Thursday, May 26, 2011

Putting Gay Rights Back on the Agenda

Today’s planned rally on the steps of City Hall marks an important symbolic step forward for the rights of gay people in Bermuda. Ms Krystl Assan’s recent experience at a local guest house has pushed her to organize this effort to rightly demand that people be treated equally under the law irrespective of their sexual orientation. Those who embrace human rights for all, have to know that such rights are not meant to be applied selectively: The struggle for gay rights should be a struggle we all embrace.

We have not yet seen the courage to specifically set out “sexual orientation” as a protected category under the Human Rights Act. In the absence of this, there is no protection for gay,, lesbian and transgender people against discrimination in the workplace, housing or in the delivery of services.  There is an argument out there which posits that the Bermuda Constitution provides such protection without specifically mentioning sexual orientation and that there should be a test legal case to assert it. This is not good enough. If the Human Rights Act is to have meaning and applicability for all then change must begin here.  Bermuda in the 21st century must first take this minimal step if we are to continue down the road to justice for all. 

Like all struggles for reform, the quest for gay rights requires a critical mass of activists who can both humanize the struggle and moblise support. It will not come through the passivity of online strategies or quiet conversations with politicians who nod with approval and then fail to act. I made this point four years ago when I met with a local gay rights group only to be met with the response that “politicians should do what’s right.” While I agree with this sentiment, the reality of politics in Bermuda on this issue is that politicians will only act when faced with sustained public pressure. The only elected Member of Parliament who acted decisively on this issue was Ms Rene Webb, who introduced legislative reform as a private ember’s bill. But even this effort raised questions since Ms Webb never lobbied and never strategized to get support .

Ms Assan’s work will certainly help put the issue back on the agenda but this is insufficient. Those public figures who demand rights for gays loudly behind doors would do well to eat a slice of courage cake and step up and out into the public domain to help win greater public support. For some reason too many of us still view the issue of gay rights as a taboo topic. With at least ten percent of the population gay or lesbian the discussion about sexual orientation should be part of our mainstream discussion; as mainstream as are our discussions about education, violence and the economy.

Local surveys on gay rights always show strong public support for treating people equally irrespective of sexual orientation.   Resistance typically comes from a minority of pseudo-religious zealots providing a selective reading of the Bible to justify their bigotry. Even the casual reader of the Bible will know that not only did Jesus embrace everyone, he also treated them all equally. More importantly, modern societies make retrograde decisions when they make policy and laws based on interpretations of holy texts. 

Bermuda has a long history of discrimination rooted in slavery, the restricted vote and racial segregation. Those who championed resistance to these injustices, those who have benefitted from their elimination, should be sensitive to any discrimination set upon any other group. And we need to say collectively that now is the time for change.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rebuilding the Economy

Bermuda’s way out of this economic morass must be by way of a strong and genuine partnership between government and business. While government provides the framework and infrastructure for business to develop and companies provide the capital and employment to generate wealth, there are roadblocks along the way that must be cleared. Given the present circumstances, we must demonstrate a level of urgency in doing so.

It is true that Government consults widely, and often, with key business stakeholders to better discern their concerns and challenges. On the basis of these discussions, Government assesses current policy and reflects on what if any changes need to be introduced. Sounds like the perfect working relationship. The problem here is that industry does not consistently share with government the totality of its concerns; business leaders, however, do share their candid views with their peers and this information eventually gets into the public domain. The main reason business leaders are reticent about some of their deep concern on issues when their position conflicts with Government is that they want to be seen to be working with Government and not opposing policy. The unfortunate consequence is that some companies have quietly left the island and taken much needed jobs and expenditures. We need to clear this roadblock.

Another roadblock is the inevitable inertia spawned in government bureaucracies. How this comes about is simple enough to understand. Firstly, every department created in every Ministry has its own mandate and set of rules, policies and procedures. Secondly, unlike the private sector, there is no reward system for efficiency or productivity. The lazy worker is paid the same as the diligent and efficient government employee. This has created a set of conditions where many simple and routine decisions are unnecessarily delayed by months, in some cases years. Every month’s delay for a business creates more frustrated owners; it necessarily forces them to consider other options in other jurisdictions. When we have businesses ready to invest and to create jobs, we must ensure work permits, building permits, landing permits, occupation permits, fire permits and all the other permits needed are approved within a timeframe that values the importance of that business to the country. Some of us need to be reminded that it is the private sector and not Government that creates value and grows the GDP.

As companies seek new opportunities we need to assure them we value their business. There are a few things we can do in this respect. If a company is bringing a minimum size investment to the island (say $10 million) we should have a process in place a one-stop shop, if you will, where all of their requests from government can be handled by a single entity and processed expeditiously. Bermuda was once at a competitive disadvantage because of the time it took to incorporate a company. That was addressed by a sound working relationship between Government and the private sector. Let us apply this same approach with renewed vigour. A company, having invested millions of dollars, should not be told they cannot pick their own executive team. And if we do not allow them to, there are many other jurisdictions which will allow them. Preemptively, let me say there is no conflict between a policy ensuring qualified Bermudians be employed in their areas of competence and a company having an entitlement to select its key executive team.

We are at a crossroads. Bermuda’s business model once embraced our passive motto, “Whither the fates lead” but it is ill-suited for the present. We need to actively pursue strategies to bring back growth because with that growth will come renewed strength and greater opportunities for all of us.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Remembering Austin Thomas

You cannot make a politician like Austin Thomas. Today, politicians around the world contour their policies and positions based on the latest polls results; they are careful to use politically correct language so as not to offend; and they don’t always say what they mean. With Mr Austin Thomas you got raw authenticity. 

