Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Problem with Anonymity

In 1995, while campaigning for a “yes” vote in the independence referendum, I began receiving telephone calls from an anonymous, raspy-voiced man, who was expressing his opposition to my efforts. This continued for about four months. After the referendum was held he called again to insist I leave the issue alone. When I asked him why he seemed fearful of discussing the issue he replied, “All you monkeys should go back to Africa anyway.” Following this racist comment I contacted Chief Inspector Jonathan Smith, who traced the call to a business located on East Broadway. When a raspy-voiced man working there was questioned by the police, this individual denied ever calling me. From that day forward, however, I have not received another phone call from this person.

My caller was a racist and a coward, emboldened by anonymity. The minute he was found out he crawled away as cowards do. His goal was to malign, to stir the pot of negativity and with no effort to contribute toward a rational discussion of a critically important issue. This is one of the problems inherent in much of the anonymity pervasive in what passes for political commentary today. 

Our news media sites are replete with the anonymous and cowardly naggers of negativism, the pushers of petty, partisan political rhetoric. In large countries the effect is minimal since there is a multitude of media outlets and a wide and diverse range of views. In little Bermuda, it is easy for a cabal of activists to coordinate a media onslaught, with great effect, when guaranteed anonymity.  Comments, seemingly held by a wide range of people, in some instances are part of a clear strategy organized by a few to seek political advantage.  One consequence of this is the imagination of a “crisis” far deeper and more severe than it actually is; another is the lack of real discussion as we simply speak across one another.

A less obvious consequence is the weakening of trust. The person who greets you warmly could be the one pillorying you in that anonymous letter. Again, the politics of small places makes this scenario far from abstract. One outcome? A greater level of suspicion of people by public figures than would otherwise be the case.

There are times when anonymity is essential. There is the famous case of American diplomat George Kennan who in 1947 published a transformative article on US-Soviet relations in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X”.  The magazine editors provided anonymity because of Kennan’s position and the timely importance of his observations during the outset of the Cold War. Here, the Progressive Group, who organized the theatre boycott in 1959, remained anonymous so that the noble cause they fought for remained the sole focus. Employees, public and private, with knowledge of illegal activities or ethics violations have a moral obligation to expose wrongdoing and so they too should be protected. What we witness for the most part today, though, falls far short of selfless engagement.

Free speech is a sacrosanct right in a democracy; it is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. We need to get to a point where we embrace both. We can begin with this newspaper. I have in the past implored the editor to abandon the practice of publishing anonymous letters and do so again today. It would be a small yet symbolic step toward a more mature engagement on the issues that shape our public discourse.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Consequence of Globalisation

The decision by then Premier Ewart Brown to provide refuge to four Guantรกnamo detainees in Bermuda in June 2009 continues to vex residents some two years after the fact. We now know that the American and British governments are involved in discussions to provide a long term solution to the limbo-like status of the Uighurs; but whatever the outcome of these discussions, the situation brings into relief two aspects of our current political status: (1) Bermuda’s interests do not necessarily run parallel to the UK’s interests and (2) the rapid meshing of domestic policy with foreign policy will likely see more contested terrain on issues between Bermuda and Britain in the months and years ahead.

There is no doubt the decision to assist the United States with the detainee base closure was an act of friendship. The US is our most important trading partner, largest source of tourists, the country where most of our students get tertiary education and residents love the US Customs pre-clearance facility at the airport. The decision almost certainly strengthened our relationship with the US and has put us in a stronger position with the world’s most powerful country. The value of this is incalculable. 

This matters not to the United Kingdom government since their ties are not as encompassing, looking as they do both across the pond and across the channel. Dr Brown positioned Bermuda better with the United States and I suspect history will render this judgment. For those conspiracy theorists seemingly beset with an unrelenting agitation and who believe there was some personal benefit for Dr Brown, they necessarily have to argue that President Obama, or at least US Attorney General  Eric Holder, bestowed this benefit. They have to know this is ludicrous and this is why they have been silent on this aspect of their allegations. 

The detainee decision involved aspects of both domestic and foreign policy, the former the responsibility of Bermuda and the latter falling under the UK’s remit. Under these circumstances whose authority should prevail? It is interesting to note that as early as 2003 the British government recognized this growing challenge posed by this coming together of foreign and domestic issues. Lord Triesman made the following observation when speaking about the UK relationship with the Overseas Territories: “We are moving into a world which is becoming ever-more interconnected, in which the distinction between domestic and foreign policy will become less and less clear.”  

The UK government has gone even further by granting further responsibilities to its governors in the OTs. These responsibilities clearly fall outside of the powers granted to the UK under our constitution but it is defended on the grounds that that “the UK bears ultimate responsibility for the territories.”

Under these circumstances it simply cannot be that the mere assertion by the UK government that they have sole authority on an issue makes it valid. More importantly, the door is now open for the Bermuda government to argue for greater responsibility in the international arena because key areas of domestic policy—finance, environment, telecommunications—are being determined at the global level.

Bermuda does not have the luxury of being able to first sort out the “big” issues such as crime, education, health care and the environment and then move on “less pressing” issues in the international arena. The changes at the global level will continue and they will continue to affect us whether we are sitting around the table or not. Securing a seat, however, allows us to shape both the discussions and decisions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time to Discuss Independence

Whenever a politician raises the notion of national independence for Bermuda there is a predictable flow of negative commentary. Even though independence is the natural political framework for countries and the democracy we all claim to hold so dearly is only fully realized as a sovereign state,  there are those in this country who would have you believe the quest for independence is both unnatural and unpalatable. Untrue.

