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.