His death last week, after a long illness, means Bermuda has lost yet another champion of the cause of justice and social reform. For 21 years (1968-1989) Mr Thomas served as a parliamentarian for the constituents of Pembroke East, mostly as a member of the Progressive Labour Party and the last four as a member of the National Liberal Party. 

There was no mistaking the dedication Thomas had to improving the social and economic condition of working class people. When he spoke, you knew he cared deeply to transform Bermuda from the oppressive and debilitating conditions set upon us by the old oligarchy to a modern and robust democracy. You could hear it in his voice, in a deep and mesmerizing delivery. You could see it in his eyes, a penetrating intensity beckoning you to understand and walk beside him down the road called justice.

Mr Thomas sat in Parliament with a colourful cast of characters: men and women who had strong personalities and in their own way showed their compassion for improving Bermuda. He commanded the respect of all parliamentarians with his great oratory and few doubted the sincerity of his mission. This was a time when people would sit in the public gallery and be both informed and entertained by politicians as they conducted the people’s business. 

He would break with the PLP in the mid-1980s and, along with other disaffected members, would form the National Liberal Party. This split was essentially over ideology, with the Members for Change (as they were called) wanting to move the party to the political centre to enhance its electability. He backed Gilbert Darrell for leader in what became a bitter internal battle. For some observers the battle was also about getting rid of a female leader. It is a testimony to the respect and support given to him by the voters in Pembroke East that in this safe seat for the PLP, Mr Thomas was able to win re-election in 1985 under the NLP banner.

Thomas, and those who lobbied for change within the PLP and were forced to leave, was eventually vindicated by history: It was under the leadership of Frederick Wade that the PLP did in fact move to the political centre in the 1990s and that contributed significantly to its historic 1998 victory at the polls.  

Some politicians are truly products of their era and could not easily fit elsewhere. Such was the case with Mr Thomas. His worldview, for example, was shaped by what one could call more traditional views on gender. I was at one of the first public meetings of the NLP where more than once he remarked, “I wear the pants in my house.”  When I challenged him privately on what I saw as sexist language he assured me that while the household must have a hierarchy, we were all equal in the eyes of God. 

Too many of us look at politicians today with suspect eyes, believing their personal agenda tops their concern for the nation. Mr Thomas entered the political arena at a time when it came at great personal sacrifice, for reasons we are all too familiar with, and no material rewards. There is no doubt he was dedicated, selflessly, to working to improve Bermuda. It was through his work as a parliamentarian, as a voice of reason and compassion that he helped to raise our collective consciousness and helped bring about the reforms we benefit from today. F or this, we should all be grateful.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What's In a Name?

As Juliet said to her dear Romeo:  "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." 

Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers longed for a permanent union despite the bloody family rivalry that set them apart. Bermuda’s opposition parties seem set for a reunion and renaming although their rivalry has been far less sanguinary. But Juliet’s question remains relevant for our discussion and must be answered.

Assuming the media reports are all correct, the following will happen imminently: the three defecting UBP MPs, Shawn Crockwell, Mark Pettingell and Donte Hunt, will rejoin the group of MPs they left 18 months ago. This group, comprised entirely of members elected under the UBP banner in 2007, will sit in Parliament under a new political party name: One Bermuda Alliance. This rose remains the same.

What explains the formation of a new party with great fanfare and great expectations only to have it disbanded before even contesting a single general election? One view, first articulated by Bermuda Broadcasting’s Gary Moreno in 2009, is that the UBP breakaway faction was all part of a plan devised by a UBP consultant to stimulate energy and interest in the party when they rejoined and changed the party name.  Mr Moreno reports he has seen this report. If any of this is true it would take contempt for voters to a new low.

Another view is that the BDA did not see the level of support from the electorate they had hoped to see by now and therefore sought out a new alliance. This view could only be based on the December by-election in Warwick, in a PLP seated vacated by a departing PLP Premier, where the BDA secured half of the traditional UBP vote.  This by-election, though, was a poor tool to measure the effectiveness of the BDA as a party. The only real measure is a general election, where a larger slate of candidates, along with a platform of ideas and policies could be assessed by the public. To simply slide into a re-packaged UBP mould reflects a lack of stamina. 

If the demise of the BDA does in fact come about as a result of this renaming, Bermuda will have yet another segment of the population as disaffected voters who may well abandon the electoral process altogether. One member of the BDA told me he expected to take a few years to build the party and was prepared to put in that effort because he genuinely believed Bermuda needs an alternative voice to the two main parties. He has now accepted with regret that this change will take place and he is done with politics. More may follow him.

The BDA started something very important for Bermuda. It gave a voice to voters who have grown weary of the sometimes unthinkingly partisan nature of our political discourse; it gave a voice to many whose first focus is fixing our problems rather than the robotic party first postulation.  Its weakness is that it has not yet articulated an alternative vision for reforming Bermuda. That could have come with time.

Messrs Crockwell, Pettingill and Hunt will have to answer how their principled decision to leave the UBP has led them on a path to rejoin that same group of men and women. In the absence of any explanations, it would seem that a principled positioned has been jettisoned by the reality of electoral politics and self-preservation: power is rarely relinquished voluntarily and these gentlemen knew they could not win re-election, having won their seats under the UBP banner. 

We will soon have confirmation of any agreements reached and decisions made between the BDA and UBP. It will then be up to voters to assess what this all means. Will it be more of the same, in more modern wrapping or will we have a fundamentally new political force in our midst?