Monday, March 28, 2011

A New Relationship with the UK?

The British once proudly proclaimed, “The sun never sets on British soil” so vast was its colonial empire. The Irish refrain was: “Because God doesn't trust them in the dark.” Trust has been a difficult matter to countenance when involving the UK and its colonial territories since British public pronouncements have often varied wildly from its actions. In this light, the comment last week by Andrew Rosindell, chairman of the UK Overseas Territories Parliamentary Group, that his government wants a “modern relationship not a colonial one” beggars belief.

Britain's credibility regarding Bermuda was vanquished when, during our two most significant struggles for social justice the fight to end racial segregation and the quest for universal suffrage it sat by and made no demonstrable effort to lead. And this is despite signing the UN Charter pledging, under Article 73, it was a “sacred trust” to promote our well-being. This pattern continued for decades. In 1999 there was a re-packaging of the UK-colony relations under New Labour with the seductively labelled “Partnership for Progress” White Paper. All one had to do was actually read the document to see the proposed new relationship had virtually nothing to do with partnering and everything to do with a series of unilateral decisions imposed by the British.

If the UK government is serious about a modern relationship with Bermuda and the other colonies then their actions must be based on a coherent set of principles and they must cease navigating the waters of opportunism and expediency. A good place to start could well be to fix the “democratic deficit” mentioned by Mr Rosindell. The reality is that Bermudians in Bermuda have neither full political rights here nor in the UK: we have no say, for example, in Britain going to war and we do not make our own decisions in the international arena. Mr Rosindell's answer is to form a standing committee of the UK Parliament where Bermuda could have representation. While this may be helpful, it does little to reduce the democratic deficit.

If the UK government is serious about a modern relationship they will end the strategy, bordering on a conspiracy, to encourage Bermudians to acquire a British passport by denigrating the Bermuda passport. Until 2006, Bermuda passport holders could travel without a visa to most countries in Europe and many around the world. This was because of the efforts initiated by former Immigration Minister Sir John Sharpe in the 1980s. A visa regime was imposed on Bermuda for the Schengen countries in Europe solely because in 2006 the UK government incorrectly informed the European Union that Overseas Territories citizens did not have the “right of abode” in the UK. This was four years after the same UK government granted full UK citizenship to all of its colonial subjects. Further, the British have imposed the ridiculous policy of requiring Bermudians to hold a British passport to secure their residency in the UK. If we are British we are British. A British woman born and raised in Liverpool is British whether or not she has a British passport.

A modern relationship should start with respect for the powers the Bermuda Government holds under our Constitution. If those powers are to change it should be the result of a negotiated agreement between the two governments. It certainly should not be singular action by the UK based on what they have referred to as “contingent liability”. 

If Mr Rosindell embodies what we can look forward under the relatively new British Government then we have much to be concerned about. When he referred to “Britain fulfilling its responsibilities as the mother country” that comment should have sent a collective shiver felt by all, save for the colonial-minded. One can only speak of the “mother” country with their being a concomitantly clear sense of the child in tow immature, in need of protection and guidance and certainly not equal. 

One simply cannot have a modern relationship with a 19th Century ethos.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Problem With the Monarchy

Last week’s visit by the Earl and Countess of Wessex titillated many residents as they flocked to gain sight of two members of the British Royal Family. Awe-inspiring as they are for some, however, monarchies are an imperfect fit in our modern world and they have a particular and palpably pernicious effect on colonial territories. This effect is one of suppressed cultural and national identity, constrained as it is by the unquestioned deference to all things Royal. There is a problem with the monarchy.

Perhaps the most important problem is that the very existence of the monarchy validates a culture of entitlement, something most of us say we reject and want to pull our children away from.  It is certainly an entitlement culture when, through the mere accident of birth and not hard work or a solid education, an individual can rise to a position of power, influence and wealth.  And both know and expect that to be their destiny. There is an unmistakable, even if subtle message being sent to our children on the occasion of each Royal visit. Our entire reward system is predicated on young people doing the best they can in school; getting specific skill sets; and then securing good employment opportunities. The monarchy, thrust in front of our children, invalidates that.

On another level, since the British monarchy does not reflect the diversity of its colonial territories—and probably never will—there is an unfortunate paralleling of deference and authority along racial lines. For a country so fragmented by past racial injustices and trying to set this firmly behind us, each Royal visit harkens back to the days of white privilege. It does so with their very presence; without the utterance of a single word. The monarchy is nothing if it is not about history and tradition. 

The most vivid imprint of the monarchy locally rests with the Queen’s Honours List. On the one hand, these awards recognise the accomplishments of Bermudians in social, political and other fields, all in service to the country. It is laudable that those who have contributed to the betterment of Bermuda be honoured.  On the other hand, there is something distinctly perverse in a colonial subject accepting an award installing him as a Commander of the British Empire or indeed to become a Knight in such an empire. It is for this reason the PLP argued for 30 years against the acceptance of such awards.

