Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ideology and Party Politics

The ideology embraced by a political party is perhaps the single most important factor in determining the policies that party promotes. All parties have an ideological outlook — whether its members are conscious of it or not — and that outlook is positioned somewhere along the left-right spectrum. And, no, Bermuda is not an exception.

The Progressive Labour Party was founded as a party of labour and has been a critical agent for social reform over almost 50 years. Over the decades, some of the strident “progressive” policies such as income tax and nationalisation have given way to the practicality of electoral politics and the party has moved toward, yet does not occupy, the political centre. Ideologically, the PLP is left of centre on Bermuda’s political spectrum and could rightly be labelled a liberal party.

A new political party, the One Bermuda Alliance occupies the same ideological space as the now marginalised United Bermuda Party. They are cut from the same cloth. The OBA tends to place greater emphasis on addressing business needs since business growth is seen as the engine for the growth of the country and therefore the betterment of people. Their agenda for governance would sit comfortably alongside that of the Conservative Party in the UK and is rightly placed right of the ideological centre.

There are striking parallels between the political battle around ideology and elections in Bermuda and what is going on in the US presidential campaign. Consider the issue of debt, the recession and budget deficits — no doubt critical issues for the election campaigns.

The Obama administration has implemented a number of decisions designed to inject money into the economy to prevent a further contraction, to help support those in need and to help provide for economic stimulus. During his tenure the US debt has increased significantly as these policies were set in motion. This is directly paralleled with economic programme Premier Cox has adopted.

The Romney campaign has excoriated President Obama for a massive increase in debt levels over the past four years and for growing budget deficits, which he has labelled irresponsible and indicative of mismanagement. He has pledged to significantly reduce debt levels and get to a balanced budget over two terms. The OBA has adopted a similar approach here.
None of this is surprising given the ideological dispositions of the respective parties. What is surprising is that political parties would hold to positions based on ideology when substantive bodies of research and analysis point to it being wrong-headed. 

On the issue of debt, for example, the New York Times wrote yesterday in an editorial that the Eurostat Euro Indicators statistics released on Monday “provide objective support for what has been clear to just about everyone except pro-austerity German officials and deficit-crazed Republican politicians. Namely, deep government budget cuts at a time of economic weakness are counterproductive, complicating, if not ruining, the chances for economic growth.”

The power of ideology is such that it shapes a party’s ethos and it shapes its policies. At times, ideological purity will be sacrificed in the pursuit of electoral gains; and this can be done without moving away from core principles. Everyone has a way of seeing the world and they tend to support political parties that they find common cause with. A good friend of mine recently posed the following question: “If Barack Obama was Bermudian, which party would he vote for?” My answer: “That’s a question about ideology.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A right, not a privilege

The right to vote is the most powerful expression of democracy for a country. It is sacrosanct, inviolable and should never be fettered in its expression. We have come a long way from the dark and oppressive pre-1968 era and while we still have a way to go, Bermuda’s strength as a vibrant democracy rests on the bed of democracy we have made over the decades. 

It was not until 1963 that all adults were granted the right to vote; this only after a successful public campaign by the Committee for Universal Suffrage forced the hand of a recalcitrant Parliament. But the old oligarchy restrained the full expression of democracy by, along with granting the vote to all adults, increased the voting age to 25; gave an extra vote to property owners; and gave the vote to all British subjects after three years’ residence. 

The plus vote was soon dropped; the voting age pushed back to 21; and British subjects coming to Bermuda after 1978 were no longer entitled to the vote. After years of effort by a pro-youth lobby, the vote was finally extended to 18 year olds in 1990. Even then, however, Bermuda had not yet become a proper democracy as the electoral system had two fundamental flaws: 

(1) electoral districts were structured to achieve a particular racial outcome and thereby embedded race into the political structure; and

(2) the constituency sizes varied widely, with the effect being that not only did voters in some constituencies have greater voting strength, the strength was also weighted toward white voters.

When the requirement to register to vote annually was eliminated and single seat constituencies were introduced in 2003, along with a constitutional requirement that constituencies be of, more or less, equal size, Bermuda finally had a democratic shell that matched the democratic ideals so many Bermudians seek.

The vote that we all share equally is not a privilege, rather a right. The vote provides you with the power to shape policies that affect you by determining who gets to run the country. It is not surprising to note that some Bermudians will vote in knee jerk fashion for ‘their’ party. That too is democracy. Many others will use their vote to reflect on the parties’ policies, their proposals, and the people who present themselves for elected office and render a decision about which party and which candidate can best advance their interests. That power is something you have without restraint.

As free and as protected as this right to vote is in Bermuda, there are those who will choose not to participate for any number of reasons. That too is a democratic right. My view is that those who do not participate lose legitimacy in speaking out on the social, political and economic issues that governments get to shape. How serious are you about the issues if, when given the right to shape outcomes, you step back from the simple yet very powerful responsibility to vote?

Alongside this unfettered right to vote, all of us should be concerned about attempts to suppress the vote. Efforts to take people off the voters’ list should be resisted strongly — it raises bad memories of the bad olĂ© days pre-1968. 

Democracy is the cornerstone of a mature and progressive country and the vote is its most public expression. Every Bermudian has the ability to shape the outcome of our society by using what was won over the decades in a hard fought fight. While we may all be privileged to live here, exercising the vote is one of our fundamental rights.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

We need an international view

One area seemingly never raised over successive elections is that of international relations. While our elected government has little direct control over external affairs, owing to our colonial status, Bermuda is impacted daily by global forces; how Government acts to address such challenges has important consequences for the lives we live. 

One of the most important challenges over the past ten years was the threat to our status as an international financial centre as the OECD and a number of regional bodies sought to label Bermuda as a “harmful tax” jurisdiction. Under successive Finance Ministers Eugene Cox and Paula Cox and the unsung efforts of the Ministry of Finance staff, we overcame that challenge and have protected both our global reputation and those companies that do business here.

Further, every time we sign another Tax Information Exchange Agreement (TIEA) with another country we lay the foundation for enhanced bilateral relations. As an example, one small consequence of signing with Australia is that Bermuda passport holders were able to apply for a visa online, as do British passport holders, and not have to bother with the cumbersome submission of paper documents.

Bermuda’s global interests do not necessarily run in tandem with those of the United Kingdom. A good example of this involves the matter of the four Uighurs brought to Bermuda. Premier Ewart Brown’s bold, controversial and divisive decision would certainly have been vetoed by the UK had they had prior knowledge, but perhaps more important than the humanitarian gesture it was is the geopolitical and economic reality that America matters more to Bermuda than the UK.

And this act served to strengthen our relationship with the United States. As an aside, the current “stateless” status of these four men will no doubt be resolved as soon as the key parties work toward a solution.
One of the constraints on best pursuing our interests globally is that we are only granted a voice with British consent or by taking action surreptitiously. When we are not sitting around the table when our interests are discussed the consequences can be significant. The European Union decision to impose a visa regime on Bermuda is a prime, even if, unfortunate example of this.

In 2006, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office misinformed the European Union that Overseas Territories Citizens of the UK did not have the right of abode in the UK. This was patently false since under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 all Overseas Territories citizens were made British Citizens again, in May, 2002, having been deprived of that status under the British Nationality Act 1981.

On the basis of FCO misinformation the EU imposed a visa regime on Bermudians decades after a former Delegated Affairs Minister, Sir John Sharpe had successfully negotiated visa exemptions. If Bermuda was sitting around the EU table UK misinformation would not have gone unchallenged.

