Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Term Limits: No Simple Solutions

Immigration policy has long been intertwined with Bermuda's political discourse. In its current form, the issue of term limits has taken centre stage with strongly held views coming from multiple sides. While the development and implementation of the six year term limit policy in 2001 was in response to a specific set of concerns, now is a good time to revisit and assess if its current form is best suited to Bermuda today.

Government introduced term limits to discourage the expectation that work permit approval was effectively the same as permanent residency rights. The rationale is that at the time there were 12,000 work permit holders and their dependents, and over any five year period 6,000 of them would still reside on the island after five years.

With such renewals, government felt there would be a legitimate expectation of permanent residency status. But no government, anywhere, would likely grant or be allowed to grant permanent residency in one fell swoop to a group of people who comprise more than ten percent of the local population.

Employers have criticised this policy because they argue some of their best talent is lost; further, many have called for employees to simply sign a waiver saying they accept they have no legitimate claim to permanent residency. Because most employers only care about their employment needs they are silent on the issue of what happens to that long serving employee, who having given some of her most productive years to that company and Bermuda, has no security of tenure in her later years. 

This is precisely the issue with those workers who came to the island after 1989 the year Bermuda status grants were abolished and have had permits renewed simply on application.

A number of discussions have taken place between government and the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers (ABIR) and the Bermuda First group and it appears there is movement toward some common, even if not completely satisfactory ground on term limits. The goal is to find the right balance between creating and sustaining an attractive business environment, the long term interests of Bermuda and Bermudians and fair treatment of our guest workers. 

Political posturing and anonymous invective do not help. The issues are complex and intertwined and do not lend themselves to simplistic solutions. The OBA has seemingly offered such a solution: “End term limits for job categories that normally get 90 percent waivers” says Shadow Finance Minister Mr Bob Richards.
This alone completely side steps the reason for term limits being introduced in the first place. What does the OBA propose to do with the work permit holder after he has worked for ten years? Grant PRC, status, or allow them to continue without security of tenure? If the decision is to grant PRC or status, how many people are we talking about on an annual basis? And what are the infrastructure implications? We should recall that one of the reasons why the Department of Immigration sought to limit the number of work permit holders with children (as insensitive as it sounds) was because there were limited places in schools for children.

Term limit policy has to be discussed in tandem with the rights and privileges of long term residents. As these discussions continue we should be mindful not to inject a class bias into the formulation of policy; one that gives the wealthy and powerful guest worker disproportionate benefits in contrast to those granted to the weak and poor. This is where government has to speak for those who have no voice, those silenced by intimidation. The contribution of the unskilled or less skilled guest worker is also vital for our economy.

Introducing the term limit policy has been one of the most controversial polices of this government and its implementation was designed to address a potent political problem. Ten years later it is important to re-assess and determine how the policy can be modified while taking into consideration multiple factors. The key here is balance.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time for a new paradigm

Monday’s Labour Day celebration offered us an opportunity to reflect on the essential role played by working people in both building and sustaining our country. While foreign investors and savvy entrepreneurs inject capital, establish companies and create opportunities, none of this is possible without the work of labourers, sales assistants, secretaries and couriers. It is this duality of efforts that keeps the economic engine running. These efforts, though, have always been framed by confrontation and mistrust. With our engine running sluggishly and fundamental changes on a global scale this may well be the time to move toward an enhanced labour—management paradigm.

Any new paradigm should include, minimally, the following characteristics: (1) the interests of the country should transcend any more narrowly defined interest; (2) deliberations should be rooted in transparency and full disclosure; and (3) a sense of social responsibility should envelop decision-making.

The right of workers and business owners/managers to pursue their interests is inalienable but not absolute. I think reasonable people will agree that keeping buses running for our tourists and students is more important than a labour/management dispute over a bus driver; that the protection of our national image and profile abroad is a better guarantor of our long term sustainability than bad managers fomenting labour unrest in their pursuit of a narrow economic agenda. We will make progress when the specific pursuits of workers and business owners/managers are placed in the broader national context. It may well mean that some issues are dropped because there is a larger area of concern more pressing, which if not addressed will weaken our country in ways which will take a long time to recover from.

There is often a cat ‘n’ mouse game played between management and labour as they seek to win some concession, akin to a game of high stakes poker: some information is revealed, some concealed, much left to speculation and interpretation. I believe if both parties shared more information and provided a clear rationale for the positions taken better decisions could be arrived at, faster.  Aiming high and settling somewhere below what was first sought months later is an old approach ill-suited to the exigencies of Bermuda today. Deliberations based on all available information with advocates also looking at the national interest are more likely to come to agreement more quickly than deliberations shrouded in secrecy and the incremental release of data.

One of the ironies of today is that while trade union radicalism has abated as progress has been won we have seen, worldwide, and unrelenting pursuit of profit maximization and greater shareholder value at almost any cost. Some people will simply call this greed. This provided the backdrop for the financial crisis, pushing some countries to the brink of collapse and, because business has been successful in arguing “what’s good for them is good for the country” governments have stepped in to back them. We did that here as well. When juxtaposed with the concessions unions have made to retain jobs the call for greater corporate social responsibility makes sense. Progressive companies view their employees as partners and involve them in key decisions and provide a level of profit sharing as well. A radical shift in thinking for Bermuda but perhaps one we need to consider seriously.

 It is often said that Bermuda is small enough with all key decision makers within close proximity of each other that we should be able to sit down and work out all of our challenges. Aside from the political divide—which is more imagined than real—we have the opportunity to move toward a more collaborative, socially responsible relationship between labour and management. Such a move would benefit the countryl. All that seems to be lacking is the courage and vision for one party to take the first step.

