I've been observing a rather heated, to put it nicely, thread over at A Limey in Bermuda that seems to have largely drawn to a close. It got pretty exhausting at the end with a couple of commenters posting some pretty hateful and ignorant white supremacist type stuff but somewhere in there was a reasonably productive debate that got off track.
The post essentially tries to draw a line between ProActive's problems at the Berkeley site and the idea that the credibility of all black people has been hurt as a result. I pretty much agree with Phil's position, but wanted to address a few things from the perspective of the political system and the parties, that hasn't been touched on yet.
The whole thing started because the UBP's Patricia Gordon Pamlin said that as a result of this project no one in their right mind would consider black contractors for a large project, and then the PLP's Wayne Perinchief said that the Government was now 'trying to save the credibility of black people.' Two similar sentiments, one on the negative side, one delivered a little more positively - but essentially the same criticism.
Just to reiterate, it is incorrect to say that Pro Active's failure by extension indicts all blacks, but it isn't a surprise that it's cropped up. To some extent, the PLP themselves have created this connection as a political tool - and a smart one at that.
At the last election, one of the major themes delivered on the doorstep by PLP canvassers was, 'If you don't vote us back in you're saying that black people can't manage'. The flip side of this argument, as someone pointed out to me, is 'if you vote us out you're saying that only white people can run the country'. The PLP have used this argument quite shrewdly in an attempt to prevent defection among some swing voters and quash concern over their performance in their first term.
Whether it worked or not I don't know, but I do know that it was used. I disagree with the sentiment in both the Pro Active scenario or the scenario of the PLP's re-election, but to deny that tactic was used would be dishonest.
Additionally, one of the other things that was expressed to me by a black Bermudian was that the black community put a lot of pressure and expectations on each other to succeed. Perhaps the best example is when young black men and women go off to higher education. Many in the black community will tell them that they're going 'for all of us, so don't screw it up". There's even an NAACP commercial on heavy rotation in Bermuda that expresses this with a young man going off to college and his father wanting him to wear a tie. It's quite a powerful ad. In many ways, Pro Active might have carried some of this burden of expectation, one I can sort of understand. This individual felt that while both Ms. Gordon Pamplin and Mr. Perinchief's comments were misguided, he knows where they coming from, and many in the black community probably could too.
On to the topic of black economic empowerment, or maybe just economic empowerment. An important aspect has been largely lost in the discussion of the Government and Pro Active's performance:
Government have been completely inconsistent, evasive and downright schizophrenic on whether the Berkeley contract was awarded on the basis of empowerment.
The Premier, when W&E Minister, wanted to have it both ways - as he did recently in his rambling and ineffective press conference. Mr. Scott was waffling in the face of criticism about the PLP's treatment of a black firm, and responded by saying there were other examples of contracts awarded that were successful (Dellwood I think was one example), but ended his comments with "who just happened to be black". Well which one is it? The PLP seem to want both sides of the issue when it suits them.
You can't have a policy of economic empowerment, or black empowerment, or of anything if you aren't sure what you've done and can't decide if you did it or not. In today's RG Ashfield De Vent goes down the same road. He picks up a line used by the Premier before the last election:
"Mr. DeVent said he understood Pro-Active had come up with the most responsive tender at the time.
"They were chosen on merit.""
I ask again which one is it? The contractor thinks it was awarded as part of a broader, albeit undefined, policy of empowerment. Julian Hall said as much in his press conference:
"He added that Cabinet Ministers had spoken out about a desire for a policy of black economic empowerment. But Government had not delivered the degree of flexibility and support that Pro-Active had been led to expect, as a small company without the substantial capital resources."
That's my biggest complaint with the PLP's claim to be supporting black businesses and following a course of empowerment. Where's the policy? Where's the support to achieve success? This is something I've written about in my RG column. In the absence of a policy it's just favouritism. Or is that the point?
A policy statement is limiting. It means all-comers can apply and it clearly sets out who qualifies, what the expectations are and what support Government will give. Selection is based on a clear set of guidelines and the process would be open and easily justified. Even if people disagreed with the methodology it would be laid out and the Government could say this is why we did what we did. Instead there is nothing but the word of the Government and a completely inconsistent approach to this, one the Government aren't even sure they're doing themselves.
I support this approach, and in fact the UBP, in the run-up to the 2003 election, proposed establishing an Office of Economic Empowerment to do just that. Obviously, they lost so it didn't happen - which is a shame because that proposal was a good one as was the housing plan - but what the PLP are doing is not economic empowerment. It's political opportunism, pure and simple.
If the Berkeley contract was truly a case of economic empowerment then Government would have announced that the contract was going to be awarded on this basis, or with this as a consideration, BEFORE the tendering process began - not after.
What happened here was that Pro Active was awarded the contract and the PLP pointed to it and said "Look. Empowerment". Well, not really. What about all the other small black contractors who might have wanted to put together a consortium, or their own new firm and bid? How were they empowered by this? Recently in a RG Letter to the Editor (not online) Dr. Eva Hodgson made a very incisive point when she stated that (I'm paraphrasing) "the PLP hierarchy is not all black people". Absolutely, but they'd like you to think that because they and their hand picked few are doing well that all blacks have been empwered. Absolutely not. It's just a new elite that is being created. A new 40 Thieves for the new millenium.
What seemed to occur was that the Government put word out to a few selected individuals that they'd win the contract if they put together a firm - even with a substantially higher bid - and called it empowerment afterwards. That's favouritism, cronyism in my eyes, not empowerment.
It didn't work in any case but economic empowerment couldn't have been hurt in this case because this was anything but. What was hurt I believe was the PLP's ability to go down this murky road again. I can't see the public standing for it...if we're aware it's happening that is.