February 2005 Archives

By the way, UBP MP Pat Gordon-Pamplin, took up her motion deploring the Coco Reef lease - much to the PLP's displeasure and objections - after the budget debate concluded today (and is in progress now).

I would imagine the UBP felt they had little choice, as it's pretty clear that the PLP will shut the House down very quickly after the 2 week budget debate concludes.

Parliament facilitates Parliamentary Questions, and Motions, and Motions to Adjourn, which the UBP have been using pretty effectively and the PLP have been attempting to avoid through short sessions and long breaks.

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I'm still waiting for the DNS change to be made by BermudaNIC so that I can officially move over to my new host and pick up the activity a little.

I apologise, but I'm betwixt and between hosts with two sites running right now and it's a bit labour intensive to move posts on the 'live' site to the 'almost live' site, so I haven't been posting much.

But while we wait, just a couple of quick comments on the Renee Webb commissions issue:

Whenever Cabinet Ministers and (particularly Government) MPs start to transact business with Government I get uncomfortable. But I accept that this is a small community and these things are inevitable, although I would prefer it didn't go on. I also appreciate that there could already be existing business relationships that shouldn't necessarily have to be terminated, and that forbidding any transactions with Government could discourage good people from entering public service.

However, saying that, Ms. Webb doesn't get it. The concern with the Maximum pensions issue is less that Ms. Webb was a shareholder in the company, and mostly - from my perspective at least - that she received separate commissions.

Now, commissions would presumably have been paid to Ms. Webb as compensation for bringing the business to Maximum, which is where I start to squirm.

I squirm because this means that a Cabinet Minister was lobbying Government for a private business transaction, which to me screams conflict of interest. It also raises the issue of whose interests Ms. Webb is serving, her's or the public's.

Now, quickly moving on the allegations raised in Parliament on Friday and reported in today's Royal Gazette. The key phrase in that last sentence was 'in Parliament'.

It is surely not a coincidence that Ms. Webb waited until she was in Parliament before lobbing the accusations against UBP members. Because with Parliament comes privilege, and Ms. Webb was more than a little loose with the facts and knows she can't be sued.

She would have been a lot more careful if she were making these accusations in a forum where she could be held legally responsible. And as Dr. Gibbons was pointing out repeatedly in Parliament, Ms. Webb had her 'facts' wrong, and I imagine those accused will be looking to clear their names.

But just quickly, did she not think it reasonable to point out that Dunkely's, the dairy firm of UBP MP Michael Dunkley, is the sole provider of milk in Bermuda? So what would be the option for Government? Not to provide milk in any of its cafeterias, schools etc.? And on top of that, did Michael Dunkley broker the deal and collect commissions? That would stink. And also - very significantly - were the terms of the transaction reasonable, or was the Government being gauged?

It's also important to point out that these relationships (or at least some) were probably in place before Michael Dunkley, Bob Richards, Grant Gibbons entered politics as they are all recent arrivals (mid - late 90s). New relationships, particularly those with a sitting Cabinet Minister, must undergo an increased level of scrutiny as pressure could more easily be brought to bear.

It's that side of things that makes me wish that Ms. Webb had been more responsible in her response. What I heard in Parliament on Friday was not an explanation, it was an excuse. And some people might doubt this statement, but I had withheld judgment on this story, until then.

Ms. Webb's response equated to more of the old: 'They did it, so can I.' Not to mention that the PLP, after taking over the Government, continued (and continues) with many of these relationships to this day. Which was the sort of farcical aspect of her argument against Grant Gibbons.

Ms. Webb was pretty much saying that people should be outraged at Grant Gibbons because the PLP have spent Government money at Gibbons family owned businesses over the past 7 years. How dumb is that?

Anyway, surely if it was UBP cronyism, the PLP would have terminated them immediately, to much fanfare.

Anyway, I'm not here to defend the transactions of UBP MPs or PLP MPs, they can all do that themselves, but this skirmish obscures a bigger issue of how do we maintain integrity in our political system. And how can we avoid Government being used to line the pockets of individual politicians?

I've got some thoughts about this over the coming days, because its an issue I feel very strongly about. (But I'm hoping the site moves over to the new host tomorrow and I can comment then.)

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Highlights from the budget debate so far:

- Randy Horton's Crackberry was buzzing away on his desk during his presentation, prompting a wrist slap from Deputy Speaker Jennifer Smith.

- If I have to hear the phrase 'testicular fortitude' used one more time I'm going to cut someone's off. I'll take suggestions for candidates.

Time to retire that tired phrase.

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The UBP has posted the 2005 Budget Reply on their website, or you can download it from here.

Dr. Gibbons is delivering it now.

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I've 'moved' the site to my new host, but if you're reading this you're looking at the old host, because I'm waiting for my request for DNS change with BermudaNIC to be processed.

In the interim I've posted John Barritt's View from the Hill and will post the UBP's Budget Reply when it is released.

