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.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

To understand Bermuda, you must know its history

Last weekend the Titanic memorial cruise ship MS Balmoral floated above the wreckage of the Titanic precisely 100 years after this magnificent vessel sank, killing 1,514 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters ever.  Examination of what happened to the Titanic and the lives of the ill-fated passengers, the passage of Titanic tales into popular discourse all continue as the legacy of this tragedy lives on. It lives on because history matters.

In our own global niche that is Bermuda too many of us seem conflicted about how to embrace our history. While we celebrate old Bermuda homes and speak with pride about our history of sailing vessels, for example, many of us turn mute when our long quest for social and political reform is discussed. The society we live in today is a direct consequence of those struggles yet there are those who seek to sever any and all links with the past. 

Understanding our social and political history is critical for anyone who truly wants to understand modern Bermuda; without it, you will have no effective reference point. It is this lack of a reference point that unfortunately permeates our youth in particular but is not unknown among their parents. To have a perspective on our past is a qualitatively different matter than knowing the facts of events: It is useful to know that Sir George Somers shipwrecked on Bermuda and the island was subsequently colonized. But we see a bigger picture when we understand that joint-stock companies (like the Bermuda Company) were used by the English state to facilitate colonial expansion in the 17th century.  

History helps us understand themes that pervade our current discussions. Racial consciousness was inserted into our politics with the introduction of slavery, sustained during segregation and aligned with wealth and privilege during the heyday of the white oligarchy and white privilege. Who among us believes this has no relevance today?

History helps us to understand that immigration policy has always had a political dimension. From the 1840s Bill to encourage English immigration to Bermuda; to the successful  1920s campaign by Governor Willcocks to recruit English police officers to replace the mostly black police force; to the 1960s campaign by government to encourage Bermudian emigration to the United States, while simultaneously bringing the largest influx of British nationals ever to our island. In recent decades, immigration policy has been shaped by a freeze of acquiring Bermuda status by grant, the creation of the permanent residency status and term limits. 

And, history helps us to understand that the most important progress for people in Bermuda has been made outside of the formal political process. Parliament and Britain sat by and did nothing to end racial segregation and promote democracy. For progress on this front we have to thank the Progressive Group and the Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage. The Bermuda Workers Association and the Bermuda Industrial Union fought for and won important rights for worker—not parliament. These lesson should demonstrate the real power vested in people; something which is lacking today, in part I believe, because we are disconnected from our past. 

Ironically, many of us will enthusiastically celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year. As graceful and as charming as Queen Elizabeth is, it is worth noting that our head of state made no effort to bring Bermuda in line with 20th century sensibilities about freedom and democracy when we needed it most. This too is part of our history.

No one truly believes history is unimportant: the sports enthusiast will go into historical detail on his team’s performance, the fashionista can tell you which styles herald back to a bygone era, and the business tycoon reflects on the seeds of his success. Typically, those who argue against reverting to history to gain insight about modern Bermuda want to shape an argument rooted in some distortion. This distortion will provide no insight.