Thursday, February 28, 2013

Maiden Speech in Parliament

Hansard–15 February 2013

Mr. Walton Brown: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

 Mr. Speaker, I rise to echo the comments of our honourable leader, Mr. Bean, in saying that we are prepared as the Opposition to work with Government on all issues, policies, and legislation that we feel are in the best interests of our country. We care deeply for our country and we do want to see the best policy and the best legislation brought forward.

 Mr. Speaker, I want to commend the Government for demonstrating the courage and the initiative to clearly express support for including sexual orientation as a protected category under the Human Rights Act. Human rights are not meant to be subject to negotiation. It is important that in a mature and a strong democracy we give respect and
recognise the equality of all people irrespective of sexual orientation. So I do, Mr. Speaker, want to commend the Government for taking this bold initiative and making it absolutely clear that that is their intention.

The Speaker: Make sure you speak to the Speaker.

Mr. Walton Brown: Also, Mr. Speaker, I would like to commend the Government for making a very clear position with respect to shared parenting. It was an initiative brought forward by the previous Government. It has now been reaffirmed by this Government, and we think that any legislation which actually helps to strengthen families to ensure that both parents play as much of a role as possible in the raising of  their children cannot be but for the public good. So we support Government, and I commend Government for taking this initiative.

Now, Mr. Speaker, on the issue of education, I think it is very important to recognise that education is the critical foundation upon which all of our young people get real pportunities. Without that education it is going to be very difficult for our young people to be able to compete effectively in what clearly is a global environment. When people from all over the world have access to jobs, it is important that our young people get as well educated as possible and develop as many technical skills as possible in order to be competitive.

Now, having said that, I am somewhat concerned about the emphasis on introducing technical education into our public schools at such an early level at the middle school level. My concern, Mr. Speaker, is really rooted in the fact that today we have young people who are leaving our schools going on to tertiary education who do not have the minimum skill sets in terms of reading, writing, math skills, and critical thinking to operate effectively in at a tertiary level. Therefore, there is an abundance of programmes in place that require students to upgrade their skill set and competency. If there is a deficiency at the middle and senior school levels with those basic skills sets, I would rather see an emphasis on getting those critical skills in place first before we weaken and dilute the educational environment to include other subject matters. Because no matter what you do—whether it is in an academic track career or a technical track career—you will require great writing skills, reading skills, critical thinking
skills, and math skills. So we need to have these very much in place.

I would caution the Government about being overly enthusiastic about moving so firmly in the direction of technical education at such an early age. It will unduly contour some of our young people into areas and career paths when, at that age, they would clearly not have a very clear sense of what they want to do in terms of a career.  Mr. Speaker, we know that one of the most important aspects of a good education is to have excellent principals. One of the challenges of having a large bureaucracy is that we have not sufficiently allowed principals to have the level and the kind of autonomy they need in order to properly manage their schools. The issue of public education has never been an issue of budget. In fact, we have more money than we need to deliver a proper and responsive educational system. What we need to do, though, Mr. Speaker, is give our principals the autonomy—allow them to run their schools and manage their schools. So you hire competent principals to do the work. If they prove to be less than competent, then that is an issue that needs to be addressed. We need to hire competent teachers. I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, that the vast majority of teachers today in public education have tremendous dedication, tremendous commitment, and are well qualified. But they are not all so, Mr. Speaker. And it will be the responsibility of a principal in a relatively autonomous environment to be able to sort out those who are able to deliver and those who need help in making that delivery. We cannot emphasise the importance of having that level of autonomy in our schools. We need it for our children and we need it for our future. 

Mr. Speaker, having taught at the Bermuda College for 12 years and having been in the immediate past Chairman of the Bermuda College I know that we have seen a decline in the capability of young people from both public and private schools coming to the College. It is not unique to Bermuda. If we go to any college or university in North America (and I suspect also Europe, although we have not done the research) that there is an abundance of programmes to help those students come to the level that they need in order to take university courses. So there is something going on at the middle school level, at the secondary school level, that needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed here as it needs to be addressed elsewhere, Mr. Speaker. Now, once we get that right, we will be on our way to having real opportunities for our young people. The business community will not be able to say that our young people lack the talent or they lack the skill set.

