Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ideology and Party Politics

The ideology embraced by a political party is perhaps the single most important factor in determining the policies that party promotes. All parties have an ideological outlook — whether its members are conscious of it or not — and that outlook is positioned somewhere along the left-right spectrum. And, no, Bermuda is not an exception.

The Progressive Labour Party was founded as a party of labour and has been a critical agent for social reform over almost 50 years. Over the decades, some of the strident “progressive” policies such as income tax and nationalisation have given way to the practicality of electoral politics and the party has moved toward, yet does not occupy, the political centre. Ideologically, the PLP is left of centre on Bermuda’s political spectrum and could rightly be labelled a liberal party.

A new political party, the One Bermuda Alliance occupies the same ideological space as the now marginalised United Bermuda Party. They are cut from the same cloth. The OBA tends to place greater emphasis on addressing business needs since business growth is seen as the engine for the growth of the country and therefore the betterment of people. Their agenda for governance would sit comfortably alongside that of the Conservative Party in the UK and is rightly placed right of the ideological centre.

There are striking parallels between the political battle around ideology and elections in Bermuda and what is going on in the US presidential campaign. Consider the issue of debt, the recession and budget deficits — no doubt critical issues for the election campaigns.

The Obama administration has implemented a number of decisions designed to inject money into the economy to prevent a further contraction, to help support those in need and to help provide for economic stimulus. During his tenure the US debt has increased significantly as these policies were set in motion. This is directly paralleled with economic programme Premier Cox has adopted.

The Romney campaign has excoriated President Obama for a massive increase in debt levels over the past four years and for growing budget deficits, which he has labelled irresponsible and indicative of mismanagement. He has pledged to significantly reduce debt levels and get to a balanced budget over two terms. The OBA has adopted a similar approach here.
None of this is surprising given the ideological dispositions of the respective parties. What is surprising is that political parties would hold to positions based on ideology when substantive bodies of research and analysis point to it being wrong-headed. 

On the issue of debt, for example, the New York Times wrote yesterday in an editorial that the Eurostat Euro Indicators statistics released on Monday “provide objective support for what has been clear to just about everyone except pro-austerity German officials and deficit-crazed Republican politicians. Namely, deep government budget cuts at a time of economic weakness are counterproductive, complicating, if not ruining, the chances for economic growth.”

The power of ideology is such that it shapes a party’s ethos and it shapes its policies. At times, ideological purity will be sacrificed in the pursuit of electoral gains; and this can be done without moving away from core principles. Everyone has a way of seeing the world and they tend to support political parties that they find common cause with. A good friend of mine recently posed the following question: “If Barack Obama was Bermudian, which party would he vote for?” My answer: “That’s a question about ideology.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A right, not a privilege

The right to vote is the most powerful expression of democracy for a country. It is sacrosanct, inviolable and should never be fettered in its expression. We have come a long way from the dark and oppressive pre-1968 era and while we still have a way to go, Bermuda’s strength as a vibrant democracy rests on the bed of democracy we have made over the decades. 

It was not until 1963 that all adults were granted the right to vote; this only after a successful public campaign by the Committee for Universal Suffrage forced the hand of a recalcitrant Parliament. But the old oligarchy restrained the full expression of democracy by, along with granting the vote to all adults, increased the voting age to 25; gave an extra vote to property owners; and gave the vote to all British subjects after three years’ residence. 

The plus vote was soon dropped; the voting age pushed back to 21; and British subjects coming to Bermuda after 1978 were no longer entitled to the vote. After years of effort by a pro-youth lobby, the vote was finally extended to 18 year olds in 1990. Even then, however, Bermuda had not yet become a proper democracy as the electoral system had two fundamental flaws: 

(1) electoral districts were structured to achieve a particular racial outcome and thereby embedded race into the political structure; and

(2) the constituency sizes varied widely, with the effect being that not only did voters in some constituencies have greater voting strength, the strength was also weighted toward white voters.

When the requirement to register to vote annually was eliminated and single seat constituencies were introduced in 2003, along with a constitutional requirement that constituencies be of, more or less, equal size, Bermuda finally had a democratic shell that matched the democratic ideals so many Bermudians seek.

