Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Parliamentary Speech in support of human rights protection based on sexual orientation

Mr. Walton Brown: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
            Mr. Speaker, during my first speech to this Honourable House I commended the Government for taking the initiative to clearly express an intention of bringing forth the amendment to the Human Rights Act.
            I commend the Government for bringing forth this amendment today. It is an important step forward for a more just society, and I recognise the challenges in terms of different views in the community.
            When the Honourable Minister made his statement, he was strong and bold, Mr. Speaker. What I was concerned about, though, was that given the tremendous debate that has taken place in our country, given the nature and extent of differing views on this issue, the Minister had a responsibility to clearly articulate the rationale for this amendment to help to explain to the public, those elements within the public who are not yet on this path toward what I see as a more just society. The Minister chose not to do so and that is regrettable, Mr. Speaker.
            The Honourable Minister who just sat down, Mr. Crockwell, gave a powerful, even at times eloquent, speech about the importance of us moving toward a more just society. The Honourable Member spoke about the importance of this legislation in taking us along that pathway. And, as I say, we can all embrace the change. But the carveouts that the Minister responsible for this Bill made at the very beginning cause me at least pause for concern. Because if we are truly concerned with bringing about a more just society and bringing about a society in which we are all equal before the law, then it is inconsistent for the Government to bring forth a Bill which limits the rights and freedoms that are going to be extended to people of differing sexual orientations.
            So part of what I would do today, Mr. Speaker, is provide some of that context for the community, because our role as legislators is not simply to pass laws. We should try to explain to the public the rationale for such laws. That is our constitutional duty. So I will try to fill in some of the blanks and then I will also encourage the Minister to step back from his restriction on any future aggressive steps with regard to a full extension of human rights, because this amendment, while an important step forward, will not bring about equality before the law. We are still a ways away from that, Mr. Speaker. So if Government is serious, they will back away from the carveouts that the Minister made in his opening remarks.
            Mr. Speaker, the quest of justice has been a long one in this country. We had some first steps during emancipation in 1834. The valiant battle of Gladys Misick Morrell for the right for women to get the vote in the 1920s and 1930s was part of that struggle, the struggle for racial desegregation, the struggle for the right to vote—all part and parcel. But as we got into the age of democracy, we saw further extensions of what we now take for granted as basic and fundamental human rights, the right to organise in collective bargaining units.
            Members who served in this House, Mr. Speaker, were champions of a more just society. The single individual who was an inspiration for this colonial territory—Lois Browne-Evans, our leader—for decades championed a more just society. And Members have already spoken about her support for an initial move toward a more just society with respect to this issue with support for the Stubbs Bill back in the 1990s.
            But then there is also our friend Julian Hall who, too, spoke about the importance of extending this society and its rights with respect to all people. It was the official case of the 1970s, Mr. Speaker, in which the rights of children born of foreign parents were clearly examined and embraced by the court system. So that is all part and parcel of this long struggle for a more just society. And we cannot forget Margaret Carter and her struggle, her campaign to bring about more and better rights for those who are physically challenged.
            So this piece of legislation, this amendment, is part and parcel of our long quest for a more democratic and a more just society. So for those in the public who have reservations about this particular amendment, look at it in the context of trying to make Bermuda better for more of its citizens. We do not have justice. We do not have real genuine equality of opportunity. And there is rampant discrimination in this country on so many levels. So it is important that this Bill pass—this amendment pass—in my view. Despite its limitations, we need to pass it in its present form. And I am prepared to work and encourage the Government to extend its remit, to extend the rights to people, irrespective of sexual orientation. It is our duty to do so, Mr. Speaker.
            The issue is contentious, but that does not take away from the responsibility we have to clearly examine issues, to reflect on them, and to make a decision. I expect every Member of this House to get up and clearly express their view. It is our responsibility. Now is not the time to run to the bathroom, Mr. Speaker.


Mr. Walton Brown: So, Mr. Speaker, in examining my position on this issue, it is a very simple matter. I believe in a more just Bermuda. I say it and I act on it. One’s principles do not require qualification. You have your principles and you act on them. One has to act on them.


Mr. Walton Brown: Now, Mr. Speaker, I was elected to Parliament by my constituents. My constituency is a diverse constituency, Mr. Speaker. And in looking at how I would deal with this issue—


The Speaker: Members, Members, we have a good speech going on right now and I think we need to listen to it—all of us—every one of us . . . every one of us . . . every one of us.