More generally, Bermuda-UK relations will require greater attention in the years ahead as the British seek to develop a new structure to the relationship. There can be no mistaking: this relationship is not based on any notion of equality as the power to decide resides with the British. If there is to be a partnership we are certainly the junior one. As a country we will have to decide if in the pursuit of our economic, political and social interests globally we are encased within the ideal political shell.

Global opportunities abound for Bermuda. They have the potential to strengthen our island in a multitude of ways from live/work opportunities beyond the EU to bilateral investment agreements. Now is the time to broaden our focus beyond 21 square miles and pursue opportunities where and when they emerge.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Accuracy in Polling

When I first started doing political polling in 1998 I knew that whatever the results were they would be controversial: one party, one leader would fare better than the other and in a charged political climate the messenger would be attacked.  My company was the lone (and much maligned) voice predicting a PLP victory in 1998 solely due to polling data but our methods were vindicated when the results came in. I knew then that  an important part of my focus was necessarily to ensure international best practices were followed at all levels and there was integrity in the results I published.

It is unfortunate that the MindMaps political survey falls short of this mark, rendering many of its findings inaccurate. The international standard question on “approval ratings” is based on a simple construct: “do you approve or disapprove”. The answer is either “yes”, “no” or “not sure”. This is the format used by CNN, IPSOS, Gallup, Pew, Zogby and every other reputable polling company world-wide. There are two reasons for this: (1) it allows comparisons of polls by different companies and it allows comparisons of leaders, for example and (2) it allows for clarity of a response, with little interpretation.

Comparison of polls is critical in a democracy since they effectively act as informal policing of quality control. If different companies ask the same questions yet get widely different answers the public will want to know why and questions of competence and manipulation will arise.  Further, by asking the same question worldwide we can compare approval ratings for Bermuda’s leaders with other leaders and gain greater insight into the drivers of public sentiment.

In contrast, the MindMaps survey, by using a scale of 1 to 5 (in industry speak it is called a Likert scale) asks respondents about the intensity of their approval, not simply whether or not they approve or disapprove. Why they would violate such a fundamental tenet of political polling is disconcerting since it raises questions about both their competence and motives.  With this approach, there are two positive and two negative responses and a mid-point of uncertainty, producing exactly the ambiguity the international standard question format was designed to prevent.  More importantly, those who have opted for the mid-point have their views discounted altogether , being placed in neither the positive nor negative category.  But what can you say about these respondents’ approval or disapproval of a leader? In fact, the MindMaps survey is not an assessment of approval ratings of leaders and should not be published as such – it simply tells us how strongly people approve or disapprove their leadership. And these are two quite distinct issues.

A different example may help illustrate the point. If I were to ask how strongly do you approve an amendment to the Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation I am certain I would get quite a different answer than if I simply asked if you approve its inclusion or not.

An equally important issue is the integrity in data collection. Any company which allows its staff to hand out forms to friends and colleagues to complete violates the central tenet of polling—randomness in data collection—and thus renders the data useless. As a result, any findings published or presented to clients will have no validity. For companies and political parties making decisions on bad data, they may well be in for some costly surprises.

Political polling is an important part of informing public opinion and giving the public a voice on many things political. Good polling provides reliable actionable data that can both inform strategies and help mobilize support. Bad polling, no matter how well it is packaged, provides no insight and will inevitably lead to flawed strategies because of its flawed premise. We need to move to a higher standard.

Note: This was first published as a Facebook Note December 2011.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Debunking the myths

We are truly immersed in the silly season. No doubt inspired by the tremendously creative political tactics permeating the American political landscape, Bermuda will clearly see more hyperbole coming from competing political forces. Alongside this, there is a sort of petulant propaganda masquerading as an economic recovery strategy. We see this in the series of arguments made recently by former Premier John Swan and Larry Burchall.

At last week’s public forum, Mr Burchall opined that, “Bermuda is undergoing an absolute decline in its residential population. This residential population decline underpins and affects everything else in Bermuda’s national economy.”

Based on this opinion Messrs Swan and Burchall proceeded to argue, in reverse Malthusian theory, that Bermuda needs to bring more people to the Island in order for economic growth to take place. And so we have a new economic growth theory advanced by non-economists and accepted nowhere in the world that some of us are actually taking seriously. Increased number of foreign workers may well be a consequence of various economic growth strategies but increased numbers alone will not stimulate growth. Mr Burchall has even gone so far as to identify the precise size our workforce should be: 40,000.

The reality is that our residential population has increased, not decreased, over a ten year period based on the only accurate count of Bermuda’s population — the census. Between 2000 and 2010 the total population increased from 62,059 to 64,237, or four percent, the residential workforce population increased during this same period from 29,970 to 30,729; and the total workforce grew from 36,878 to 37,197. These facts alone undermine the entirety of their argument.

A national census is a counting of numbers to allow for proper planning; it is undertaken at regular intervals to allow for trend analysis and to smooth out distortions created by sharp upward or downward movements — such as one would chart business sales and revenue.

The Swan — Burchall ‘theory’ is based on using figures that came from the height of our economic bubble, from 2007-2009, our own period of irrational exuberance, and taking that as the new norm — in direct contradiction to the most basic principle of statistical analysis. Adopting that technique is to descend into the realm of propaganda, to distort and misrepresent figures to meet the objective you seek.

The remedies proposed by Swan and Burchall are perhaps more important than the intellectual foundation of their argument. We do have to re-examine term limits, but not for the reasons they identify: my views on this issue were outlined a year ago in this column (September 21, 2011). And we do need to extend greater rights to PRC holders — ideally all rights as a Bermudian save for a Bermuda passport and the right to vote.

An increased residential population is not necessarily the outcome of increased foreign currency earnings for Bermuda. And it is earning more national income that is key. We have already seen from ABIR’s figures that they injected more money into the economy last year while experiencing a 1.7 percent decline in people employed.

I am also told by friends in the reinsurance arena that new companies coming to market are driven more by technology and thus require smaller staff than would otherwise have been the case ten years ago. Further, outsourcing will continue as cheaper technology is applied to sound business decision making — hence the HSBC call centre in the Philippines.

Beyond reinsurance, a successful regeneration of tourism will generate greater foreign earnings without the same considerations prevalent in discussion with the international business community.

Increasing the number of people today will certainly help in the rental of the many vacant properties and save commercial property developers who took a gamble during the bubble. And ideally, with an economic turnaround there will be modest increases in the population which will in turn provide a measure of relief in these areas. But no sound economic growth strategy will have such growth as part of its underpinning.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Insurance Fact and Fiction

I recently had the opportunity to review the 2011 Economic Impact Study put out by the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers a few months ago. There is something rather odd going on: their narrative is at odds with their own data. 

In commenting on the study, ABIR chairman Constantine Iordanou cites as a key finding the continuing downward trend in jobs since “it means fewer jobs in Bermuda; lower payroll tax revenues; less compounding economic activity from these highly compensated executives; and fewer meetings filling up hotels and restaurants”. The organisation’s executive director Bradley Kading attributes the 2011 results to “the continued impacts of a global economy in recovery mode and a soft insurance market” but also “$105 billion in global natural disaster catastrophe losses”.

When the data are examined in aggregate we see that during this difficult economic period job reduction of the ABIR members was a negligible 1.7 percent in 2011 over 2010 (1,696 employees) and down 6.5 percent from the 2007 peak year. The number of Bermudian jobs is down by 13 from 2010, or 1.1 percent. It may well be that “the five ABIR members with historically the largest number of employees in Bermuda have reduced their employment during that time by an average of 23 percent” as Mr Iordanou asserts, but it also necessarily means there has been growth among other ABIR companies. Further, the data seem not to suggest there is “a direct correlation between these senior executives being in Bermuda and employment opportunities for Bermudians”.