The vote that we all share equally is not a privilege, rather a right. The vote provides you with the power to shape policies that affect you by determining who gets to run the country. It is not surprising to note that some Bermudians will vote in knee jerk fashion for ‘their’ party. That too is democracy. Many others will use their vote to reflect on the parties’ policies, their proposals, and the people who present themselves for elected office and render a decision about which party and which candidate can best advance their interests. That power is something you have without restraint.

As free and as protected as this right to vote is in Bermuda, there are those who will choose not to participate for any number of reasons. That too is a democratic right. My view is that those who do not participate lose legitimacy in speaking out on the social, political and economic issues that governments get to shape. How serious are you about the issues if, when given the right to shape outcomes, you step back from the simple yet very powerful responsibility to vote?

Alongside this unfettered right to vote, all of us should be concerned about attempts to suppress the vote. Efforts to take people off the voters’ list should be resisted strongly — it raises bad memories of the bad olĂ© days pre-1968. 

Democracy is the cornerstone of a mature and progressive country and the vote is its most public expression. Every Bermudian has the ability to shape the outcome of our society by using what was won over the decades in a hard fought fight. While we may all be privileged to live here, exercising the vote is one of our fundamental rights.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

We need an international view

One area seemingly never raised over successive elections is that of international relations. While our elected government has little direct control over external affairs, owing to our colonial status, Bermuda is impacted daily by global forces; how Government acts to address such challenges has important consequences for the lives we live. 

One of the most important challenges over the past ten years was the threat to our status as an international financial centre as the OECD and a number of regional bodies sought to label Bermuda as a “harmful tax” jurisdiction. Under successive Finance Ministers Eugene Cox and Paula Cox and the unsung efforts of the Ministry of Finance staff, we overcame that challenge and have protected both our global reputation and those companies that do business here.

Further, every time we sign another Tax Information Exchange Agreement (TIEA) with another country we lay the foundation for enhanced bilateral relations. As an example, one small consequence of signing with Australia is that Bermuda passport holders were able to apply for a visa online, as do British passport holders, and not have to bother with the cumbersome submission of paper documents.

Bermuda’s global interests do not necessarily run in tandem with those of the United Kingdom. A good example of this involves the matter of the four Uighurs brought to Bermuda. Premier Ewart Brown’s bold, controversial and divisive decision would certainly have been vetoed by the UK had they had prior knowledge, but perhaps more important than the humanitarian gesture it was is the geopolitical and economic reality that America matters more to Bermuda than the UK.

And this act served to strengthen our relationship with the United States. As an aside, the current “stateless” status of these four men will no doubt be resolved as soon as the key parties work toward a solution.
One of the constraints on best pursuing our interests globally is that we are only granted a voice with British consent or by taking action surreptitiously. When we are not sitting around the table when our interests are discussed the consequences can be significant. The European Union decision to impose a visa regime on Bermuda is a prime, even if, unfortunate example of this.

In 2006, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office misinformed the European Union that Overseas Territories Citizens of the UK did not have the right of abode in the UK. This was patently false since under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 all Overseas Territories citizens were made British Citizens again, in May, 2002, having been deprived of that status under the British Nationality Act 1981.

On the basis of FCO misinformation the EU imposed a visa regime on Bermudians decades after a former Delegated Affairs Minister, Sir John Sharpe had successfully negotiated visa exemptions. If Bermuda was sitting around the EU table UK misinformation would not have gone unchallenged.

More generally, Bermuda-UK relations will require greater attention in the years ahead as the British seek to develop a new structure to the relationship. There can be no mistaking: this relationship is not based on any notion of equality as the power to decide resides with the British. If there is to be a partnership we are certainly the junior one. As a country we will have to decide if in the pursuit of our economic, political and social interests globally we are encased within the ideal political shell.

Global opportunities abound for Bermuda. They have the potential to strengthen our island in a multitude of ways from live/work opportunities beyond the EU to bilateral investment agreements. Now is the time to broaden our focus beyond 21 square miles and pursue opportunities where and when they emerge.