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.