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.  

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