We need an open an honest examination of our future constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom. We need this for the simple fact that Bermuda’s interests and the UK’s interest do not necessarily run in tandem. Some of us prefer to remain ostrich-like on this issue but such a divergence of interests can lead to policies that fundamentally weaken Bermuda.

We saw this most dramatically two years ago when Prime Minister Gordon Brown , speaking before finance ministers of the G20 countries stated, “the old tax havens have no place in this new world” and indicated his intent to pursue a common tax policy. Although mislabeled and misunderstood, Bermuda was included in that category. As a British Overseas Territory, without the ability to speak on the international stage without UK permission, our very financial foundation was threatened as the Prime Minister pursued what he saw as the UK’s best interests.

Almost ten years ago Bermuda initiated a challenge to the Isle of Man over a satellite slot. Again, solely because of our constitutional status, the UK Office of Communications represents both territories before the International Telecommunication Union, the global body which administers satellite assignments. This is truly mind-boggling. In an area which represents a potential growth opportunity for Bermuda we lack the capacity to clearly articulate and advocate our own interests. We are required to rely on the protective role played by our benevolent administering power, the United Kingdom.

The success we continue to enjoy in global finance has much to do with the concerted, collaborative effort of government and the private sector in Bermuda and in spite of the challenges thrown us by the UK. There are those who will quickly respond that these policies were UK Labour policies now completely rejected by Prime Minister Cameron’s administration and that Bermuda is in a much better position. This is immaterial. Should Bermuda’s decision about its constitutional future be contingent on the vagaries of British politics and the sensibilities of its leaders?

One argument advanced by the anti-independence advocates is that “now is not the time.” Whenever I ask when would be the right time I am usually met with silence. This issue of our ability to best pursue our financial interests in the international arena will not go away and given all that we see going on there will likely be more challenges on the horizon. This is the time to consider what tools, what structure we need to strengthen our economy. 

The economic case for independence is one part of what should be part of a far more extensive dialogue we have on Bermuda’s constitutional future. We have long since passed the era of revolutionary roads to independence where nationalist ideology and anti-imperialist rhetoric sufficed as the clarion call. The principle, though, of real self-government—not merely internal self-government—remains valid. This is what needs to be addressed.  We should not delude ourselves into thinking we can determine the right time for this discussion to take place, as if the rapidly changing world has no bearing on our destiny. The time is now and it requires your full participation.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sober Refelection is Needed

From time to time, political pundits and party leaders raise the spectre of restructuring aspects of Bermuda’s electoral system. While almost always presented as being in the “national” interest there is, nonetheless, an unmistakable more narrowly defined interest as well. The One Bermuda Alliance’s call for fixed term elections is the latest incarnation of this effort.

On its face, setting a fixed date for general elections seems sensible: all parties as well as voters will know when to prepare and when to vote well in advance. We see this embraced by our closest friend and most important ally the United States and they have set the standard for democratic participation around the world. 

The US system, though, is structured in a fundamentally different way from Bermuda’s parliamentary system and fixed-term elections would sit uncomfortably. The presidential system on which the US is based has direct elections for its leader; and its Congress can continue to operate even with defeats on important votes. By contrast, based on the UK system, our leader is elected indirectly and Government would fall if a key vote in Parliament fails. 

Fixed term elections are a rarity under parliamentary democracies for a reason. There is a long tradition of governance being based on retaining the confidence of the people, through their elected representatives. When that confidence manifestly disappears, an election is the necessary outcome. We saw that recently in Canada and Bermuda came close to this in 2009 with the political rupture caused by Premier Brown’s decision to bring four Guantanamo detainees to Bermuda. 

Votes of no confidence are critical to the parliamentary system and help to keep governing parties on their toes; it is a buffer between the people and wanton and reckless policies. As we have just been reminded, our constitution does not recognise political parties; the leader is that person whom the Governor accepts as commanding the support of the majority of MPs. In the absence of that support an election would inevitably follow. 

Our current system actually grants greater power to the people over Parliament than is often appreciated. The fact that people do not act on the power they have is another story altogether.

The call for fixed term elections suggests that it creates a more level playing field between parties since the time is known well in advance. In fact, the norm is for elections to be called on a four to five year timeframe in Bermuda and political parties have almost always been prepared. After all, since we know the upper limit is five years, parties typically begin preparations by the third year in any event. The only time in our democratic history we have had a break from this practice was in the first half of the 1980s under the leadership of Sir John Swan. Having had an election in 1980, the then-Mr Swan called a subsequent election in 1983, ostensibly to get a personal mandate, but really to take advantage of the boost in support he received after becoming Premier in 1982. And then he called another one in 1985 to benefit from the division that fragmented the PLP.

We will no doubt continue to debate the suitability of our political system, whether this structure represents the best democratic shell for effective governance. Calls for the abolition of political parties, proportional representation and now, fixed dates for elections should all be assessed soberly. They need to be assessed within the context of our political structure and not simply parachuted in from a fundamentally different paradigm. It may well be that some reforms will enhance democratic participation and strengthen people’s rights; and we may need to move in that direction. But reform simply to benefit a political party is likely to be a non-starter.