We're living in the dark ages

RG Opinion (May 11, 2004)

We're living in the dark ages

Once a week, six months of the year our MPs dutifully trudge to the House of Parliament to execute their routine. This rigorous schedule begins early at 10:30 a.m. with Ministerial Statements followed by Congratulations and Obituaries (a.k.a. constituency work) and then a well-deserved lunch-break at 12:30 p.m.. Two hours of political pandering can work up quite an appetite. After a leisurely hour and a half lunch they resume for another few hours of grueling heckling interspersed with the occasional discussion of important issues.

Perhaps that’s a bit of a harsh characterization, but for many that’ll be the most information they’ll have ever received regarding what goes on ‘up on de hill’.

We’re out of touch with the legislative process because the people’s business is conducted as if we’re in the mid-1900’s, not 2004. Bermuda is long overdue for an overhaul of our Parliamentary system.

In most modern democracies the process of governing is open and accessible. Legislative sessions are broadcast live on television with transcripts available afterwards. Your representative can be seen in action at a safe distance from the comfort of your own home.

Not so in Bermuda. We’re subjected to static-filled radio broadcasts where Members often forget to turn on their microphones and heckling dominates. The Senate is even worse, sounding like it meets in the North Rock tank at the Aquarium. Sadly this same audio feed is what the electronic media relies on, but that’s light years ahead of the print media. Our print journalists are relegated to the public gallery frantically scribbling what little they can discern between naps or staring at the Sergeant at Arms, who likewise struggles to stay awake.

All joking aside, the print media’s role is extremely valuable. The Royal Gazette publishes the closest thing that exists to a transcript of proceedings. Printed on a Saturday and in subsequent editions, this huge block of intimidating and uninviting text is the only easily accessible record of Parliament. Rumour has it that digital recordings of the analog radio broadcast exist at the Ministry of Telecommunications and E-Commerce in the event that years from now someone might want to know exactly what was said

The first step towards Parliamentary modernization should be the creation of a website for the Legislature. It’s shameful that in this day and age on an island which trumpets itself as a modern ecommerce jurisdiction, that we can’t access Parliamentary information online. What little we can access through www.gov.bm hasn’t been updated since the Great Deception of July 2003, or earlier. While enticing visitors with Cabinet, Senate and Parliament listings they’ll be disappointed with the resulting “page cannot be found” error messages.

Our Parliamentary website should include the house orders, minutes and transcripts of each session, in addition to contact information for the MPs. Additionally it should include a database of attendance records and a Member’s voting history, a document storage area for Budget and Throne Speeches, reports, papers and access to the Register of Interests. This website would probably be the first stop most voters will make when looking for information.

A logical next step would include the installation of TV cameras providing a live feed of house proceedings. This alone would make our legislators more accountable and effective, increasing our understanding of public policy creation. The absence of cameras results in very few of our MPs actually sitting in their seats. The ones who do bother to show up are often discreetly eating, sleeping, reading or checking their email. Some PLP MP’s have even been caught reading the Royal Gazette, although they’ll never admit it! You’d also see these supposedly bitter rivals chatting and showing a genuine affection for each other. Sounds a lot like school detention doesn’t it?

However, one potential drawback of televised sessions could be increased grandstanding, but most of our MPs are as lively as the dead guys on the walls behind them, so that would be a refreshing change.

Finally we should install a Hansard reporting system similar to the new court reporting system, creating official transcripts to be published online and in our libraries.

We’re living in the dark ages in bringing the legislative process to the people. Modernization is long overdue.

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