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OK, Ms. Cox, but what will this independence exercise really cost

Mid Ocean News (25 Feb. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

FORGET what’s in a name, Mr. Editor, instead: What’s in a word? Not much really, but when combined with other, presumably, carefully chosen words, they do tend to point the reader in a certain direction – and usually for a reason. Such was the case last Friday in the House on the Hill when the Finance Minister Paula Cox presented the Government Budget for the coming fiscal year 2005-2006.

The “Country’s National Budget” was how the Minister described it right from the opening paragraph of her statement, and several times thereafter. National? I had not heard that term used before; indeed I scrambled to take a quick peek back through last year’s, the first by Ms. Cox, and, nope, just as I thought, it was then described as it always has been, the Annual Government Budget.

So what gives?

Or more importantly what’s changed since the last one?

I expect that for you, Mr Editor, I do not need to paint a picture. Or as one of my colleagues loves to put it, you don’t need to be Ray Charles to read between the lines on this one. The Man in charge of The Woman in charge of our Finances wants us all to be thinking independence. (Independence, Renee, not independently.)

So the term National Budget makes for a nice segue – what a wonderful word, Mr. Editor - into talk of independence. Lo and behold, there we were not long into the Budget Statement and there were a couple of paragraphs on – yes, you guessed it – independence.

“The people of every country have an inherent and inalienable right to articulate a view of self-determination and act upon that view”, declared the Finance Minister, not ten minutes into her speech, a speech that would take well over an hour, close to 90 minutes in fact, one of the longest in recent memory. We were told that Government has re-engaged the people in “a dialogue” about self-determination for Bermuda, and that there is: -

* Nothing sinister about the dialogue;
* No hidden agenda;
* Nothing to fear; and that
* There will be no rush to judgement.

“At the end of the process”, declared Ms. Cox, reading from her prepared written statement, “the Bermudian people will articulate a view on self-determination and act upon it. That is their inherent and inalienable right”.

The opening was obvious. Too obvious for those who are prepared to articulate a view and act on it. “How, then?”, asked Opposition Leader Dr. Grant Gibbons out loud, from across the floor. “Are you or are you not going to give the people the right to have a say by referendum?”.
An answer to that question wasn’t in the script. The Finance Minister continued on. Instead, reading from her prepared remarks, Ms. Cox told us that the people of Bermuda are going to be given the facts and the costs of going independent, presumably by the Big BIC, which was never actually mentioned by name.

Just how much will that exercise cost?

Well, said Ms Cox: “Government has made provision in the 2005/06 National Budget for fact-finding and providing answers to all the questions that reasonable people might have about self-determination for Bermuda and for Bermudians”.

Exactly how much then? I mean that seems like a reasonable question any reasonable person might have. Sadly, the Finance Minister chose not to share that figure with us in her statement and, according to a report in The Royal Gazette the next day, she declined to give that figure when asked at her subsequent press conference. You will also be hard pressed to find that sum identified anywhere in the Estimates.
So much then, Mr Editor, for providing answers to reasonable questions from reasonable people.

Nothing sinister.

No hidden agenda.

Nothing to fear.

Excuse me but am I being rushed to judgement?

Hear no… See no … Speak no ….

TALKING of leaving things out, there were a couple of others too, which, as far as the PLP Government is concerned, are better left unsaid. Three prime examples if I may: -

The Berkeley project … and the escalating costs, and the overruns, and the arbitration, and the delay, hardly rated a mention. It was touched upon but ever so briefly as one of a number of major projects “underway”. (Please, Mr. Editor, won’t someone in that PLP Government tell us what they mean by “underway”: How long is underway to be underway?) Even more noticeable is the way in which the PLP are now trying to distance themselves from their own work. The word “Berkeley” or the words “Berkeley Institute” in association with the new senior secondary school have been dropped, completely. “The Second Senior School” is the term the Finance Minister employed. Shame and embarrassment, I suspect.

The Bermuda Housing Corporation: The planned activities of the BHC, the Finance Minister told us, have only had a minimal impact on the $62 million budget of the Works Ministry. That sounds like good news in view of what happened in the past. But that’s not quite how the Minister meant it. BHC is going to be seeking required financing in local capital markets for housing initiatives. How is this possible? You ask a reasonable question. “Corporate governance and transparency has been significantly improved at the Bermuda Housing Corporation”, explained Ms. Cox in her Budget Statement. Really? Why is it then that the Minister responsible has yet to make public – as required by law - the Annual Reports for the Corporation for the years 2002, 2003 and 2004? They have, Mr. Editor, been a very long time coming …and I draw attention to this without getting into the delay which surrounded disclosure of the Auditor General’s Special Report which has still be aired and debated in the House of Assembly.