For those who would never contemplate accepting such an award their contributions to Bermuda go without formal recognition. Roosevelt Brown (no relation) comes to mind. Through his leadership every Bermudian won the right to vote—a genuine hero no doubt and who’s legacy provokes no question. Roosevelt, though, would never have accepted such an award: after all, it was because of disparaging remarks he made about the monarchy in Parliament that he was expelled.

About ten years ago Premier Smith established a committee, representing all sectors of Bermuda, to devise an alternative awards system. As a member of that committee we worked dutifully and created a Bermuda awards system taking the best from Canada, Jamaica and other Commonwealth countries. This report needs to be dusted off and placed in the public domain for public scrutiny. 

Monarchical symbols in Bermuda cannot be a source from which social cohesion emanates. Sixteen years ago I wrote in RG Magazine that “the British Flag, God Save the Queen and the Governor’s plumed hat are outmoded and oppressive relics in Bermuda today: a bi-racial, multi-cultural, ethnically diverse society.” I believe these words still resonate today.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dr Barbara Ball: Labour Leader

Bermuda lost a hero this week. The passing of Dr Barbara Ball trade union leader, parliamentarian is the loss of another leader in our long, collective quest for social justice. Those who knew Dr Ball understood well that behind her quiet demeanour stood a firm resolve. She steered trade unionism though its deepest challenge and helped set it on the course to legitimacy. Dr Ball’s selfless commitment to working women and men is instructive and we can all benefit by better understanding her contribution to Bermuda.

Although formed in 1947, the Bermuda Industrial Union was still a weak union struggling for members and recognition as late as the mid-1960s. The single most important battle for recognition was at Belco in January 1965. On the one hand there was the Belco board comprised of the old elite; on the other hand there was the BIU led by Secretary General Ball. Hundreds of working men and women came out to support Belco employees in their struggle for union recognition and the tension with the police soon broke out into scuffles. Legend has it that Dr Ball tamed an overly aggressive police officer with her martial arts skills. Ball led the union into this battle against the dominant elite because trade union recognition was a fundamental right in a democracy. The BIU lost this battle since Belco created their own union and got this one validated. But the BIU would win the war. Under Secretary General Ball, the BIU had made the case for trade union recognition in 1965 and all subsequent efforts to win recognition were conflict-free. Indeed, when Dr Ball led the union to seek recognition in hotels and construction companies the following year, the owners agreed to the BIU without even requesting a ballot. This is what brought about trade union legitimacy. Every collective agreement since then was only made possible by the critical groundwork set in the 1960s by Dr Ball and the BIU.

Sometimes referred to as the “quiet lady of labour”, Barbara Ball made a principled-based decision to make her life’s mission the cause of workers’ rights, even though she knew it would come at great personal sacrifice. As a white woman and medical doctor in segregated Bermuda, Ball could easily have been seduced into the world of privilege, materialism and separation that was high, white society. She was not. Instead, she endured ostracism from the white community for being both a union activist and later joining and representing the PLP as a Member of Parliament. In a telling letter to Ottiwell Simmons, her union colleague studying overseas, Dr Ball was commenting on how she was treated by Governor Gasgoine at the Garden Party at Government House: “When the Governor shook his hands with me he didn’t even look at me or say anything. The same thing happened last year.” This ostracism would remain, long after she left public life, in a sad comment on modern Bermuda.

When Dr Ball addressed issues there was measured delivery. She was no firebrand leader; she attacked no individual. The success she achieved in winning union rights was through the strength of the union position and the active support of union members.

It seems clear that her actions were motivated by her desire to rid Bermuda of its injustices, in both civil and political society. In a world where it is so easy to question the motives of those who seek to represent us, Dr Ball stands out as someone whose commitment and integrity to the cause of the people provokes no question. She was exactly as she appeared. And we should celebrate her contribution.

Government and concessions

When more than 2,000 people representing the diversity of modern Bermuda come together to demonstrate their concern about a major issue, we all need to step back and reflect on its meaning. This was made clear Sunday afternoon in Tucker's Town. Once the domain of proud black families, forcibly removed in the name of hotel development; now the gated community of the super-rich, this enclave remains contested terrain. Far from being a politically contrived gesture, Sunday's event revealed the extent of national concern about the environmental impact of the proposed development, the racial implications and the price of hotel development.

I would like to reflect on three aspects of this contentious issue: (1) the purpose of zoning laws; (2) the need for hotel development; and (3) Government's role in business promotion. 

