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.

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