Jobs: The Minister gave us only the good news here. Overall employment is expected to have increased by 1.5 percent in 2004 following a flat performance in 2003. “The overall number of jobs in the economy”, she said in her Statement, “was provisionally placed at 38,259 in 2004, reflecting a net addition of 573 jobs across the entire economy”. Sounds good. Looks good too. Until you dig down and take a look at the facts and figures reported on by the Finance Ministry in their 2004 Economic Review – which the Minister tabled with her Budget. The Review tells the real story: since 1998 jobs held by Bermudians have gone from 28,717 to 27,345 in 2004, a decline of 1372 jobs over six years. Jobs held by non-Bermudians? They have climbed to a high of 8,980 in 2004 from 7,480 in 1999 or an increase of 1500 jobs. The statistics speak for themselves. This is the New Bermuda, Mr. Editor, in which Bermudians are now struggling to survive.

Wait for it

AS for jobs, all criticism aside Mr. Editor, you have to give the Minister her due. There were no new taxes to complain about. Land taxes held despite the recent, upward revision in ARVs (maybe next time). Payroll taxes were eased for the little guys. Farmers finally get a customs duty break they’ve been after for some time. Pensioners are promised a 3.5 per cent increase as of August 1 but, as we also heard, the increase may still fall behind the rate of inflation which may run to 4 percent this year. The increase will also cost us a 4.5% increase in our social insurance contributions.

Meanwhile, a proud PLP Minister for Finance was at pains to highlight the PLP’s track record (to date) on debt. Better than the UBP, Ms Cox crowed: this before Dr. Gibbons gets to reply this week.
But then why plan to borrow $85-million more?

You have to also wonder at what’s coming too, when Government proposes to increase the proposed statutory debt limit from $250-million to $375-million?

It sounds to me, Mr Editor, like there is something just around the corner. I guess reasonable people with reasonable questions looking for reasonable answers will just have to wait.

Flights of fancy

SPEAKING of what’s ahead Mr. Editor, the wordsmiths responsible for the Budget Statement seemed at several points to have, shall we say, soared on flights of oratorical fancy .( Translation: They got carried away.)

Like, for example, this declaration: “We are living in an exciting time – there is so much to do, so many bridges to cross and there is a bold new world that hovers just on the edge of the horizon”. Bermuda is what then? Another World but not the other World out there hovering on the horizon?

Or what about this: “ … Our people will move in unison to the drumbeats and rhythms of our cultural heritage as we celebrate 500 years of Bermuda’s advances in this Quincentennial year. Such is the essence of the ‘Social Agenda’!” Now that, Mr. Editor, sounds like a Social Agenda …and in competition with a re-vamped tourism strategy which was described as one of “bold steps and pulsating moves”. A kind of new Tourism Slide as in Electric? Get down, Dr. James Brown.

Or this: “We intend to be an entrepreneurial government – one that constantly chafes at the bit and searches for more efficient and effective ways of managing”. Chafes?! As in “make hot or sore by rubbing” or “become annoyed”? That’s a bit of a slip, I think, but perhaps accurate.

And finally this gem at the conclusion: “This means that every one of us must be involved as we build our nation: A Bermuda for Everyone … Everyone for Bermuda”.

Mind you, the Minister told us earlier in her statement that this will be the theme for the Quincentennial celebrations which Government is planning this year to mark the 500th Anniversary of the discovery of Bermuda, but to some of my colleagues it sounded like an election theme in the making.

So much then, Mr. Editor, for Juan Bermuda!

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Over the next few days I'll be moving the site to a new web hosting provider (www.livingdot.com), to take advantage of much better pricing and an integrated and fully featured installation of MovableType (whose owners SixApart look to be positioning themselves for an IPO).

This change should remove some of the administration I currently do, the limitations of my current hosting account, as well as save me quite a few bucks.

Tranfering the name servers with BermudaNIC might take a few days, so there is the potential for a brief disruption, but hopefully it will be transparent to readers.

I've also got a small backlog of House Orders and Minutes to post as well as a few things to comment on.

Thanks for bearing with me. I know I've been slacking off lately.

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If you're a web site designer (or know of one) who might be interested in helping me out with a little project I'm working on please send me an email.

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I love my Ipod. But I'm with Andrew Sullivan on this one.

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2005 Budget can be found here or here, but not on the Government website


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Mid Ocean News (11 Feb. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

Stepping out for the annual Budget Ballet

LADIES and gentlemen, and Mr. Editor too, today in the House on the Hill we reconvene for the annual Budget Ballet, an event not on the Bermuda Festival Calendar but on the Parliamentary Calendar, which features by way of an opening act, a grand pas de deux, the Minister of Finance leading first and her Shadow from the Opposition following next Friday. According to the choreography, which hasn’t changed much over the years – and by years, I mean decades, Mr. Editor - there often follows a series of long monologues by Ministers of the Government, reading from lengthy scripts put together by swivel servants, whose Shadows get to respond in kind … and in length if they’re lucky. The rest of us poor sods may not even get an opportunity to get a word in edge-wise, such is our lot as the cast ensemble.