Mr. Walton Brown: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. You truly are an insightful Speaker.


The Speaker: You will get a long way with that.


The Speaker: You will always be asked to speak.


Mr. Walton Brown: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will continue to act accordingly.
            So, I was elected to represent constituency 17, but it forced me to consider a question: What is my role here as a Member of Parliament? Am I a delegate of the people’s will or am I a representative obliged to examine issues and try to help shape legislation and lead on issues that reflect the best interests of the country as I see it?
            Mr. Speaker, one can do opinion polls (and I have done a lot of them), one can ask questions of people and they can render their opinion. But one thing that does not get conveyed in an opinion poll, Mr. Speaker, is the reason why people hold certain views, the sentiment that is attached to it. And so I went around my constituency, Mr. Speaker, and spoke to a number of people. I did not do a poll; I went door to door and spoke to a few people. For those who were opposed to this amendment, their immediate response was, I cannot support it. I do not support it. And I would always ask why. And after about five to ten minutes of discussion almost everyone accepted that they believed Bermuda should be a place in which people are not discriminated against based purely on their sexual orientation. They all accepted that. They did not understand what the legislation was meant to accomplish.
So part of the responsibility of Government [is] to help to try to convey to people [that] it is a just amendment to make, it is the right amendment to make. We will all be, I think, on the right side of history. But the understanding of what this legislation is meant to accomplish was not readily discerned by many of my constituents. And so after speaking to them about what it was meant to accomplish, they would support it. They would support. So I think not all support it, Mr. Speaker. I should say, not all. But the majority I spoke to expressed support for it once they understood it.
Now when it comes to the legislation itself, this Human Rights Act 1981 represented a step forward when it was first introduced. But then and now, Mr. Speaker, it still represents a flawed instrument, because if you really believe in a just society you would not have all these carveouts that allow people to still discriminate based on where people live and who you allow into your apartment. So I believe we need to have a rethink if we are truly committed to creating a more just society, Mr. Speaker.
I know that there is division within the Christian community in this country. We have had two differing views coming out of the AME Church. The AME Churches in many countries have been a beacon of progress, a beacon of hope. They have helped to break down what I call the edifice of oppression. They have worked very hard in many areas. They worked alongside the Civil Rights Movement, Mr. Speaker. On this issue there has not yet been a clear position taken by the churches.
But I decided, Mr. Speaker (and my friend, Mr. Burgess, will appreciate this), to go and talk to members of the clergy to get some insight into their thinking on this matter because it is a very serious matter and the church is a very important institution and an institution which needs to be respected in this country. I was first guided by the words of someone who I have admired for decades, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Desmond Tutu. And he opined years ago that one cannot take everything from the Bible in a literal way. The Bible used to once support slavery. The Bible says women should not speak in church. And some have used that to argue against women being ordained. And so, according to the insight of Desmond Tutu, we need to be careful about how we utilise what is contained in the Bible and ensure that it reflects 21st century sensibilities.
Mr. Speaker, I spoke to members in the Christian community here as well, and I was guided to Mark 28 in the Bible.

[Inaudible interjections]

Mr. Walton Brown: Mr. Speaker, as my Christian friends tell me . . . and I am familiar with elements of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. I truly do believe in a more diverse Bermuda. And the first two commandments I have been told are the ones that are most relevant—to love one’s God and to love one’s neighbour and to treat them as you would treat yourself.

[Inaudible interjections]

Mr. Walton Brown: Those are meant to be the two most salient aspects of the Ten Commandments. And so to those who wish to use the Bible to buttress their position, Mr. Speaker, I would say, use the Bible as a way of making our society more just, as it was done during the Civil Rights Movement. I see equal rights for people, irrespective of sexual orientation, unequivocally as part and parcel of that overall Human Rights Movement. And Christianity has played a positive role in many aspects of that struggle.
            So, Mr. Speaker, we have before us an opportunity to step forward. It is contentious, I understand. My party, a party which has long been a beacon of progress, has differing views on this matter. We have remained fundamentally committed to a more positive agenda and an agenda rooted in social justice. This has been a challenge for us.
My position is very clear. I will support this amendment despite its limitations. And I do want to see other legislation brought forward that genuinely realises the dream of a more just Bermuda.
            Mr. Speaker, as I take my seat all I will say is, Government, you have taken the bold step. You should be commended. It is not without its flaws, but as we move forward let us use this as an understanding that while this represents progress, there is more to be done.
            Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

[Desk thumping]

Delivered 14 June 2013