By praising Government for passing the Job Creator’s Act, ABIR — and no doubt Government — believes there is a strong causality between encouraging more senior executives to the Island along with giving them security of tenure and the creation of more jobs for Bermudians. That remains to be seen but available data do not support this contention. This legislation is a consequence of international business lobbying and its origins seem to stem more from personal motivations than business logic and a focus on strengthening the Island’s economy. Perhaps it is a nod to fragility of our economy and that we rest on a single pillar. 

In contrast with the comment that job losses automatically lead to less injection of money into Bermuda we see that these declines in employment notwithstanding, ABIR’s 22 members had a greater economic impact in 2011 than during the previous year in critical areas: travel and entertainment expenses are up seven percent; business services expenses in Bermuda are up by about six percent; charitable donations up by 13 percent; and construction and housing costs up by 4.3 percent. That that increased revenue was derived with a slightly smaller workforce is instructive and there may well be some merit in probing deeper to better understand this. 

These findings should give us all pause. There is no doubt that international business — and insurance and reinsurance in particular — is the core of our economy today. 

We should all value it and work to ensure that it remains strong; and appropriate policies and strategies from both the government and private sector are important to achieve this goal. Decisions, though, should be rooted in fact, not anecdote, and careful assessment of available data. Our dependence on international business should not blind us to our responsibility to critically assess any and all assessments and proposals regarding improving our economy. A failure to do so may well mean we fail Bermuda.

Friday, September 7, 2012

OBA Bereft of Economic Plan

At Wednesday’s OBA press conference on the economy Shadow Finance Minister Bob Richards and candidate Sylvan Richards detailed the impact the global recession has had on Bermuda. They went on to posit that our current circumstances have a clear “Made in Bermuda” stamp on them and that the PLP government is to blame. Not a surprising position given the current climate. But what is surprising is that the OBA is bereft of any ideas of how to get out of this so-called made in Bermuda recession.

They do provide the text book economic viewpoint on the relationship between the state and the private sector: the role of government is to create the environment for growth and investment. But other than arguing that there is waste in government and abuse of GP cars (which I agree with) what would the OBA do if elected? The PLP has already put a freeze on new Government positions and plans to reduce the size of the civil service through attrition rather than massive redundancies but we know not what the OBA would do. While they said they will not lay off civil servants and in the past they also said they would reduce the size through attrition, they have equally called for dramatic action to decrease civil service numbers.

I agree with the OBA that “It is critical that this deficit trend is reversed” and that we get to a point “where government is able to pay its current expenses, just like we would expect any household to do.” But as every economist knows, during a period of global recession the challenge of meeting this goal rises exponentially. It is also during such tough times that we see the difference between a government that cares about the most vulnerable compared to a party that focuses on a balance sheet more than human misery. Financial Assistance and Legal Aid have both gone way beyond their budgets in the last few years, and yes, they no doubt need to be reformed.

But which senior or struggling family meeting the criteria for assistance should be denied? What defendant should go with legal counsel? Conservative political parties, like the OBA, say people need to plan better. Can we really argue this with straight faces while knowing we have a regressive employment tax giving the wealthy an important benefit over workers who in some cases do not even take home a living wage? 

Messrs Richards and Richards dismiss the important investments in infrastructure as “reckless and desperate” but would they not have built Berkeley, Heritage Wharf or affordable homes? Which project do they think should not have been on the drawing board? And to make the point that our infrastructure is “crumbling”, “rusting” and “broken” is to make reference to a reality that is not Bermuda. Drive around, have a look and you will see a country with a well-developed, well-maintained infrastructure; but my colleagues already know this and they are well travelled so they further know Bermuda is among the best in this respect.

This government has embarked upon a bold new tourism initiative to rebrand, rebuild and reinvigorate our tourism product in an effort to recapture the grandeur that tourism once was. Success would put more money directly into the hands of more Bermudians than many other industries. Other than the ideologically driven call for a Tourism Authority what is the OBA position?

It is fair game for the opposition to challenge government on its record — to identify shortcomings. Hyperbole will no doubt form part of that challenge and contributes to a robust environment for debate. Thus far the OBA has been long on criticism and short on solutions. Given the conservative ethos that underpins much of its positioning they may be deliberately holding back from letting the public know what they would do if elected. And for this, the public should be gravely concerned.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Protect Freedom of Speech

We are now immersed in an intense debate surrounding free speech issues. Social media, comment pages on electronic news sites and talk radio have created a wide arena for public debate, banter and a great deal of mudslinging. While many of these comments can best be described with a depressing number of negative adjectives — sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. — they share common ground in that this freedom to express oneself is now taken for granted. It has not always been so.

Free speech in Bermuda has only really developed over the past ten years; twenty years ago our Island was constrained by a culture of intimidation and backroom tactics exerted by the power elite to stifle dissenting opinions. So much so was this the case that a Royal Commissioner Justice Stephen Tumim in 1992 referred to a “fear of speaking out” as a fundamental challenge for Bermuda. 

One personal story illustrates the nature of the political terrain 20 years ago. In 1993 I produced and hosted a weekly television show called Behind the Headlines, where I interviewed prominent personalities on key issues. When I sought to interview the Minister of Finance and the Shadow Minister, the Minister declined, leaving me to interview only the Shadow Minister. After this interview the Broadcasting Commission labelled my show a political broadcast and sought to impose significant restraints. When I appeared before the commission, chaired by Louise Jackson, and explained the show was of a “political nature” but not a “political broadcast” as outlined in the relevant legislation, the commission told me I did not understand the law. One member, John Plowman, asked me, “What is your real agenda?” With two directly opposed views the show remained off the air. Immediately after the 1993 general election the commission wrote to me indicating they now accept my position the programme was indeed of a “political nature”, not a “political broadcast” and that I was free to resume my broadcast. My conclusion was the obvious one: the politically appointed commission members did not want open discussion on political issues in the run up to an election.

Such tactics would never be tolerated today and we have evolved to a place where the public across the political spectrum takes for granted the centrality of free speech in our discourse. But with free speech comes responsibility; and we are unfortunately inundated with a great deal of irresponsibility today. Some of this irresponsibility causes embarrassment to individuals and poses challenges for political parties, although the latter are fair game. Amidst calls for restraint there is the inevitable call for the state to be more assertive in exercising control over what people say. Any move in this direction would be unwise and would require challenge — we cannot go back 20 years. The reality is that free and democratic societies — and we aspire to that — must protect this right to free speech.

One way to shift the tenor of our public discourse is to lead by the example you wish to set. If you think anonymous writers are anathema to sincere debate, ignore them. If you conclude that talk show caller is making merely personal attacks and not dealing with issues, ignore them. And if you determine the person challenging your position never seeks to actually engage you in debate but merely vents, then perhaps they should be ignored as well.

Free speech is a cornerstone of a strong democracy. It needs to be both cherished and respected. When we respect this right perhaps more of us will exercise it responsibly.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lessons from the Olympics

There is much we can learn from the recently concluded 2012 Olympics. These games were impressive on many fronts — from the opening ceremony, to the daily and perfectly executed competitions to the behind the scenes efficient management — and London, indeed Britain, has a great deal to be proud of. The spirit of the Olympics extends well beyond the competition among nations for gold and it makes sense to reflect on what lessons can be discerned.

