Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Voting Move a Backward Step

One of the core elements of a democracy is the right to vote—the right of the people to freely decide which politicians and which parties have earned their support and deserve their vote. A dark chapter in Bermuda’s quest for a more democratic society was the legal requirement for annual voters’ registration: if one failed to register by a fixed date annually they would be unable to vote in any election called within the next twelve months. Because lower income people, based on global research, are less likely to register to vote than their wealthier counterparts there was always an inherent bias in such a system. The PLP government changed this and made the vote sacrosanct by abolishing annual registration: register once and you will remain on the voting register.

In their submission to the British government, the OBA seek to change this and require that citizens re-register every four year or so.  Anyone failing to register would be prevented from voting in a subsequent election. The rationale advanced for this vote restraining proposal is that up to 10% of voters are registered in constituencies they no longer live in and their participation could well affect the outcome of marginal areas. If there was no mechanism already in place to address this, their proposal may have some merit. As it stands it seems a not very subtle attempt to take away the vote of working class people.

Under the current system candidate teams for political parties, canvassing a meagre 1,100 voters, can and do identify people living in areas who are not registered in that constituency and can and do get them to fill out the appropriate form to transfer their residency on the voters’ list. All parties have this right. There is a further safe guard in that the scrutineers on election can be (and have been) provided with a list of registered voters who are to be challenged on their right to vote in that constituencies on the grounds there is evidence they no longer live there. This system works; all it requires is a bit of effort by candidates and their teams.

Alongside the OBA call for voter re-registration is the call for absentee voting. They provide few specifics but given that they want to see Bermuda adopt what so many other countries have it can only mean the OBA want to see Bermudians living abroad being granted the vote. This makes sense for students as they are overseas for the purpose of education and, along with the Bermuda Census criteria, they are deemed to still be living in Bermuda. The challenge here is to ensure we have a suitable definition of “student.” 

For those Bermudians who have taken up residence overseas I cannot see a justifiable reason why they should be allowed to vote. Moreover, what constituency would they be registered to vote in? This cannot work under our current political system. In fact, adopting this would add to precisely the problems the OBA say they want to eradicate. Most counties with absentee voting either have direct voting for a leader (which we do not) or the proportion of overseas voters to the total population is negligible in terms of voting impact. 

These OBA proposals represent a slight modification from the proposals advanced by the UBP in their 2007 election platform and it demonstrates the challenge this new party is having in shaking itself from its old association. To call on the UK to force their proposed changes on Bermuda and other Overseas Territories is an odd thing to do rather than argue for it on the campaign trail and actually hope to win a mandate to make these changes. No doubt we will hear more of this in the months to come.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The OBA and Independence

In its tardily submitted paper to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office the One Bermuda Alliance articulated its strategy for deciding the independence question.  Central to their submission is (1) the modality any decision on independence should take and (2) the voting formula for validating a “yes” vote.  Taken together, these two elements represent a cynical manipulation of process, which if adopted, would deny voters the democratic rights so many of us have fought for.

The OBA asserts that a referendum is “the only way of ascertaining the ‘constitutionally expressed wish’ of the people” and that an election cannot achieve this. History is replete with examples of both referenda and, more commonly, general elections as legitimate ways of determining the popular will on such a fundamental question. Neither is inherently better than the other. Moreover, with specific regard to general elections where independence was the central theme, there is no example where that result was questioned anywhere within the British Commonwealth.  

The UK government has conveyed the message circuitously that they too prefer a referendum to decide the independence question. Their preference, however, makes for neither policy nor law as far as Bermuda is concerned. It is solely the responsibility of the government of the day to decide how this matter should be resolved, provided the framework is fair and defensible. It may well be that a referendum is decided upon because, for example, an incumbent government may not want to risk losing an election over the independence question. The point is that government retains the inherent right to make that decision, embodying as they do, the will of the people. 

The real mischief in the OBA submission is revealed when their call for the referendum is juxtaposed to their formula for deciding how many “yes” votes are adequate. First, the OBA argues that a 50% +1 vote is insufficient—they want to see a larger majority. Once you abandon the principle of majority rule, though, you grant a minority more power than the majority; you grant that minority the right to decide the outcome. This cannot be defended on this issue. 

Secondly, the OBA argue that even if the people vote for independence in a referendum that decision should not lead to independence but rather merely “the obligation to enter into negotiations between the relevant parties.” Amazing. In a strained effort to support such an extremist position rejecting the democratic will the OBA refer to the Canadian Clarity Act, which was passed after the 1995 Quebec referendum on independence and in response to the less than 1% margin of defeat for the pro-independence forces.  Quebec and Bermuda are two completely different cases and the legal minds at OBA have to know this: Quebec is a province of Canada and part of a federal government while Bermuda  is a non-self governing territory of the United Kingdom which has yet to achieve self-determination. The Quebec example would apply if, for example, St. David’s voted to be independent from Bermuda. 

A more relevant Canadian example is the consensus building, extensive and inclusive exercise by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to “bring home” the Canadian constitution—until 1982 their constitution was like ours in that it could only be amended by the British Parliament. There was no referendum to achieve this.

Under the 1995 independence referendum the UBP included a similar undemocratic provision which runs alongside the OBA position today: that 50% +1 of registered voters had to vote yes, not merely those who voted. There is, no doubt, a common strand here.