The OBA and new politics

With the One Bermuda Alliance having now elected a new leader and a slate of officers, Bermuda is poised to enter the next election cycle with a new look party challenging the PLP’s 13-year record of governance. This will be an election fought perhaps with greater vigour than previously as alternative views about how best to address the needs of the people will be debated against the backdrop of the most challenging economic times in living memory for most of us.

As this debate escalates and evolves there are some important aspects of Bermuda’s current political terrain I think we all need to be mindful of.

Firstly, the group that supported the UBP in the last election (some 47 percent of voters) has largely transferred their support to the OBA. Whether the OBA creation was part of a strategy based on a leaked UBP consultant’s report or whether it was the spontaneous creation of disgruntled politicians and voters is less relevant now. The party is with us and it is a credible political force. That two former Premiers, Gibbons and Swan, lent their support to the OBA almost immediately after formation no doubt sent a strong message to the former UBP supporters. 

Secondly, race regrettably remains a key factor in our electoral politics. While black voters have always split their votes across the parties, white voters always voted virtually in unison for the UBP. Given the old UBP support being transferred to the OBA, whites are almost certainly to vote en masse for the OBA. This white voting pattern remained during the 1990s when the PLP deliberately eschewed invoking anything based on a racially positioned strategy. This pattern remains during the tenure of the PLP government when there has not been a single law enacted or policy adopted based on any form of racial discrimination. We will make progress when whites are less racial in their voting pattern. It is certainly true that there is a small minority PLP members who inflame racial sentiment with provocative commentary and this needs to cease; but their rhetoric alone cannot explain the minuscule white electoral support given over the decades. 

Thirdly, when the economy is in trouble, the government gets blamed. We seem to reject the conventional wisdom contained in the adage, “When American sneezes, Bermuda gets a cold.” It is without question that the global economic crisis has more significantly weakened our economy than anything done locally by this government. It does not take an economics degree to know this; just look at what most countries in the world are now experiencing. Could we do a better job repositioning tourism? Without question. Could we have better controlled the public purse on capital projects? Indeed. Those who speak of the PLP government as if it has destroyed our economy are continuing a story begun in the 1970s, when the PLP first showed electoral growth. The line then, as it is now, is that the PLP cannot run the country and certainly not the economy. Former Legislative Council President Arnott Jackson wondered out loud if this really was a non too subtle attack on black people (Royal Gazette, December 4, 1979). 

Finally, disrespect for voters will almost always come at a price. We need to respect the voting decisions made by our electorate. Calling the support for one party “emotional” devalues a decision made by a voter who is voting in their best interest as they see it. Parties are required to work to win the support of voters and should take none of them for granted. Regrettably, the OBA’s first electoral step seems set to do precisely this: In Mr John Barritt agreeing to resign his seat and “handing it over” to Mr Cannnonier there is the clear (some might say, arrogant) assumption that the voters of Devonshire South Central will merely follow the lead and endorse the new OBA leader. Given that Mr Barritt won 85 percent of the vote in the 2007 election, voting turnout and party support in the upcoming by-election there will be a barometer of how voters feel about being taken for granted.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

History has Vindicated Walter Brangman

One summer afternoon in 1984 I was sitting off in my parent’s den engaged in a discussion about the future direction of the Progressive Labour Party with my uncle, Walter Brangman. Back in Bermuda during a summer break in my graduate studies and imbued with the socialist sensibilities that dominated my academic programme, I challenged my uncle—then a dissenting member of the PLP—for not being radical enough, for not addressing the plight of the working masses. At the time I thought we were embroiled in a heated debate but on reflection the heat and agitation was unidirectional, coming solely from me. My uncle was calm and respectful as he patiently heard me out. At one point he exposed his signature warm smile and said, “Walton, I was a lot like you when I was your age. In twenty years’ time you’ll be thinking a lot more like me.”

Walter Brangman was a man of strong convictions about what was right for Bermuda; and he never shied away from making his point. When he helped form the Members for Change inside the PLP in 1984 he wanted to see the party move to a more centrist disposition because he felt the party needed to be more inclusive and because it would enhance the party’s electability. He was a founding member of the National Liberal Party because he felt a centrist party, and one that was genuinely bi-racial, could better serve the interests of the people. That the NLP had an uphill battle in a polarized Bermuda compounded by the weakening of third parties under our first-past-the-pots electoral system takes nothing away from sincerity of the NLP’s raison d’être. 

In his later years, Mr Brangman would offer his insights and experience to help elucidate the public on any number of public issues that were prominent at the time. I have often wondered why no government has ever seen fit to empanel a team of experienced and retired great thinkers as both a sounding and advisory board so that policy can be better informed. Walter Brangman would have been an excellent contributor to such a group.

No matter what the topic, no matter what the circumstances, my uncle set the standard for calm and reflective deliberation. While some of us are prone to raising our voices and vigourous gesticulation to make a point; and while the weak go for a more demeaning approach; Walter Brangman managed to be dispassionate while caring deeply about the issues. He showed me this on that summer afternoon, he reflected that during his tenure in Parliament (1976-1985) and he lived that during his successful post-Parliament career. 

The island-wide outpouring of affection for this quiet, humble soldier in the battle for a more just, a fairer Bermuda is telling. He was one of many who worked selflessly to improve our social condition.  As a member of the PLP while in opposition, he worked alongside a team of people who pricked the conscience of Government, oftentimes persuading it to provide for more socially progressive legislation and policy. He was not one of those MPs who sat in Parliament barely uttering a word; rather he was always engaged, always offering his views and campaigning for reform. 

History has vindicated him and the Members for Change since the PLP did eventually move to a more centrist position and in large part because of this, won the seat of power in 1998. In some respects, he was also right about me.