An obvious lesson is that talent is the significant relevant factor, not privilege. Too often in other areas of life we reward people either because of a privileged background or some connection that gives them a head start over others. Those who try to cheat the Olympic system are usually found out and they lose out altogether. The rigour with which the International Olympic Committee enforces the focus on talent and a level playing field sends the right message to those talented athletes from small and smaller countries that through hard work their raw talent and ability can translate into success — witness Kirani James from Grenada.

It is important to note that while there is a focus on winning medals, even those who do not win medals can still showcase their talent and growth. Our own Roy Allen Burch set a new Bermuda record, while just missing out on making the finals. Both he and our national swim coach, Ben Smith, should be applauded for this. Success can come in a multitude of forms. 

With the Olympics we see the emergence of national pride that at times may be euphoric but never jingoist. It often has a unifying effect on a country as citizens suspend the daily battles with real and imagined enemies and thrust their support behind their athletes, with momentum gaining as one advances to the next round and the medals are won. There is much to be said about events that can bring a country together, where its citizens come to appreciate that at times the pursuit of the national interest minimises other differences that exist. 

An enduring characteristic of the Olympic spirit is a clearly demonstrated respect for people of all nations and a policy of zero tolerance for those racists and bigots who would tarnish this image through their actions. Their administration of justice in this arena was clear, swift and definitive. A consequence of this is that all athletes and their representatives are more likely to have high confidence levels that there will be minimal factors at play to take their focus away from the games themselves. 

Of particular note this year, the Olympics demonstrated that they can adjust their policies and rules given a changed set of realities. Having respect for all religions meant there had to be found a way to accommodate Muslim women who wanted to compete and continue to practice their faith. This was accomplished with little fanfare yet set an important precedent which no doubt will evolve further in 2016. The IOC made the sensible decision to allow Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius to compete and, again, set an important precedent for the admission of competitors with prosthetic limbs.

Finally, the infrastructure built for the Olympics provided the backdrop for these impressive Olympics. It is true that there were significant cost over runs — a report from the Said Business School at Oxford University puts it at £8.4 billion, double the original estimate of £4.2 billion — but there is little doubt the tremendous investment into economically depressed areas of London will reap long rewards for the people living there.

The spirit of the Olympics has now been passed on to Rio de Janeiro; the legacy of London is both instructive and encouraging.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Disagree, but keep talking

Let me first thank Kevin Comeau for his response in the Tuesday edition of this newspaper to my earlier comments. This is precisely the sort of engaged debate we should be having around critical issues rather than the diatribes passing for discussion and the exchanges burdened by the non-sequitur. I therefore accept his invitation to respond.

Mr Comeau begins by asserting that the undercurrent of my argument is that he is “politically motivated”. Untrue. His comments are undoubtedly political insofar as he wants to see important progress in Bermuda on the issue of race but I have no idea of Kevin’s political proclivities nor is it germane to our debate. Nothing in my comments can support his contention in this regard.

It is true that I encouraged Mr Comeau to take his clear passion for addressing the race issue beyond the private domain to the public arena; as a matter of practice, though, I do not disclose the contents of my private discussion with private figures along with their identities to the public, unless explicitly authorised to do so. Further, I hold the view that Kevin is serious in his intent to improve Bermuda’s racial landscape — I simply disagree with much of his analysis and prescription.

The intellectual flaw in the Comeau analysis is the simplistic belief in a dual construct to explain the totality of black advocacy: “black authenticity” vs “morality based” constructs. 

The two fundamental problems are: (1) these constructs are imported from the US onto a completely different socio-economic and political terrain and (2) it examines black people as one dimensional characters. But we are also male, female, young, old, rich and poor. Reducing the analysis to race marginalises the importance of class and therefore clouds the reality of real political struggles. I document this in my book, “Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform”. As a consequence, I reject the labelling of me by Kevin as a “racial equity advocate.” My activism is more complex and more expansive than this. 

There are many who want to believe corruption is rampant in this Government. Mr Comeau says there is “strong circumstantial evidence.” He bases the entirety of his argument on cost overruns on capital projects making inferences about secret deals and questionable conduct by officials. Overruns on capital projects are not unique to this Government nor is it unique to Bermuda. A few months ago I had a long discussion with an individual who was a central figure in the expansion of the airport under the UBP. He explained credibly how the initial budget of $9 million ended up costing taxpayers $27 million. 

In general, though, Mr Comeau is right when he raises the alarm bells about overruns, while I believe he is wrong as to the reasons. A report published by the UK based Taxpayers’ Alliance ( shows that the average net cost overrun on capital projects in the UK is 38 percent. The larger projects tend to have the greatest cost overrun. The US conservative think tank the Cato Institute argues that these findings match US findings. When explaining this, the Cato Institute opines “the inefficiencies in government stem from deep, structural factors, not the skills of the particular politicians or administrators in office.” This is consistent with my publicly expressed position that governments should not be managing large capital projects.

I think Mr Comeau may have been unintentional in blaming black people for the problems of race today but there is no doubt this is precisely what he is doing. His argument may be logical — the black authenticity construct leads to a hostile environment for whites — but it has no applicability in Bermuda. It is a false construct. 

The entirety of his comments refers to what black people should be doing to create the terrain for white participation. Putting party politics aside, since that is shaped by class as much as it is by race, there is the realm of civil society which plays a pivotal role in shaping consciousness. The sad reality is that whites have not and do not generally participate in historically black institutions and events while blacks have done the reverse, at times under great duress. The recent brouhaha over the lack of white people attending the Carifta Games is one manifestation of this sentiment.

Many of us walk down the path in search of ways and strategies to create a more harmonious, stronger and united Bermuda. We see the proverbial Promised Land. Kevin Comeau and I seek the same objective even when we disagree about how to explain our current situation and the way forward. But dialogue such as this is a necessary precondition for any progressive steps forward.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cricket, Cup Match and life

Whenever decision day draws near each year, both sides roll out their team and there is an unrelenting fight to see who will emerge victorious. The Island will clearly be divided, we will be saturated with a litany of colorful commentary- both positive and negative - and there will be a great deal of handwringing as the numbers come in. The people, however, will have to content themselves as passionate observers from the sidelines. This, after all, is Cup Match.

Born out of Emancipation celebratory activities, Cup Match, along with the numerous related activities, has now established itself as our most popular, most vibrant, most colourful cultural activity of the year. Almost all of us are engaged in something over this, for all intents and purposes, four-day holiday. The cricket match in Somerset, though, is the hub around which all else revolved.

In his brilliant book, “Beyond a Boundary”, the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James explored the relationship between cricket and the wider society; an analysis that still resonates today. Both Somerset and St George’s ensured team discipline and presented a united front, even if there were cracks in the armour. The strategies adopted to achieve a win were critical and there no doubt there will be many commentators critically assessing Somerset’s strong win. Team endurance is always a critical factor as they have to contend with the often oppressive conditions on the ground; not unlike the challenges facing other teams seeking a win.

As much as the team has to work together there is room for individual excellence: one or two players through their exceptional talents can help carry the day for their team: witness the superb performances of Greg Maybury and Kamau Leverock this year.

Team captains are the leaders, chief strategists and the ones tasked with adjusting the play according to events on the field. A captain without courage, unable to excite and mobilise his team or paralysed by over-analysis will not likely make it back next year in that same position. Merely aspiring to be team captain is not a sufficient qualification - the responsibilities are too great and the prize too valuable. Competence, courage and conviction are great qualities to begin with. 

The match was surrounded by highly opinionated spectators, who critically assessed each stroke, each play and the performance of each player. As is to be expected. Unlike other arenas where teams contest for victory, the partisan nature of Cup Match is such that loyalty reigns supreme - no switching of allegiances here. These allegiances run deep and have even been known to divide families, at least during the duration of the game.