We have an excellent example of how reform can make for a very effective institution. All one needs to do, Mr. Speaker, is to look at the example of Bermuda College. After a seven-year effort, the Bermuda College was able to secure accreditation with one of the accredited bodies in North America. You would know about that as well, Mr. Speaker, because you were previous Chairman of the Bermuda College. That seven-year effort demonstrated that in getting their recognition the Bermuda College—and, therefore, Bermuda—has a recognised tertiary institution where students can come for two years and then transfer to a wide range of colleges and universities in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. The question becomes, How do we better market that strong institution—Bermuda College—to a wider body of Bermudian? Because we have 1,200 students—about 400 are full time. A parent, parents, can save about $30,000 a year by sending their students to Bermuda College rather than overseas and then transfer in the third or fourth year to a highly reputable college or university. But they do not do so in sufficient numbers. That has more to do with our mind-set, Mr. Speaker, than anything else, because the competence is there and the recognition (more importantly) is there. If I can move on to another area, Mr. Speaker, and I will take the liberty of doing so especially since my whip has said, I am certainly allowed to do so. There are some aspects of the Throne Speech that have caused concern. The argument by the Government, or the position by the Government, is that they will introduce drug testing for the Members of Parliament. I am not sure if that was meant to be mischievous or whether it was a real soundly-thought-through policy.

Mr. Speaker, having been the principal research officer for the National Alcohol and Drug Agency, the National Drug Strategy, and the National Drug Commission, one of the very clear rationales that was advanced in terms of any drug policy was to try to reduce the harm associated with the actions. There was always a harm reduction approach that was key. This approach . . . I am not sure what it is meant to accomplish. What I will say is that one could undertake a drug test, Mr. Speaker, and test positive but never have broken a law in Bermuda. Because drug testing does not test impairment; it tests one’s use. And everyone knows that there are a number of substances that can be in one’s system for months. So if someone goes to a jurisdiction where it is quite legal to consume a drug that happens to be illegal in Bermuda, what, then, would you say to that person? 

We have to be very careful about what it is that we are trying to accomplish. Is it a moral authority that we are trying to argue? Or is it something else that is going on? Is that clearly thought through? I would encourage the Government to give real consideration to what it is meaning to accomplish in doing so.

The other issue that caused me some concern, Mr. Speaker, relates to the decision to vacate a policy regarding foreign-born spouses and Bermudians purchasing more than one home. The rationale for that, Mr. Speaker, was that we had no idea—and I think we still do not have any idea—how much land is currently being held by non-Bermudians. There was a piece of legislation passed in the mid-1970s which says there should be not more than 10 per cent of the land in Bermuda held by foreign hands. When a former minister, Minister Burch, was in charge, he put the policy in place while we tried to get a count of all the property that is held in non-Bermudian hands. Most people who comment on this issue, Mr. Speaker, will say that they believe the 10 per cent limit has long since been exceeded. And so the policy was put in place to try to contain that so that we could get a better count and then decide what the more appropriate strategy might be. This policy shift, Mr. Speaker, now means that it is open once again, and we are violating the law. There seems to be no regard for the law. So, on the one hand we want to have a drug testing policy in place, because we want to ensure that all Members of Parliament adhere to the law, yet the very Government, by its actions, may now be wilfully violating the law. And there seems to be no demonstrated effort to find out what that actual count is. So I would again encourage the Government to reconsider its position so that we can assure that all of our policies and laws we pass are consistent with the law.

Mr. Speaker, the Throne Speech is interesting for what it contains. Obviously, that is why we are here today. But it is also interesting for what it does not contain. There are some glaring omissions from this Throne Speech. And I say “glaring” because some concerns were matters that were raised repeatedly in the past 12 months, yet found no place in the Throne Speech that we saw, listened to, and read last week.

I refer to a position on gaming. I refer to electoral reform. There were many pundits who spoke about the importance of having proportional representation, having the overseas vote—because these were seen to be important tenets of a strong democracy. Yet, Mr. Speaker, there is absolute silence on those matters. I do not know if the Government no longer considers them to be important and if that was just a position as Opposition, or whether it is something that will come forward later. But we shall soon see.