They call this the Budget Debate … and unlike the real Festival down the road, it’s free: The debate that is, whether listening on the radio or watching from the public gallery. Or not. Your choice.

The excitement, if any, is born out of the anticipation we all have as to what will be in the Budget, the first to bear the entire imprint of Finance Minister Paula Cox who succeeded her late father in the post just prior to last year’s presentation. There will likely be the obligatory news video of the Finance Minister making her way up to the House on the Hill with the Budget firmly tucked inside Ministerial briefcase, and the obligatory pose, usually halfway up the steps, for Saturday’s Royal Gazette. The props, Mr. Editor, like the choreography never seem to change. Not much.

But no matter how you slice it, Mr. Editor, the Budget is the news story of the day. I mean, if it’s anything like last year’s, it will be a $700-million production. It should warrant attention - and close scrutiny too.

Parliament is meant to provide that close scrutiny. That won’t begin to happen until next week when the Opposition delivers its Reply through its Leader, Dr. Grant Gibbons, who also happens to be the Shadow for Finance. If past practice is any indication, Mr. Editor, we’ll all likely scurry off the Hill soon after the Budget is presented: the Government to explain and defend initiatives in press conferences and the Opposition, after an initial comment or two, to prepare for next week’s curtain call.

We call next Friday The Economic Debate: when members get to speak on the both the Budget and the Economy and the direction of both. Different directions? We hope not, but you never know.

Meanwhile, the actual debate of the various Ministries – and their proposed expenditures for the next financial year – won’t begin until Monday the 28th. The Rules provide that some 42 hours be set aside for this next phase of the plot, acts of scrutiny they are meant to be, as we meet three days a week for two weeks to get to The End. The fun part here, and I exaggerate a touch Mr Editor, is that the Opposition gets to decide how much time, if any, is allocated and to what departments and in what order. But the allocations are not meant to come as a complete surprise to the Government: we are to let them know the order and the times sufficiently well in advance so as to be primed and ready to roll … to roll out those briefs, which are hardly ever brief, but often longer in self-aggrandising spin than they are in actual substance.

Questions for Ministers? Maybe.

Answers? Unlikely.

You were thinking of what: An actual debate? Sorry, Mr. Editor, not in this production – and this, ladies and gentlemen, and you too Mr Editor, is how our Parliament works in the year 2005.

A way to go, Mr. Premier

IF you’re thinking there must be another way, don’t think again. Reform of the rules of the House of Assembly doesn’t appear to be high on the Government agenda, if it is at all. On the other hand, even their own members return from Commonwealth Parliamentary Conferences, year after year, and share with us reports, year after year, that tell us how behind the times we really are in the way in which we run our House of Assembly. I could go on and on about the need for reform – and how you don’t need to be independent to bring Bermuda up-to-date. But I won’t. I have already, elsewhere, with recommendations.

Let’s try a new tack, shall we?

The Man Who Wants To Be Prime Minister showed some inclination to think and act outside the conventional box when he established the Big BIC: You might say it showed a streak of independent thought. Now while he and I disagree on the need or the mandate to pursue independence, the approach did appear to be an attempt of sorts at some sort of bi-partisan, community-based effort to tackle an issue of concern to the community(which, granted, Grant, is only an issue because he made it an issue).

What about employing this approach on major issues that are of real and actual concern to the voters of this country, Mr Editor? Here’s a couple that might benefit from bi-partisan, broad community-based, investigation spearheaded by backbench MPs from both sides of the House on the Hill: -

Sustainable development: Why just an expert from the UK under CPU? Plenty of home-grown talent here: former Environment Minister Arthur Hodgson comes to my mind as well as the man he hired to consult on the issue Pauulu Kamarakafego a.k.a Dr. Roosevelt Brown. What became of his work anyhow? Sustainable development strikes me as an ideal probe for a 12-person committee drawn from all sectors of the community.

Tourism: We’ve tried everything else so far haven’t we? Minister after Minister, seem to come and go, and go, and go, and go quite a lot, it seems, and with them a multiplicity of sound-good, feel-good ideas that never quite seem to deliver where it counts. Here. Who remembers the Fly/Cruise dream? Gombeys at Davos? Argentina and the South America push? Africa? Now the Miami Heat and a Bermuda shorts fashion show. Some of the ideas seem as far flung as they are far-fetched. We’re told we’re creating a buzz. What we need is more people in the form of visitors.

Add to this the turn-over in Tourism personnel in recent years and David Dodwell’s call for an independent Tourism Authority is looking better and better. Maybe it is time to turn tourism over to the professionals, people with a stake in the industry, who make a career and a living out of tourism – and let the amateurs, as enthusiastic and as hard-working as they may be, get out of the way.

Crime ( our youth and gangs): Given recent headlines in the newspaper and on the news, need I say more? This is a community issue that does cut across political boundaries, and cries out for a bi-partisan approach.

I’m certain there are other issues that could be added to the list: Housing is but one more that comes immediately to mind.