Anyone having grown up in Bermuda will know that it is difficult to remain neutral when casting an opinion about the outcome of the match. The platitudes ending with, “and may the best team win” ring hollow with me and many others. Why? Because we know which is the better team, we know the talent of their players and we believe their strategy will carry them to victory. For many of us this is sufficient reason to stay to the wicket.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Comeau speeches miss the point

Kevin Comeau’s speech this week before Rotary was designed to be both provocative and the subject of sustained debate. I am not sure he wants to be helpful. Race remains the prism through which many of our social, economic and political issues are refracted and we seem set to have to endure this for the immediate future.

Understanding how our racially structured society came about, how it is being addressed today and how to remedy the damage caused by racism is as complex as it is necessary. Unfortunately, Mr Comeau’s analysis falters on both epistemological and factual grounds.

To begin with, there is the application of an American theoretical construct — the “black authenticity” construct — which is more fantasy than reality in modern Bermuda. That construct, as applied to the Progressive Labour Party, was phased out by former leader Frederick Wade during his tenure (1985-1996) and in so doing played a critical role in the PLP’s 1998 electoral victory.

The black authenticity model was critical for the development of black pride against a backdrop of white supremacy and colonial rule but it was always an impediment to electoral victory for the PLP since middle class blacks shied away from this ideology. There are certainly people today who advocate this construct but that sentiment is not reflected in the approach taken by the PLP. 

A more serious challenge with the Comeau analysis is that he places the blame for the continuance of racism on black people — the very victims of white supremacy and institutionalised racism. For him, the quest for racial justice will secure legitimacy when white people are comfortable enough to sit down and work with, presumably, black people to work through the challenges of race.

Seriously? The social history over the past 40 years is a history of black people integrating every segregated white institution they could: schools, clubs, social organisations, political parties, etc. On the other hand, whites generally, have not moved to join historically black institutions, which were always open to all races. There was no “black authenticity” construct at play here that denied white people the opportunity to join such organisations and there is none in play today.

Mr Comeau loses credibility when he permeates his speech with the theme that this government is corrupt. Having focused the entirety of his comments on what black people need to do, this corruption undercurrent is without question a bold statement that this black government is corrupt.

In making about as serious a charge as one could make about any government, does he present a shred of evidence? No. Yet his accusations stand. Governor (Sir Richard) Gozney was asked directly if he had seen any evidence of government corruption at the executive level and his answer was an unqualified “no”. Perhaps he too was on the take.

The assertion that black people vote in solidarity for the PLP is obviously false, as even a cursory look of election results since 1968 show a significant percentage of black voters have voted for parties other than the PLP. But if the view that blacks vote solidly for the PLP, even if false, so concerns Mr Comeau, why does it not equally concern him that whites vote solidly for one party? And by an even larger margin.

Perhaps more important than a government’s electoral base are the policies and legislation it puts in place. Any careful examination of successive PLP actions in this area will show policies and legislation that are “race neutral” in both design and implementation. There is undoubtedly a class bias as a party focusing on working people should act accordingly. 

We need less hyperbole, less name calling and more constructive contributions if we are to realise the vision articulated by Emperor Haile Selassie and popularised by Bob Marley — the day when “the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes”. Regrettably, this intervention by Mr Comeau sets that day further back.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Social media's pros and cons

A large part of the unofficial election campaign is being conducted through social media. Talk radio, Facebook, online news sites and blogs, for example, are now bastions of extended commentary and no doubt an important component of a more participatory democracy in the 21st century. There are some challenges with social media, however, that do impact on the nature and extent of our debates. And it is worth reflecting on these, if only to better appreciate some of the limits these media run up against. 

The first and most obvious limitation is that social media have become the vessel of such highly polarised ‘debate’ that the middle is oftentimes left out. The champions on either side convey their message with tunnel-like and unrelenting enthusiasm — and they take no prisoners. The middle is effectively silenced since their entry onto the political battlefield is viewed sceptically and any comment made is assessed, in the first instance, to detect which side they are on. Claims they are not party affiliated are more likely than not to fall on deaf or unsympathetic ears. 

A second limitation is that social media is truly the domain where fact and fiction merge. A largely unregulated environment where almost anyone can say almost anything the truth often falls victim to someone’s own political agenda. Saying something often and saying it passionately does not make it accurate and we have simply seen numerous examples of this over the years. With social media the misrepresentations of fact multiplies easily and quickly. It would be an interesting exercise to document weekly the fiction represented as fact. 

With social media, people for some reason seem to have a greater penchant for descending into the personal attack — with a plethora of irrelevant, racist, misogynist, xenophobic utterances. Some are protected under the blanket of anonymity and thus feel empowered to be as vile and as obnoxious as possible. They are cowards who deserved to be ignored; unfortunately, some of us take the bait. On this front I heed the advice of my paternal grandfather, W G Brown, who during my teen years, repeatedly and passionately told me and my siblings — in words beyond the PG rating of this medium — not to give such comments value. 

Social media also lends itself to easy manipulation by a coordinated force. With anonymity, false names and a bit of work one can greatly influence or shape any debate. Further, it seems quite clear that there are online and talk radio campaigns with particular political thrusts attempting to be presented as the collective will of a politically engaged public. Not so. A consequence of all this is a greater level of scepticism and for some, disengagement from the political process altogether.

One outcome of these four limits of social media is that we engage less in substantive debates about what really matters: the policies, programmes and visions of the respective political parties. What matters is what the current government has done, is doing and promises to do. What matters is what the opposition parties critiques of government are and what they intend to do if elected government. 

Social media are cheap to use, easy to access and have truly democratised the participatory process. When we can better shape this medium to become a more powerful vehicle for debate, thoughtful reflection and a focus on the political issues that matter to the real experiences to voters and all other residents then we will have made some real progress.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Civil servants and public policy

Anyone familiar with the classic British television series, the satirical “Yes, Minister” will know that at its core the show was about the efforts by a government Minister to lead and his battles with often recalcitrant civil servants. This fictional series was not too far from the truth. Where politicians lead and civil servants are meant to implement policy, the process is rarely smooth and without its own internal challenges.

One reason why the link between policy setting and implementation may not go smoothly is because of disagreement with the policy decision among civil servants. In almost all instances, civil servants dutifully carry out their responsibilities and implement policy directives. But not always. I recall an instance a number of years ago when a minister made a decision that was clearly contrary to the view of a particular civil servant who had responsibility to act on it. The civil servant found a multitude of reasons to explain his delay in implementation and after three months still no action had been taken. It was only when the civil servant was subjected to an intensely colourful, semi-public dressing down that he set about acting on the decision — immediately.

Policy implementation may also be delayed or set askew because of internal procedural requirements. The pace envisioned by Ministers for putting policy in place may simply not be possible given that civil servants have the responsibility to ensure that all necessary details are properly addressed. There is even likely to be a level of tension at times when a Minister wants a decision acted on immediately, yet is constrained by the need for civil servants to liaise with all appropriate parties and secure any necessary permissions. Because civil servants operate in neither an explicitly political environment nor in the private sector their sensibilities and modus operandi will necessarily be quite different and not always readily understood. The logic of the civil service is to ensure that decisions are implemented correctly, without a primary reference to the political context.

