Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Principled conviction can win out

This is the second in a two-part series on lessons from the Middle East.

After 30 years of authoritarian rule, Egypt’s Mubarak was finally ousted from power in a popular uprising. Once the darling of the West, the former president quickly descended into global ignominy after the emperor’s clothes had been stripped off and he and his cronies revealed for what they were: abusers of power and defenders of the indefensible. Out of this struggle, the Egyptian people boldly asserted two characteristics that no doubt played critical roles in their success: Courage and principled conviction. We can learn from this.

For two weeks their collective courage was revealed to the world. As they reacted, rallied, and reclaimed their voices they demanded change for their country. Through their very presence they embodied the mantra Barack Obama adopted on the presidential campaign trail: “Yes, we can.” Bermuda needs more of this courage. Too often people who care about making change here are dissuaded by the nature of political discourse in small societies; there is an unfortunate tendency for the political to become personal, the ad hominem argument a poor substitute for rational, fact-based dialogue. Justice Stephen Tumim pointed to this in his 1992 report on our criminal justice system when he mentioned the fear of speaking out.

This fear is compounded by the plethora of anonymous commentary designed to influence and sometimes, one suspects, to inflame debate. With such commentary, it takes little courage to make assertions without foundation; to attack an individual than confront the argument; or to question motives simply because the issues raised create discomfort. Indeed, if motives are to be questioned it has to be those who carry on a war of words through stealth. We will make progress in dealing with our issues when people have the courage to address them openly.

The principled conviction of the Egyptian cause, most dramatically illustrated in Tahrir Square, was resolute and clear. Their goal was the removal of President Mubarak from office. Understanding their plight better than any leader in the West, they knew Mubarak’s departure was a precondition for the rebuilding of their state. When the Friday deadline set by the people for his departure came and Mubarak had not gone the people persevered. Through their singularity of purpose and the principled stand taken the disparate groups lent their collective voice for a new government, immediately. Their actions were built on a foundation of non-violence, acceptance of all who opposed Mubarak and mutual assistance.

Leading by principled convictions requires clarity of thought, it requires clarity of outcome and it requires your actions be guided by a principled code of conduct. Applying this to Bermuda, how much better would our labour-management relations be if all parties consistently embraced such convictions? How better would our political landscape be if all parties demonstrated principled conviction in dealing with issues rather than a preoccupation with the sound bite, theatrics and what some call “politricks.” Democracies work best when differing views intersect, when one challenges the other. Out of this intersection, we collectively should come to a better understanding; in an ideal world it will also mean better policy, no matter what the area.

As one who rejects the notion of Bermuda exceptionalism, I argue that despite our unique history and the nuances of our political environment we can move to a place where greater courage is shown in public life and the fear of personal retribution abated; I further argue we have the capacity to adopt principled convictions as our modus operandi in politics, in business and in our social interactions.

Far-fetched for some, perhaps. But I embrace the revolutionary spirit of John Lennon and will end with his words: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Debt Deception Debate

Next week Friday, Premier Cox will deliver her first budget as leader. Immediately following this there will be a predictable outpouring of practiced outrage about the level of government debt. We will be reminded of how debt levels have increased significantly under successive PLP administrations, how it is not sustainable and what specific cost each of us must bear and then, necessarily, pass on to future generations. These denizens of doom want you to think there is something foul, something untoward, something irresponsible afoot. Don’t buy into it.

Governments borrow money to enable them to pay for things that cannot be financed out of its short-term tax revenue. This would finance, for example, a new cruise ship port, hospital, incinerator plant. It is akin to a family borrowing money to purchase a home. Rather than being sinister, it is entirely sensible and a prudent way to manage public funds while delivering social needs to the people.  One key issue here is the ability to service that debt. On this front, Bermuda has an excellent track record, making all its payments in a timely manner with no hint of trouble in this respect on the horizon. The bankers, then, are pleased and our credit ratings remain high, in sharp contrast to most European countries.

For the sake of clarity, and a momentary digression, we are not talking about cost over-runs on government contracts. The PLP government’s performance has been no better than the UBP’s record on this front and this calls into question whether governments are best suited to management large contracts.