What does this approach bring, Mr Editor?

Consultation, participation, and involvement.

Openness and transparency too, if we opened the work of parliamentary committees to the public. But that gets me back to where I started: the long overdue need for reform of the way in which we do the people’s business in Bermuda.

Absent a good idea

BUT before I get carried away, committees can kill too – if not seriously deep six a good idea. Absentee ballots are a prime example. It’s now been well over two years since the Opposition introduced a motion in the House calling for absentee ballots which the Speaker called on us to withdraw because the then Premier, Jennifer Smith, said her Government was about to set up a committee to review how the franchise might be extended. The Opposition had put forward a paper prepared by interested students who had looked at the issue and who had recommended postal ballots and provided some sample legislation by way of example. The Government committee came back six months later and agreed with the students. Postal balloting was preferred. The 2003 election came and went. No absentee balloting. The last we heard – in the November Throne Speech – was that the legislation was still in the works. Here’s hoping it comes out of committee coma ... soon.

PS Mr. Editor: once again we don’t need to be independent to be progressive.

Going up?

LISTEN, you wisecrackers out there, the only reason the proposed elevator won’t be going to the top floor in the House on the Hill is because there’s only one room up there, in the tower – and it’s empty. If you must know, the second floor is where the action is: the House, the public gallery and a court-room.

It’s also been a long time coming.

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The 2005 Budget does not appear to have been posted on the Government portal yet, although the Finance Minister has finished delivering it in Parliament. But I'll keep a watch out.

The most memorable items I heard that will no doubt get most attention are the changes to payroll tax and Sunday shopping. But without a hard copy to parse through it's tough to say too much.

Considering we spent $1M to redevelop that site I must say it is not much more than an overpriced brochure. It has a long way to go, as does the consistency of content updating, before we get close to receiving value for money or real information transfer.

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A quick note on site activity:

You may have noticed a more sporadic level of posting on the site recently. Mostly this has been driven by some increased demands on my time.

It is also in part due to the fact that when Parliament went down for Christmas that we officially entered the silly season, where news is light, so politicians tend to reach for issues. I tried not to join in the festivities of the silly season, although some may disagree.

But posting may be a little sporadic over the coming months, some days there may be a lot and others none. I will however try and blog the highlights from Parliamentary sessions on a Friday and post House Minutes, the budget, speeches etc..

But I've got a stack of 20 books by my bed that I've been wanting to read since Christmas. And with writing my RG column, writing for the blog, fighting spam attacks on the site, developing a couple of other projects, tending to my paying job, and not to mention my wife, daughter and new 3 month old twin girls, there hasn't been much time for that.

As much fun as it is to write, it's also nice to read. So if you've got any recommended reading to add to my list, which includes My Life by Bill Clinton, America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans by Henry Louis Gates, The Number, Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith by The Quecreek Miners and of course, actually finishing Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken, click on the feedback link below and send them on.

[Disclaimer: Any time I say I'm taking a break it never happens. So the stack of books will probably get higher and my whining will just hum along here as usual.]

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RG Opinion (15 Feb. 2005)

Politicking by class warfare

If you’re going to pull the pin and roll out a grenade, the correct etiquette is to at least shout “Fire in the hole”.

Instead, the PLP Government whispered “Policy Statement and Notes for the Acquisition of Residential Property by Non-Bermudians”, hoping to distract us from the coming explosion with boredom. Then, in an act of supremely strong leadership, Cabinet thrust a civil servant out on point to absorb the shrapnel, while the politicians ran for cover.

And while the majority of ink over the coming weeks, months and potentially years, will most likely be devoted to the relative wisdom of the PLP’s attempt at market manipulation, it’s worth setting the policy itself aside briefly and focusing on the potential fallout from the way this major policy change was implemented.

The old adage that if you say something often enough people will start to believe it, is very appropriate in the New Bermuda. And what are we told the most often? We’re told that this is a Government that listens and consults.

Reasonable people would then expect that a move such as this, that stands to be hugely controversial with widespread and far-reaching social and economic implications, would be more than deserving of this much-heralded but rarely witnessed consultation. Nope.

How’s about gambling? Of course we’d receive widespread consultation on this most contentious of issues, particularly when all the polls suggest that we’re split right down the middle. Nope. Just a press conference to say Government has decided on our behalf.

But it’s not always this way. We are being ‘consulted’ on independence for example, the issue almost all of us don’t want. Evidently, because the overwhelming majority of the population don’t want something that the Government are salivating for, we’re in need of some consultation (translation: re-programming) on the subject.

An issue however, like drastically altering the dynamics of the real-estate market and the value of thousands of people’s most significant investment however, is worthy of only a press conference to announce the done deal.

Government by press conference. How quaint.

So what’s up with this consistently inconsistent approach to consultation from the PLP? The answer lies in the excuse we inevitably hear after poor consultation or unpopular initiatives. The word is ‘leadership’.