A third challenge to the smooth alignment between policy and implementation is one driven by purely internal dynamics. Like any large organisation, there is always internal politics — the small “p” sort — at play. The jockeying for power, personality conflicts and the abuses that at times ensue all conspire, even if inadvertently, to challenge the policy implementation process. This sort of political battle takes a toll on morale, sustained collaborative work and, no doubt, productivity. The politician has no real control over this domain and this must be left with the leadership with the civil service to address. 

Understanding the dynamics at play between the political leadership and the civil service provides insight into the sometimes circuitous route policy implementation takes. Noble objectives can be stymied by the practical realities; opposition to policy emanating from within can produce frustrating delays; and internal politics can weaken the system altogether. The way forward is to find strategies to minimise these realities.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Class and human rights

Over the past few decades, more and more rights have been won by people through their campaigns for a more just society. Globally, these rights have taken on many different forms; here in Bermuda we too have made steady progress along the rights continuum. Extending rights, however, is meaningless if people do not have the capacity to actually benefit from such rights. 

The law actually camouflages this by giving the false impression that we are all equal before the law. Nobel laureate Anatole France gave expression to this sentiment in his famous comment: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.“

It is precisely because of a lack of equality of opportunity that the state must be involved to create a more level playing field and ensure rights granted can actually deliver the intended benefit.

Today we take free education at the primary and secondary level for granted. Education is a right. We also encourage our young people to pursue higher education as a means of better equipping themselves for the varied opportunities available in the workplace. Government and the private sector have stepped in to provide funding for promising scholars but there is also significant funding available for those who lack funds to pursue the right to further education. In the absence of such funding, the right to education would be something denied many Bermudian students.

The right to shelter, a place to live, is a right we embrace here. In Bermuda in 2012 this means the ability to live in affordable housing. Property speculators and real estate people have a vested interest in prices constantly going up.

Lower income people and those on fixed incomes want price stabilisation so they can afford a place to live. Government intervenes to address the excesses of free market economics by building and providing for lower cost accommodations for those in need. In the absence of this, there would be larger numbers of homeless families.

Democracies enshrine the right to vote as the cornerstone of people’s rights. The fight for this right in Bermuda was prolonged and uneven: the 1960s actually saw the voting age increased to 25 years before being reduced to 21 and then 18. Employers did not always allow voters time off to go to the polls so legislation had to be passed mandating this. Today we have a system where eligible voters have to register in order to be on the voters’ register.

By abolishing annual voter registration the right to vote is automatically extended to far larger numbers of voters than would otherwise be the case. More progressive countries have the government actually undertaking the registration of its citizens — in Finland and Denmark, for example. Perhaps this is something we should look into.

When examining rights for people, we have a tendency to ignore the class dimension so often inherent in the application of these rights. But class matters. As much as we use race as the prism through which so many social, economic and political issues are refracted, this can but provide partial understanding. Extending rights to people must come with the capacity to benefit from them. Anything less is less than adequate.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Let's not restrict voting rights

The ability to vote is a sacred, hard won right; it is not a privilege. Once reserved for the wealthy and well-to-do, the right for all citizens to vote is a cornerstone of strong democracies. Any attempt to withdraw this right should be viewed with grave concern. 

For more than 30 years, when Bermudians had to deal with annual voter registration there would always be a significant number of people who failed to submit their registration form by June 30 and were then denied the right to vote. By amending the law to allow Bermudians to simply register once and remain on the voters’ list for life, this Government has extended voters’ rights significantly. 

There are, however, forces at play to deny Bermudians their right to vote. One approach is the OBA call for voter re-registration every four years. There is 30 years of evidence that shows a significant percentage will not re-register. There is 30 years of evidence that shows working class people will be the largest group that will fail to register. 

A recent New York Times editorial on Florida’s attempt to take people off the voters’ list there is perhaps instructive: “In Florida, where a few hundred votes can determine a presidential election, Republicans have never stopped searching for new ways to keep ballots out of the hands of minorities and poor people, groups that tend to vote Democratic.” 

Delving further into the underbelly of politics there are attempts to take people off the list altogether by claiming they no longer reside in the constituency they are registered in. Anyone who has been canvassing over the past year will know that the recession has wreaked havoc on people’s living situations: many working class people have had to make adjustments because of job losses. I have seen families move in together, sometimes in the apartment next door to reduce costs; some move around to temporary locations with friends. This is a direct result of the economic fragility so many of us are experiencing. Only the wealthy are secure. To argue that these people should be denied the right to vote altogether is morally offensive while undoubtedly politically expedient for a party that does not rely on working people to support it. Can we, in 2012, and in good conscience, deny people the right to vote because their living circumstances are unstable, typically beyond their control?

Extending this further, any Bermudian living in Bermuda (save for those detained under law) should have the right to vote — including the homeless. These men and women should not be denied because their place of dwelling does not have an assessment number; they tend to stay in one area and therefore should be allowed to register in the constituency which covers it. If we extend rights rooted in sound principles those rights should be extended as fully as possible.

As we move inexorably toward general elections let us have a decision rendered by the people based on their assessment of the respective parties and candidates. Let us trust the people to make their decision based on the conclusions they have arrived at. Let us not try to fashion an outcome by restricting the vote and manipulating who gets to participate. Our democracy deserves better.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

We need a global perspective

There is an old cliché which says we cannot see the forest for the trees. We focus so much on the detail of that which is directly in front of us that we fail to see the larger picture. Many of us are guilty of this on our little island and a necessary outcome is our failure to fully grasp the problems we face. Our failure to do this directly impacts our ability to find workable solutions to these problems.

Take the issue of job losses. There is a popular narrative which links the massive decline in jobs in Bermuda to Government policy and work permit policy in particular. If we refocus our lens and zoom out to the wider world we see a global issue of similar levels of job losses — in the United States, United Kingdom, and throughout Europe.

A reasonable inference is that there are some systemic global issues at play in rich countries; it might just make more sense to focus on understanding these issues and developing strategies to address whatever challenges they present rather than a simplistic zero sum scenario pitting term limits against job losses. 

Our debt level is another illustration. It is without question that Bermuda’s national debt has risen over the past 14 years as government invested in schools, ports, transportation and housing to benefit Bermudians. And it is right that future generations should share in paying for this as they too will benefit.

What is important to note about this is that Bermuda’s debt level is very low compared to every other rich country and our fundamentals remain sound. At least this is the view of people who rate countries everyday and we have not suffered from any material downgrade by any ratings agency. This stands in sharp contrast to Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece.

When it comes to our young people and their ability to gain and secure employment, we would do well do engage in some comparative analysis. A few recent global reports have shown that there is a problem of employability that extends beyond the recession; that there is a segment of young people who lack the “soft skills” (communication, time keeping, appropriate dress, etc) to enter and sustain employment in the service sector, the area where most of the new jobs are being created. Again, there seems to be some systemic issues at play that we need to understand so that we can better address our local challenges. I have no doubt some of the antisocial behaviour we see is directly related to this. 

There is equally no doubt that some of the problems we need to tackle here are home grown; but many of the major ones are connected with the global environment in which we live and replicated in a nuanced fashion here.

Solutions will come from first understanding the nature and extent of the problem devoid of the banality of politics and then acting to advance the interests of people. It is easy to look at Bermuda through narrowly focused eyes but it will not necessarily advance our understanding. We are not another world — we are part of this world.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Referenda and Democracy

A referendum is a simple yet powerful means of giving a direct voice to the people on key issues. Properly worded, there should be no ambiguity on what the sentiment is of the electorate and governments are obliged to act accordingly. Our government has now introduced legislation to formalise the adoption of referenda as an additional means of voter input into the decision making process. For this they should be applauded.