The OBA has presented themselves to the public as a modern and forward looking party. Their stance on this issue is neither. I encourage the OBA to rethink their position on the power of the people to decide the fundamentally important question of independence and I encourage them to align it with their publicly stated commitment to a strong democracy rooted in equality.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Courage to Change Education

Education reform remains one of our most significant challenges today. It tends not to produce stark headlines nor is it ever the topic of sustained debate in any public arena. Yet major reforms are necessary and the Ministry of Education has set about making such changes to create better opportunities for our young people—even if the pace is not as robust as some of us seek. Such changes will bring with them the inevitable discomfort and dislocation. 

We all know we need to improve student performance, certainly in the public sector, and we all know there are a number of key factors involved in reaching this goal: (1) ensuring schools are equipped with adequate resources (2) placing properly qualified teachers in classrooms and giving them the authority to manage (3) getting parents to share in the responsibility for educating their children and working with schools, and (4) placing effective leadership is in place to run schools. A serious weakness in any area will necessarily have a negative effect on student performance. 

We now have good data by which we can assess student performance—through the Cambridge Curriculum exams—and this can be done across schools. The Ministry has this information and can therefore provide comparative assessments of schools. There is no doubt the Ministry is using this information along with an abundance of other data as the basis for some of their recent decisions.

As these decisions become public it is important to focus less on the personalities involved than the rationale for the decision in the first place. Few will disagree that there are some teachers who should not be teaching—they have little interest in students and perform their work in a purely perfunctory manner. In a similar vein, there are some principals who should vacate their offices forthwith since the performance of their students is significantly lower than their counterparts and there have been no signs of improvement. Harsh words, perhaps. But if we can celebrate the successes of good schools, good principals and good teachers we have to be honest and bold enough to remove the incompetents among us. We need no other reason than for the sake of our children and our country.

With an embarrassingly high level of students in private schools, the Ministry needs to act faster to fix the problems in public education and restore the confidence in the system that existed during my years of education during the 1970s. There is no doubt an abundance of caution since while we have the right curriculum we now need to get the personnel right, secure the best available people for the areas most in need of reform.  The unpleasant reality, though, is that we simply do not have the luxury of caution. We need more bold and courageous steps to meet the challenges and deliver a superior education system. Unlike many countries the impediment to fixing our education system is not resources, it is the allocation of those resources.  

The recent actions by the Ministry of Education show they have the courage to make controversial decisions with a view toward making the education system better. For this they should be commended. What we need to see, what they should be encouraged to do, is to expedite the changes they must have already contemplated and decided on so that our students benefit from a better system. When more of our students succeed so too do we.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wishing for Change in 2012

With the onset of a new year one is often tempted to propose bold resolutions; those who succumb to such temptation usually find the vigour with which such resolutions were adopted in January has usually petered out by month’s end. Resolving not to make any such pronouncements I have instead decided to proffer a wish list for 2012. The list is of course extensive, but a few emanating from the political realm may prove of interest.

My first wish in this regard for 2012 is that we see the creation of viable Palestinian state and one accepted by the international community. This is a critical step toward bringing justice to the Palestinian people. A Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel—the two state solution—is embraced by Palestinians, a majority of Israelis, and most other countries. Given the multitude of factors involved no resolution has been possible through bi-lateral discussions between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Consequently, other parties must be involved: the United States, Europe Union and Arab states.  My wish is that these three powers, particularly the Americans, will use their power and influence combined with courage to rectify an injustice set upon the Palestinians more than 60 years ago.

Secondly, I wish to see progressive steps toward normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. With a trade embargo in place now for 50 years the intent of using this to overthrow Cuban communism has long since failed; moreover, Cuba today has set itself on a path of reform. The restrictions against Cuba now seem to be in place more to pander to the Cuban exile community in Florida than to promote US interests in either Cuba or the region. Given that this is an election year—and Florida is such a crucial state—nothing substantial will take place before November;  a further relaxation of restrictions after November would be good for the US and, more importantly, for the Cuban people.

Thirdly, I wish the British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean (including Bermuda) would recognize they are a far more powerful force vis รก vis the UK when they act as an individual force rather than individually. With a new White Paper planned for later this year and the inevitable UK thrust to further devolve power back to the UK the OTs will be in a stronger position to negotiate, and if necessary, resist policy changes through a collective response. Each territory has its own specific sets of concerns but they share a common thread in that London has the power and constitutional authority to impose laws on the OTs without consultation or public input.

Fourthly, I would like to see more and more voters in more and more countries demonstrably demand a better caliber of leadership—one based on defensible principles, unimpeachable integrity and a clearly articulated vision for the future. We remain immersed in our greatest set of challenges in 80 years and it will be the nature of our collective leadership that will determine how well we make it though these challenges. The best leadership will put people first and profits second; it will provide a cushion for the most vulnerable and call on the wealthiest among us to share more; and it will treat people with dignity and respect, especially when tough decisions must be made.

This year will be an eventful one. We will have our elections as will our American friends. The power of the people to make progressive change was demonstrated with fervor last year and this year shows no sign of abating. Perhaps such power can help move my wish list to a list of accomplishments.