After the votes are counted and the victor crowned, the PLP Government feel entitled to make unilateral declarations on any issue, whether part of the campaign or not, or whether the administration exists as a result of a swiftly executed coup only minutes after the election.

When a Government without a mandate undertakes this type of social engineering and wealth redistribution, something you might recall the Premier recently vehemently denying he was about to engage in, the consequences can’t be predicted.

Mandate-less Governments that don’t consult are by no means providing leadership, they’re a destabilizing threat. This is why the events which culminated in the formation of the Alex Scott administration should necessitate an even greater – not reduced – level of consultation. But we’re seeing nothing of the sort.

Most reasonable people are aware that you can’t just rock the foundation of the Bermuda real estate market and walk away unconcerned.

But there’s a pattern here. We’ve been through this politically motivated meddling before. Last week’s events are strikingly similar to another act of non-consultative heavy-handedness.

In July of 2003, shortly before the election, the Government rolled out the work permit term limits grenade – yet another politically motivated policy initiative with potentially destabilizing effects.

In that case, then Labour Minister Terry Lister proudly declared that all non-Bermudians would be sent packing after 6 years (with the nice ones allowed to stay for an additional 3). And it might just have worked, judging by the 70 or so votes which decided the election island-wide.

But what occurred shortly after the election results were in – and Jennifer Smith’s colleagues demonstrated that they had her back, by stabbing her in it – is more revealing. The new Minister discreetly put the pin back in the grenade, and gutted the term limits policy of any real teeth. The election was over and the policy had served its purpose. Now there’s leadership.

So with the Premier’s poll numbers rapidly plunging to Jennifer Smith-like levels, we’re witnessing more dangerous politicking through class warfare. Because this isn’t about housing, it’s about politics (and taxes).

But unlike the term limit turn-around, which was easily revoked, this latest unilateral action isn’t. We’ll be feeling these shockwaves for a long time, and not just in the real estate market.

Governments can’t, without preparing the stake-holders, fundamentally affect capital markets overnight without undermining the confidence and stability of every sector of our economy. Serious doubts will have been created in our continued desirability as a business jurisdiction. No longer can investors be assured that their money can be put to work free from undue political interference.

While any one move alone might not be enough to tip the boat, the cumulative effect of term-limits, an unpopular independence initiative and now this real estate policy could be severe.

Our economy exists solely because of a well-deserved reputation as an attractive and stable destination for capital investments. The moment the PLP Government decided to devalue real-estate prices overnight – without advance warning or consultation – it generated significant doubt and instability.

That’s not leadership.

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Try and parse this diplomat speak.

The UK releases a statement indicating that they prefer but won't mandate a referendum for independence:

Caribbean Net News: UK sets out route to independence for Overseas Territories

Saturday, February 12, 2005

LONDON, England: Following discussion at the September 2004 Overseas Territories Consultative Council in London, the United Kingdom government has issued a policy statement setting out the United Kingdom's view on the method for Overseas Territories to move to independence, where that is an option.

Mr Bill Rammell, UK Minister for the Overseas Territories, said, "The UK Government need to be satisfied that, if a territory moves to independence, it does so on the basis of the clearly and constitutionally expressed wish of its people. "

"At this time, the presumption of the UK Government is that a referendum would be the way of testing opinion in those territories where independence is an option. But a final decision on whether to go the referendum route, and what form the referendum might take, would need to be determined by the UK on a case-by-case basis, reflecting the uniqueness and individual characteristics of each
territory," he added.

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Here's the official bone-headed policy statement issued by the PLP Government on the changes to the land policy.

The statement is formally titled "Policy Statement and Notes for the Acquisition of Residential Property by Non-Bermudians" but should be called "Policy Statement and Notes Creating an Extremely Lucrative Non-Bermudian Real Estate Market while Devaluing the Properties Available to Locals".

More to come later on this I'm sure as this one will have legs, due to it's far-reaching implications on the rights of Bermudians and our ability to make a return on an investment.

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Mid Ocean News (11 Feb. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

Back from Hibernation

TWENTY FOUR hours is a long time in politics, Mr Editor. Ten weeks is too long. But that’s how long the House will have been out when we reconvene on the Hill next Friday. It’s been quite the recess really, and in duration more like a hibernation than a break from parliamentary action. Not that it’s been completely quiet on the political front since Christmas.

If the pollsters are to be believed, there are some close races going on … except backwards. A kind of political version of the limbo, if you will: how low can you go … without collapsing. The two political parties like their leaders are said to be neck and neck; and therein lies a warning. As most pundits will point out, clever politicians want to be careful to never stick their necks out too far. They tend to get the chop.