Mr. Speaker, the Throne Speech talks in the concluding section about the importance of integrity, transparency, and openness in the decision-making process. Those principles are something that I think all of us can assuredly agree with. Those are essential to having a strong and vibrant democracy. But, Mr. Speaker, some of the initial decisions made by this Government test their commitment to those principles. I speak about a firm commitment—six months ago, three months ago, two months ago—regarding term limits, for example, and a commitment to suspending them. And then what I see as a contrived decision-making process which sees them eliminated altogether. That, Mr. Speaker, in my view, will test their commitment to integrity, transparency, and openness. 

But there are some more challenging aspects that relate to these commitments or principles, Mr. Speaker. We gradually moved over the past 14 years to a type of government which saw Ministers carrying out their responsibilities with full fervour and full commitment—the process whereby we elected full-time Ministers. In the old days (some say the bad old days, Mr. Speaker), you had a situation whereby Ministers were paid very low salaries and they would juggle their full-time job with their ministerial responsibilities. That created a cloud of concern because the rule of thumb back in the  ’60s and ’70s, and perhaps before, Mr. Speaker, was that you would use your access to Government in order to better advance your own narrowly defined interests. So, by having a process by which we moved toward full-time Ministers you tried to break that tenuous line between one’s private interests and the public interests.

When I see it going on today, Mr. Speaker, [it] raises concern about the extent of which the Government is going to be able to remain true to its commitment to transparency and integrity. Because, Mr. Speaker, if you have a Minister working in a reinsurance company in the morning, and then setting policy regarding work permits in the afternoon, you get into that murky area. If you have a Minister working for a large conglomerate in the morning and then deciding on economic development policy in the afternoon, Mr. Speaker, you are getting to that line whereby . . . Whose interests are really being best protected and advanced?

So I would encourage the Government, I would encourage our Honourable Premier to rethink a process that can best serve public interests, best serve the interests of the people in its totality. Because as much as one says in legal circles that justice has to be seen to be done, good governance has to be seen to be done. And it cannot be done where the waters are murky. And, Mr. Speaker, there is a level of murkiness in our waters today.

The final point I will make, Mr. Speaker, relates to what I see as the most glaring omission—the most glaring omission—in the Throne Speech. And that has to do with an area of politics, an area of decision-making that gets at the very heart of how we make decisions and where the authority to make decisions lies. There was no comment, really, about the relationship between the Bermuda Government and the United Kingdom Government. We heard some earlier comments about the relationship between the Bermuda Government and the Governor, who represents the UK Government in Bermuda, with respect to the police service.

But there is a more fundamental issue, Mr. Speaker, because last December the United Kingdom Government formally established a panel of Ministers of all the Overseas Territories, a panel that the Overseas Territory Minister will himself chair. And if you read their mandate, Mr. Speaker, their mandate is to cover virtually every aspect and every area of governance for the Overseas Territories. So what you will see is—what I think I have seen and what I think has been the case since 1999—a gradual devolution of power back to the United Kingdom. 

The principle for arguing this point first came in 2003 when Lord Triesman (the Overseas Territories Minister at the time) argued that the line of demarcation between domestic affairs and international affairs was becoming increasingly blurred and, therefore, the UK may involve themselves in areas that the Overseas Territory might consider to be its exclusive domain under the Constitution—that has now been cast aside—that separation of power. And so what I would like to hear from the Government is what its position is with respect to its relationship with the United Kingdom. The British Prime Minister has already said he wants to take on what he calls “the tax havens.” Many consider Bermuda to be a tax haven, Mr. Speaker. It may well be that there are occasions when the interests of the UK are not necessarily aligned with the interests of Bermuda. And sometimes it is just plain misinformation that creates challenges for us. The most explicit example of misinformation that created a real challenge for Bermuda, Mr. Speaker, was in 2006 when the Home Office misinformed the European Union that Bermuda citizens, Overseas Territory citizens, did not have the right of abode in the UK. It was because of that misinformation, Mr. Speaker, that we were all subject to a visa regime of the Schengen group of countries in the European Union.

So as we move forward, Mr. Speaker, as this Government seeks to set out its course for our country, and as we seek to be the critical evaluators of what Government does, I ask for this Government to give real consideration to the future relationship that we might have with the UK under this new Ministerial Council, what it means, and if they could come back to us through Parliament and to the people, at some point in the not too-distant future, to outline how that relationship—in their view—is going to evolve.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

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 Hansard (15 February 2013)
 Mr. Walton Brown