A few cautionary words: referenda should be binding and they should be valid based on a simple majority of voters. While these two conditions might seem obvious, the two occasions when Bermuda has adopted a referendum to arrive at a position saw the absence of at least one of these two conditions. In 1990, government organised a referendum on the death penalty but lacked the courage to make it binding. As a consequence most voters didn’t bother to turn up, leading to an embarrassing 30% turnout. In 1995 we had the infamous independence referendum. The anti-independence faction within the UBP, so fearful were they of popular sentiment, persuaded the government to rig the referendum giving a minority the right to decide the outcome. This was accomplished by a requirement that 50% plus one registered voters had to vote “yes” to independence in order for the “yes” vote to be successful. If there was an 80% turnout and just over half these voters had voted “yes” the result would have been invalidated. This would have given a minority of voters the right to decide the direction of the country. We cannot go back to these retrograde practices.

On another level, governments may at times face tough choices as to what should be decided by referenda. My view is that on questions of fundamental human rights governments should simply lead and, if necessary, try to persuade the public of the need for such decisions. An issue that stands out today that falls into this category is equality based on sexual orientation. Such rights fall beyond the pale of public opinion as much as did rights for black people in 1960s America. It is just the right thing to do. And governments should get along doing it.

Gaming and decriminalisation of marijuana are perfectly suited to decision by referenda. Either matter could easily be justified as a decision solely by Parliament: the former because it is so fundamental to any revitalised tourism strategy and the latter because of the damage associated with it. But the public have very strong views on both and as we are moving to a place of greater public engagement with decision makers this is entirely reasonable and progressive.

Referenda work best when they are clearly and simply worded and limited to two choices. Quebec‘s 1995 independence referendum question was controversial, in part for its 54 words and reference to outside documents. Scotland, in contemplating its question for its planned independence referendum, has to decide whether there should be two or three options. The outcome has to be a clear position.

There are some who argue that certain decisions should be decided by a super-majority, to reflect the “clear will” of the people. My view is that this is only valid when there has been a collective decision-making process to arrive at a position on a particular issue—crafting a new constitution, for example. If the people, either directly or through their representatives have come to such a position there is some validity in arguing a super majority (such as two-thirds) is necessary to alter that position. Anything else is code language for giving a minority of voters more weight to their vote than the majority.

As we travel down this path of strengthening our democracy and giving the electorate an additional avenue of decision making, the public will have a greater ability to be directly involved in the big issues shaping our progress. We should all be encouraged to participate.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Improving our democracy

Every so often we hear the argument that Bermuda’s political system is broken and that we need to find an alternative that works better. While alternatives do exist — even if they are not as plentiful as some imagine — none is inherently superior or more democratic. It might just make more sense to explore how we can fine-tune our current system into a more effective vessel of the people’s will.

We need to first dispense with the fantasy of abolishing political parties and returning to a parliament of independents. There is the first political reality that no party — not Progressive Labour Party, not the One Bermuda Alliance and not the United Bermuda Party — will pass legislation to abolish its own existence. Moreover, political parties are a creature of democracy, an inevitable outcome of vesting power with the people.

Voters will have shared ideas, concerns and objectives; they are far better positioned to have these addressed by coming together rather than lobbying separately. The PLP, for example, was founded to address issues of the working man and woman; the UBP, in turn, placed their emphasis on business interests. 

An alternative is the American style presidential system. One of its strengths is, ironically, also one of its weaknesses: the separation of legislative and executive powers. Americans elect their leader directly along with their legislators. But there is an ongoing challenge of providing effective leadership since Congress and the president often have conflicting priorities. Its elected bicameral legislature ensures every state is well represented but when one chamber is controlled by one party and the other by another there is an inevitable gridlock and the challenge to effective governance.

Proportional representation, the electoral system of choice for much of Europe, has a seductive simplicity: parties win seats based on the percentage of votes received.

Because this system is linked with multiparty systems, it is rare that any party ever wins more than 50 percent of the vote, making coalition governments necessary. One of the benefits of this system is that it makes collaboration across party lines an indelible characteristic of the political terrain.The downside is that when the political stakes are high, the collaborative thrust is set aside and instability can set in if coalition governments become difficult to form or sustain. Witness the recent collapse of the Dutch government and the inability of Belgium to form a government over the past two years.

The critique often made of our system is that it is overly polarising and embraces a winner take all structure. Opposing views are a critical part of careful and close examination of issues; the public, though, have become weary of the hyperbolical dimension of much of what passes for discussion and debate and I suspect, want to see a focus on resolving issues rather than who can shout the loudest, talk the most and get more media coverage. 

While the Westminster system is rooted in the winner take all structure — to allow for a party’s policies to be implemented — there is no reason why more collaborative efforts cannot be emphasised within the existing framework: greater use of joint select committees, parliamentary working committees, hearings on critical issues, etc. 

Our system is not perfect, but it works. There is no doubt it can be made better and we clearly have the opportunity to do so without abandoning it all together. Perhaps we should direct some of our energy in this direction.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A bastion of hope and opportunity

Last Thursday, 122 Bermuda College graduates received their degrees, certificates and diplomas. It was an occasion for celebration as yet another year of students are now better positioned to further pursue their education overseas or better positioned to ascend the stairs of career advancement. As a community college, our college offers a wide range of educational and training opportunities for all residents. As chairman of the Bermuda College Board of Governors, I want to see more students making our college their tertiary institution of first choice.

All of us recognise that tertiary education and further education are critical components of career satisfaction, upward mobility and ensuring a skilled labour force for our country. An examination of what the College offers will reveal an extensive selection of course offerings and training programmes, a number of which have developed in tandem with the business community, to provide these components in an easily accessible venue.
At a time when many Bermudians continue to have self-doubt about their own institutions and, through their actions, imply most things foreign are better, there are two compelling reasons why Bermuda College is the perfect choice today.

Firstly, there is the cost. A year of studies in the associates degree programme will cost less than $4,000. The comparable cost for any first year college or university programme in North America or Europe is not less than $30,000. Our Government has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring quality higher education for Bermudians by providing a significant subsidy for tertiary education on the Island. The UK had a similar subsidy and thus provided genuine opportunities for its citizens across class strata; the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government has now moved away from such a commitment which has seen massive tuition hikes and, correspondingly, reduced opportunities for lower income people. The Bermuda Government continues to support educational opportunities for all and demonstrated this by retaining Bermuda College’s grant for the current fiscal year.

Secondly, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation secured by the Bermuda College during its seven-year planning and work toward this validation, has been transformative for our students. Our graduates with associate degrees can now receive full transfer credit for their two years of study at Bermuda College. In other words, NEASC has concluded that two years in the associates programme is akin to two years at any college in the New England area, and because of the accreditation system in the US, the recognition is extended throughout the US. Most of our students pursue further education in North America and so this is without doubt a significant step forward.

Bermuda College is the bastion of hope and opportunity in part because of the dedicated, talented and selfless contribution of its faculty and staff. Those of us present saw that celebrated at the convocation ceremony last week, where students recognised the positive learning environment and critical support received during their period of study. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Bermuda College faculty and staff, under the eminently capable leadership of its president, Dr Duranda Greene, for setting our students on their path to success.

Bermuda College is one of our great assets. Over time, I hope more residents will come to appreciate this. And I hope that appreciation is reflected in concrete action.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Identity and multi-culturalism

May is Heritage Month. It offers us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we share rather than the banality of that which separates us. Our Island has a rich heritage, celebrated in song, dance, sailing vessels, food and highlighted in the inimitable struggles of its people. We have much to be proud of and a great deal to celebrate. But we are a people in search of an identity.