Sticking with body parts, the Premier seems to have one leg up on the Opposition – access to the public purse. Someone somewhere came up with the idea of paid focus groups to tell him and the PLP Government how to improve their image and how to get their message across to the people. I don’t know about you, Mr. Editor, but it all sounds to me like an expensive and more convenient substitute for canvassing and listening. Although on reflection, as it is paid for by taxpayers, it does work out to be cheaper for the PLP. Mind you, we have repeatedly been told that the purpose of the focus groups and polling was not political. Sure, sure, Mr. Editor. Meanwhile we all await the report on how much this exercise cost; who was polled; what they were asked; and what they said i.e. the results – without editing and without editorial comment. Fat chance, you say?

No BIC-kering, thank you very much

Speaking of costs, as advertised, Big BIC also swung into action while we were down and out, on holiday from the Hill: a 12-person committee appointed by the Premier to investigate and give us the facts on Independence for Bermuda.

We in the Opposition were very kindly offered the right to nominate one person for BIC, but respectfully declined, thank you very much. It was a decision that didn’t go down well with everyone, including the Man Who Made The Offer, as well as – dare I say it? - some of our own supporters. Only some, Mr. Editor, not many.

As our leader, Dr. Grant Gibbons, explained at the time: we didn’t in good conscience feel that we could serve. And it wasn’t just because we were only offered the right to put up one person for one spot, even though we represent close to half of the voting electorate. It was a point of principle.

First, the PLP didn’t run on the pursuit of independence in the last election. They have no mandate. Whilst I appreciate that their platform wasn’t published until a week or so before the 2003 vote, and voters may as a consequence have had little time to read let alone digest its contents, the subject didn’t even rate a mention.

The only change since the 2003 vote? A change of leaders: see above on polls, popularity and what happens when your neck is out too far.
What we have seen since the change in leaders is the emergence of something called “The Social Agenda”, trumpeted in the most recent Throne Speech in which, incidentally, despite its length and its breadth, the subject of independence once again didn’t even rate a mention in the PLP Government’s list of priorities for the current Parliamentary year.

Secondly, we in the Opposition could agree on that: there are some far more important and pressing issues to get on with than the pursuit of Independence. Limited time and resources – money and manpower – have a way of dictating what you can and cannot do
Now the PLP calls it a Social Agenda.

We call it the People’s Business.

The facts of the matter

Speaking of agendas, Mr. Editor, the Opposition also happened to think that the pursuit of independence wasn’t very high on the list of priorities for the people of Bermuda. The polls tend to confirm this to be the case, the most recent example being that which was published last week in The Royal Gazette. Those against have apparently reached a new high: 65.2 per cent. What’s even more startling perhaps is that an even greater number (69.4 per cent) wish to have the issue decided by way of a referendum rather than general election. Nothing uncertain about those numbers, eh HE?

Meanwhile, the position of the UBP, new or old, has been consistent. On the question of a referendum, we’ve been neverendum: the people of Bermuda should have the right to decide by way of a direct vote, yes or no, on whether Bermuda should go independent. It’s a position that is hardly surprising for a party that is made up of people who are for and against independence; in fact, you might say it’s a position that is representative of the community we seek to serve.

After a yes vote, maybe, we can get down to deciding on Brand X or Brand Y and who should lead us into independence by way of a general election.

But BIC, we’re told, won’t be dealing with how the question is to be decided. In his one and only Ministerial statement to Parliament on the subject, just before we rose for the Christmas holiday, the Premier foretold the establishment of BIC, promising that it would embark on “a comprehensive, fact-finding, analytical and reasoned approach”. We can only await their findings on the facts.

Kettle takes on the pot

Speaking of reasoned, we have now heard from the ex-right of man of the ex-Premier (see the bit on polls above) on the subject. Lt. Col Burch called for a debate on the issue “free of all the hyperbole and overreaction that has characterised the debate thus far”.

That was bit like the kettle calling the pot black, don’t you think Mr. Editor? He reminded us that the PLP have always been for independence, since day one –it’s in their constitution, he said - and they are for deciding the issue by way of a general election.

But so what? As the song says, that was yesterday. They used to be against accepting the Queen’s Honours too. I particularly liked his bit about general elections being “the bedrock of democracy”. True that.

But let’s not overlook the downside the first past the post system. Even if constituencies are even in terms of numbers of voters, that system has a habit of returning Parliaments and Governments that are not necessarily representative of how people voted. The number of seats rarely matches the popular support and Governments have been known to be elected without the majority popular vote and in some cases, if not most, with more MPs than their fair share on the basis of the popular vote.

A referendum cuts through all of that: each vote actually is of equal value when people vote in a referendum. Lt. Col. Burch also scolded those who promote a referendum for overlooking the cost. He put the price tag at around $600,000.

Even if he’s right, I suspect that the additional and new costs of an independent Bermuda make a $600,000 price tag quite modest by comparison and a small price to pay for letting the people have the final say.

You don’t say?

Finally, speaking of change, Mr. Editor, the about face in Barbados this week didn’t escape my notice … and that of hundreds of others in Bermuda too, I bet. Prime Minister Owen Arthur reversed positions and will now plump for a referendum on the issue of whether Barbados should move from a monarchical to a republican system of government. Fancy that.

