated priority. It needs to be.

For its part, the United Bermuda Party is a pale shadow of its former self. Stumbling under the weight of debilitating defections and what seems to some as a moribund political force, there have been orgasmic calls for the death knell to be rung. But a party which won almost half the votes in the last election remains a significant force to contend with. The challenge before the UBP is whether or not it can make those truly tough decisions to strengthen itself. Too many of them lately seem rooted in the politics of race and not because it’s the right thing to do. In essence, the UBP seek the support of the black middle class as the key to their electoral success, as do the PLP.  The UBP err in believing this segment can be won over by none too subtle racial overtures. 

There can be no doubt that the UBP—having governed for 34 years— is a reservoir of talent. The extent to which it can bring that talent to the forefront will determine viability in the months and years ahead.

Formed by the most junior members of the UBP, the Bermuda Democratic Alliance must first have an identity before it can expect to garner support. The sincerity so many of its members possess in opposing so much of what they see as done wrong by the PLP and UBP is insufficient. Unity in opposition does not represent a common front to move forward. As a third party their priority has to be to distinguish themselves from the two other parties, either due to ideology or with a fundamentally different set of political priorities. To date they have not done this. Where people have a firm opinion of what the two main parties stand for (rightly or wrongly) I doubt many can render such a view on the BDA. When National Liberal Party leader Mr Gilbert Darrell was asked in 1985 what distinguished his new party from the UBP and PLP, he conceded there was little difference and commented that his party’s appeal would could “from ourselves.” The NLP won two seats in 1985; at the 1989 polls they lost those two seats and never recovered.  

Politics is a game of chess for some, for most of us it is a necessary part of democracy and our collective quest for “the good life.” Political parties are one of the vehicles for taking us along that quest and each of us should know how they intend to accomplish this.

The Problem with Wikileaks

WikiLeaks has lost its way. Its raison d’être was a noble undertaking to expose corruption and abuse of power by governments and big business so that they might mend their ways. Releasing more than 250,000 US government documents, including thousands of emails providing routine assessments of foreign governments and its leaders, has thrust Mr Julian Assange and his website, however, into the realm of tabloid journalism, with two attendant characteristics: irresponsibility,  with no regard for the fallout and feigned justification emboldened by self-righteousness.

There is a place for the leaking of government or corporate documents when issues of critical national importance are involved; when, for example, a government is lying to the people or a company is selling a drug they know to be deadly and package it as something healthy. The best known example of this was the 1971 leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, which showed US President Lyndon Johnson had not only repeatedly lied to the US public but also to Congress about American involvement in Vietnam.

There may well be some vital document in this massive dataset that reveals a “big lie” but what we have seen thus far does nothing but tinge increasingly tenuous relations between states. It may well be that Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi had already sensed how the US may view him; perhaps the UK government  knew President Obama’s administration was less enthused than they were about the two countries’ “special relationship”; no doubt China has long known of US anxiety over China’s economic power and control over US debt. To have an unspoken acknowledgement between diplomats is one thing; to have that revealed for the world to see can only cause embarrassment and, necessarily, provoke a response. At a time when greater, not less, global collaboration is required to fix any number of problems—poverty, fossil fuel emissions, nuclear proliferation, rogue states and rogue groups—the sorts of leaks we have seen coming from WikiLeaks can only fester distrust and thereby diminish our global capacity for rapid progress on these fronts.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton downplayed the significance of the embarrassing email releases but there is no doubt effort now needs to be expended to ensure relations are not weakened. Clearly no relationship the US has with any country is going to be destroyed over this, alone.

Bermuda’s media—and no doubt segments of the public—are eagerly awaiting any further details on the “deal” which saw the Uighurs brought to Bermuda from Guantánamo Bay last year. There are 68 references to Bermuda in the documents held by WikiLeaks. On this front, I suspect those looking for anything other than the conspiracy of silence engaged in by former Premier Brown and the US government will be disappointed. There will be nothing to contradict the position already expressed publicly by Premier Brown: there was no quid pro quo other than the further goodwill gained; there was no cost to the local taxpayer; and no personal gain for the Premier.  

WikiLeaks started out as part of a system of guarantees working to ensure good governance for powerful entities—as CNN’s Anderson Cooper puts it, “Keeping the honest.” Unbridled power has a corrosive, corrupting consequence; a system of checks and balances can control excesses and prevent bad decisions from being made. Mr Assange’s 21st century system of checks has played an important role of helping to roll back some of this excess. His latest contribution in the information dissemination trade, though, represents a fundamental departure from this system. His irresponsible actions have incurred the wrath of diplomats worldwide by dropping their honest assessments into the public domain for no reason other than he had the ability to do so. There is no higher objective, no contested terrain requiring clarity and no enemy to be defeated. Unfortunately, this once highly respected website has evolved into a tell-tale, telling tales like a loose tongue lush. It may very well cost WikiLeaks its very existence.