An increasingly multicultural society, Bermuda has benefited greatly by becoming home to more people from more countries than ever before. Our community cannot but have been enriched by the cultural contributions of the wider Caribbean, Europe and Asia, in particular.

Whether it is in terms of new shared experiences, new ways of seeing the world, or even something as simple as appreciating the culinary delight that is nasi goreng, embracing, respecting and not merely tolerating differences is an important buffer against the attack on multiculturalism and the rise of xenophobia. We all need to reject Breivik’s vision for Norway and those who share his hatred elsewhere. 

Bermudian culture exists alongside these diverse cultures and there is no doubt our culture will evolve as a result of what some might call cross-pollination. This, of course, is the genesis of both the Gombeys and our traditional Sunday breakfast. 

What these cultures have, though, is precisely what we lack: A shared sense of identity. As rich as our heritage is and as much as we have to celebrate we have not collectively embraced a sense of what it means to be Bermudian. On the other hand, we are quick to point out what is not Bermudian.

A good friend of mine once told me she is intrigued how we describe foreigners living here as “non-Bermudian”: “I’ve never heard people described by what they are not anywhere else” she remarked. We may know what “they” are not, yet seem not to know quite who we are. Part of this lack of identity is intertwined with our history, our struggles and the divisiveness of colonialism, yet none of these realities are necessarily inhibiting. 

We can get beyond the constraints of our current condition. To do so we must actively forge a common sense of who we are as Bermudians — irrespective of race, ethnicity, class or country of origin. We must do so against a backdrop of self-doubt and the dangerous denizens of doom who deny we can do anything right.

We must “invent traditions” that build on a sense of identity as articulated by the brilliant historian Eric Hobsbawm. After all, the British forged a stronger sense of British identity by changing public attitudes towards the monarchy with invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony 100 years ago. 

We have worked over the centuries to build a materially wealthy country; we remain so. What we lack is the soul of a nation; it is inadequate to say you are proud to be Bermudian when we have no common identity of what that means.

And as uncomfortable as this may be some, you cannot be proud to be Bermudian while waving the British flag or singing God Save the Queen as your national anthem. You may be proud to be British, but that is something altogether different.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Austerity backlash is a lesson

“Europe is watching us, austerity can no longer be the only option.” So says France’s new President, Monsieur Francois Hollande, who came to office amid a backdrop of a deep divide over how to respond to the recession. While conservative economists have been successful in pushing many countries to austerity measures there has been a backlash across Europe as the impact of such measures has accelerated the hardship on the most vulnerable, and the once vibrant middle class. We can learn from this.

Within the past few weeks we have seen the collapse of the Dutch government over coalition partners rejecting more austerity measures; the austerity measures imposed on Greece by international lenders was soundly rejected by Greeks in general elections, which left a polarised state and a fight over who will form the government; and in the United Kingdom Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition saw significant defeats in the 5,000 seats up for grabs in midterm local elections after Labour campaigned successfully against government spending cuts. There is a clear trend in Europe against measures that impose such harsh measures on people who, really, bear almost no responsibility for the financial crisis besetting their countries.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is looking increasingly isolated as Germany insists that the austerity policies it largely designed remains the key to getting Europe out of the recession. In a move that must clearly have raised more than a few eyebrows, Ms Merkel went so far as to publicly endorse France’s Sarkozy in an ill-fated effort to shore up support for her austerity-minded colleague in the remaining days before Sunday’s election. But Germany’s motivation for retention of austerity measures throughout the Eurozone is not merely ideological: it holds a very large chunk of Eurozone debt and wants guarantees that debt will be repaid. 

The election results in France, Greece, the UK, and the coalition collapse in Holland, convey a very simple and important message from the people: governments need to put its citizens first. In almost every instance, bailouts have been given to large corporations — “too big to fail” — or to payback lenders, sophisticated institutional investors and banks, who well understood the sovereign risk they were taking. The people in turn have had to confront job losses, reduced pensions, later retirement ages, reduced government services and higher taxes. A formula for precisely the voters’ revolt we have seen.

Liberal economists and leaders such as Hollande, the UK’s Ed Miliband and US President Obama favour policies that assist economic growth because it creates jobs and puts more money into the economy. By limiting cuts in government spending you ease the burden on the weakest sectors of society while encouraging growth. A country which has more than 50 percent of its young people unemployed — Spain — is a country heading for a deep crisis; Spain is an example of the dire problems associated with austerity measures. 

As governments respond to the challenges brought about by the global recession there is a clear need for sober reflection on the best pathway forward. Austerity measures seem not to work anywhere and when implemented always have a detrimental effect on people, generally, while benefiting the privileged few. There is a loud voice coming out of Europe clamouring for the leaders to listen to the people and respond to their concerns. Those leaders refusing to do both will no doubt endure the same fate as Mr Sarkozy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Walking away from the old ways

When Hubert Smith penned “Bermuda is Another World” he told a story of our beauty and charm and the allure that brought hundreds of thousands of tourists to our shores. I don’t think he meant Bermuda is to be treated as if it is so unique that universally accepted standards and measures do not apply. But this is precisely what a vocal minority would have you believe.

This little group of agitators belies their political agenda when they argue for Bermuda exceptionality, when convenient. We saw this ad nauseam when discussing our debt level. While our level is very low in comparison to the vast majority of countries, and quite manageable, has raised no alarm bells by the ratings agencies, with our administering power the UK, or the IMF, the agitators argue that international measures do not apply because Bermuda is “different.”  This same cabal, walking down the misinformation highway, asserts that government is too large and needs to be cut back. A key universal standard for assessing government size is to look at government expenditure as a percentage of GDP: the global average is about 45%, ours is 22%. This fact seems to matter not to people who know better.

The latest manifestation of the “Bermuda is another world, when convenient” thinking surrounds the vote in the Corporation of Hamilton elections. For hundreds of years the vote was restricted to business owners and a limited number of residents within the city limits. Meetings were held in secret. Elected members of the corporation received no salary but no doubt found their reward elsewhere. It was truly the last bastion of institutionalized privilege. 

Government abolished the discriminatory laws governing elections for both Hamilton and St Georges corporations and granted the vote to each adult resident on the same terms and conditions as applies for parliamentary elections.  Simple. Clear. Democratic. This is the norm for cities all around the world, despite the few exceptions where business interests, having wrestled control of local governments, have granted themselves the vote. 

It bemuses and amuses me that the agitators can argue with a straight face that businesses should get a vote in these elections because they pay taxes. Taking up the slogan advanced by British colonists in the 1760s in the 13 colonies in North America, “No taxation without representation” the agitators effectively assert that the rights of businesses have been suppressed. The fact of the matter is that businesses pay most of the taxes to the national government as well. The logical extension of the argument is that businesses should also be granted the right to have votes in parliamentary elections. Of course this is ridiculous—but so too is the argument they are entitled to a city vote.

It is important, however, to provide avenues of communication and access to businesses to help shape corporation policy. We already have examples of successful models of business and government working together to develop both policy and legislation: Business Bermuda, ABIR, ABIC, the Insurance Advisory Committee, etc.  It would make sense for the corporation to develop similar relevant committees where they do not already exist. The company need not have a vote to have influence. 

The vote is sacrosanct. It belongs to the people. It is one constant, at least now, that grants people a measure of equality in the decision making process; and it should neither be contaminated nor diluted by adding a retrograde company vote. We are not an island on its own but rather a participant in the global community. Let us embrace the emerging standards for democracy and participation and walk firmly away from the old ways of doing business.