Bermuda has a land zoning map which is the product of many years of analysis, development and input. There was an extensive public consultation process, with a panel established to hear all appeals. When this was passed by the legislature, we had a blueprint for future land use for the next decade. Any attempt to diverge from this plan, particularly when it involves our precious nature reserves, protected land and fragile eco-systems, should involve the same extensive consultation process that created the Bermuda plan.
And I will propose two further steps: 

(1) pass the appropriate and strong legislation to identify the areas of protected open space; and then
(2) given that there may be an overriding national interest in developing such land in the future, require that this can only be undertaken by a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Assembly.

We all accept that hotel development is vital for the resuscitation of tourism. Having the Rosewood brand is precisely the image we should want to convey as we rebuild and reposition our tainted product; and we should be careful they are not dissuaded from their Bermuda commitment. If their assessment is that they need additional hotel rooms to make the hotel viable I am inclined to defer to that assessment.

From all that has been publicised, nowhere is there any indication that additional homes are required to make the hotel viable; these are required, we are told, to ensure the financial viability of the company that currently owns and manages Tucker's Point. From a public interest and public policy perspective, we need to draw a line of demarcation between what Tucker's Point Hotel requires to be viable as a hotel and the needs of its current owners.

Good governments are friends of business, big and small. They work in tandem with the business community to ensure prosperity, quality jobs and economic stability. 

Over the past five years, governments around the world have stepped in to help financial institutions debilitated by bad decisions motivated solely by unrestrained greed. My view is that those decisions by governments then were unwise and I hold to the view that it is unwise to reward an insatiable desire for “profit maximisation” with further government concessions, particularly when it comes at a high price to the country.
The Tucker's Point developers earned significant revenues off their fractional sales (starting at $295,000) and villa sales (starting at $3.2 million); if their business model was flawed or management challenged, it cannot be the responsibility of government to provide redress. Governments must be catalysts for the development of business, not their agents.

Next week the Senate will debate the Tucker's Point SDO. As the upper tier of our bicameral legislature the Senate has the responsibility to provide a second, sober look at matters discussed in the lower house. Our Senators have the power to decide not simply the pace of any proposed change but it can also help influence and shape the outcome.

Budget cuts should lead to efficiencies

“Inoffensive” is the word that first came to mind after reading the 2011-2012 Budget. As we confront a global financial challenge that has crippled many other countries, Premier Cox has sought ways to be fiscally prudent while being sensitive to the hardship so many of us are going through.

Most finance ministers have either (1) cut drastically, with all the attendant social disruptions, or (2) they have borrowed to provide an economic stimulus, thus adding to the national debt. Our budget has been shaped by both practices, leaving no one feeling particularly aggrieved. In light of declining revenues and concern about government expenditures, this budget is a move in the right direction. 

The Premier has commented that “we should do more with less”; in this sense, Government is now in an excellent position to use the budget cuts to get greater efficiencies. While there will be no job redundancies during this time, the natural attrition through retirement or people simply leaving Government jobs provides the chance to ratonalise positions. It may be the case that some jobs do not need to be filled because they cannot be justified by the workload.

I am confident that a careful, honest assessment of the need for vacant positions to be filled will lead to fewer Government jobs over the next 12 months. Alongside this, we must seek, if not demand, increases in productivity in the civil service. The comparatively small number of employees who use sick leave as an extension of their vacation time and those who conspire to “go slow” in search of overtime hours, contaminate the pool of honest and industrious civil servants. And it costs you and I more money. 

At some point , preferably soon, there needs to be a long hard look at whether or not some departments require a Slim Fast intervention. Education comes to mind immediately, as there is clearly little correlation between its size and its performance. But we need to ensure we are getting value for money in all areas. The Bermuda Music Festival was cut because insufficient tourists came to justify it. What about legal aid? A fundamental tenet of a strong democracy is that those who cannot afford legal representation in a criminal proceeding should be provided support by the state.

It may make more sense from a resource perspective to have a pool of legal aid lawyers working for government rather than paying out $300 per hour to a pool of lawyers in private practice. In a similar vein, there is an annual grant to Business Bermuda for their work to attract business here. Are we getting value for money? These are the questions we need to ask; the answers need to be based on solid information and this, in turn, should inform government decisions.

Government needs to maintain a critical eye over every contract it enters into and the proposed procurement office has a critical role to play. It should help us to avoid examples such as the colossal waste of taxpayer's money on the lawyers hired to advise on the amendment to the Municipalities Act. Where a London School of Economics professor could have done the work for $30,000, we were conned into dispensing with $665,000 of your money.

One of the novel aspects of the Budget Statement is the commitment to have the public involved in the decision making process when it comes to public expenditures. This represents bold vision. An inclusive, participatory process will necessarily help the public to better understand important decisions; it will also provide more scrutiny. Budgets are typically examined from the standpoint of what programmes and initiatives are to be supported; the parliamentary debates are largely structured to reflect that. Another aspect is the effective administration of public funds. This too should form part of the debate.