Bermuda’s debt level is consistently below 20% of GDP, one of the lowest in the world. Many rich countries in the North have debt levels well in excess of 50%, with some approaching 100%. Britain, which has taken it upon itself to advise Bermuda on financial matters, has a 60% debt to GDP ratio. Comparatively speaking, we are at the very low end of the debt spectrum and we have no problem meeting our debt obligations.
Every major ratings agency gives Bermuda high marks for its fiscal policy. Bermuda’s fragile economy, though weakened, has navigated the treacherous channels of the global recession and steered clear of the groundings and implosions that have so deeply afflicted other countries.

The naysayers will tell you that this not an appropriate comparison because Bermuda is “different” than other countries. Of course it is. And so too is every other country different from every other country.  But the world collects data to make global comparisons. We compare population density levels, per capita incomes, infant mortality, and we compare debt levels. We do this to monitor trends and help shape policy.
Making the case for Bermuda being “different”, that we are ‘another world’ is only meaningful in a cultural sense, when accompanied by the melodic tunes of Hubert Smith. In the real world we forgo fantasy for careful analysis. 

One of the emotional arguments made is how we are saddling young people with this debt burden they will have to carry in a manner similar to Sisyphus rolling that massive boulder up the hill—a burden carried for an eternity. While the Bermuda government , like most governments, is likely to always use debt as one means of accomplishing its goals, it is entirely reasonable to expect that young people, who will share in the benefits of the infrastructure created—greater cruise ship revenue from a new port or better services from a world class hospital—should pay toward putting these in place.

When it comes to debating the debt we should do so soberly. We should do so with the demonstrated knowledge and understanding of what is going on globally and not simply dismiss that reality because it runs contrary some intended political invective composed as part of the budget debate. The people expect better, they deserve better and they will be listening..

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lessons from the Middle East

There comes a time when the people have to act directly to bring about necessary change. The raison d’√™tre almost always involves the failure of the formal political process -- politicians -- to move decisively on issues people want to see addressed. Direct action of this sort can topple governments when there is sustained mobilisation and a clearly defined outcome. Witness the Middle East.

Over the past 50 years, direct, mass action by the people worldwide transformed countries and altered our way of thinking about critical issues. Whether it was the courage of the US civil rights activists; the unity of the Czechs in Prague Spring, the commitment of Mothers of the Plazo de Mayo in Argentina; or the symbolism of the Tiananmen Square protests, the point is clear: people can make change when they act collectively. Another point is equally clear: we should not, because we cannot, always rely on our politicians to make the change we want.

Bermuda’s two most important changes, racial desegregation and universal suffrage, were won as a direct result of popular protest after politicians rejected pressure to implement these reforms. Government began taking young people seriously after the 1977 riots; and it showed greater respect to the unions after the 1981 general strike. These examples all point to the necessary role Bermudians can have in shaping the society they want when there is a gap between the politicians’ timetable for change and that of the people.

Throughout history reformers have always used the most useful forms of communication to spread their message and reach out to supporters. In a world where the channels of communication have become so diverse and easily accessible it seems we have substituted Facebook, Twitter, blogs, talk radio and BlackBerry Messenger for social activism and engagement. Unlike the popular uprisings in the Middle East where these technological innovations have been used as tools to organise and mobilise, in Bermuda we seem content to have the message reside only on the medium. And so, the passion for change attributed to some talk show callers is not actually accompanied by action to achieve that change; and the extended critiques of government in cyberspace, cloaked in a veil of spineless anonymity, typically remains an act of self-gratification. Change will not come about because of a status update on Facebook.

Over the past few years Bermuda has seen inklings of popular protest around specific issues but most have not been sustained. The most vigorous group emerged in June 2009 in response to the decision by Premier Brown to secretly bring the Uighurs to Bermuda from Guant√°namo Bay. Expressing outrage that the Premier had disrespected his Cabinet, the United Kingdom and the people of Bermuda, they called for his resignation. This protest group, though, only organised one rally and then disappeared, with individuals retreating to cyberspace. More effective is the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce. The environmental lobby group has successfully organised two campaigns: (1) against the development of the nature reserve that is Southlands and (2) denial of planning permission to develop a bar/restaurant on a small footprint of Warwick Long Bay. Part of the success of BEST has been their ability to demonstrably mobilise significant numbers to their cause, in turn setting decision-makers on the defensive.

Representative democracies like Bermuda rely on elected parliamentarians to address the important issues affecting their country. When they fail to do so, the potential for popular movements to emerge to fill that void grows significantly. Even in the absence of a void, however, politicians are more likely to listen, positive change is more likely to occur, if you, your family and friends, assume your role as active citizens and get engaged in making change happen.