“The opinion of the people should be deliberately and specifically canvassed by way of a referendum”, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying in the news report which I read.

Enough said, Mr. Editor. Enough said.

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Yet another must-read Opinion by Mid Ocean News Editor Tim Hodgson on the state of affairs.

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B-b-but I don't understand?

Does this mean we went independent by stealth? I thought Government's hands were tied in dealing with drugs and crime?

"He further announced that funding has just been approved by Cabinet for another 11 Police officers to join the PSU."

Minister of Labour and Home Affairs Randy Horton - 10 Feb. 2005:

"The Ministry of Home Affairs is also currently working on witness protection legislation which it hopes will persuade more witnesses of crime to come forward and testify in trials without fear of reprisal.

"The amendment to the Criminal Code last year was an important step," he argued.

"With higher penalties, more arrests, more prosecutions and hopefully more convictions, I think the deterrent against this sort of behaviour will be keenly felt."

Premier Alex Scott - 10 Jan. 2005:

"We want to fight crime, drugs, and have a society that is safe for everyone. I can't direct the Minister for Public Safety to direct the Police Commissioner to do the following because he answers to the Governor. He responds to and respects the Minister but we don't control the chief cop in this community."

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RG Opinion (08 Feb. 2005)

Set Bermuda's schools free

Last week I discussed the significant role that education, in particular public education, must play in any successful policy of economic empowerment – without education we cannot achieve empowerment. I proposed that competition and accountability within the public system are the two missing but vital elements.

We can all name the standout schools in the Bermuda public system – they’re the ones which have experienced the least political interference and bureaucratic meddling. St. George’s Prep., Warwick Academy (before going private) and Berkeley are the examples which spring to mind.

These schools are however, the exception and not the rule. And with the Ministry continuing to exert too much control over too many facets of the day-to-day running of education the future seems bleak.

Ideally we should be positioning the schools to compete with each other for students and allocate resources as trends of increased or reduced demand develop. The Ministry’s role would then be reduced to managing the budget; maintaining a consistent internationally recognized curriculum; administering a performance based compensation system; and rewarding the staff of the highest performing schools for achieving superior results.

If there was one event which highlighted the fundamental problem with the current approach to public education it was the St. George’s Prep. dispute. Due to its deserved reputation for providing a first class public education, the school received a higher number of applications for enrollment than spots allocated by the Ministry.

The Minister and his Ministry’s reaction was not to respond to this public vote of confidence by making additional spots and funding available, but to dig their heels in, ignore the wishes of the community and attempt to send the students to another school - because evidently bureaucrats, not parents, know best.

As well-intentioned as the folks at the Ministry might be, they must be the only ones who can’t see that this top-down approach to education is failing. The bureaucracy exerts far too much control over the administration of the individual schools, and as at St. George’s Prep., they don’t listen to the parents.

Just as power in our democracy is temporarily conferred from the people to the politicians, decision-making power in public education is conferred from parents to the Ministry. And in both cases, this power is to be used in accordance with our interests, not their own.

Unfortunately we’re not seeing that today. The St. George’s community spoke with one voice, and was ignored – although they eventually prevailed after a protracted legal and public relations campaign.

If we are to stop the bleeding in public education and provide a chance of success for future generations, the Ministry needs to get out of the way and let the parents choose, the teachers teach and the principals manage.

The Ministry as we know it should cease to exist. Its current role would be replaced with individually elected school boards consisting of parents, alumni and other members of the community. These boards would then be free to hire the principal of their choice, who would administer the school in accordance with the wishes of the board. The appointed leadership of each school would be able to recruit their own teaching staff, without the worry of having them arbitrarily reassigned.

At any point, if the school wasn’t performing adequately, the dissatisfaction would flow from the bottom up through a clear chain of accountability. If standards were not maintained, or teachers were not performing up to par, the parents would express their displeasure directly to the board members or principal. If the principal failed to address these, the board would step in and direct him or her to act, or ultimately they would be removed. If the board themselves failed to act they would be replaced, or the parents would simply enroll their child elsewhere.

It’s a simple formula and one that has worked well in the private system. These schools compete fiercely for students, and their students and our community is better for it. And while this certainly isn’t the whole answer, or the only answer, it would be a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, we only have two options at our disposal in reforming public education: we can either overhaul the current system or start cutting cheques to parents for use in paying the tuition at a school of their choice, whether public or private.

Only then can students of any means have equal access to a quality education. And only then does a policy of empowerment stand any chance of succeeding.

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Someone gets it (follow the link and go to the second letter).

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Port Royal Golf Club, 16th Tee, BERMUDA - Golf and Spa season blew into Bermuda with hurricane force today, delighting golfers and Tourism Minister Ewart Brown alike.

"The fairways and greens have never been better irrigated and my knock-down drive has proved very successful", said Minister Brown from the 16th Tee of Port Royal Golf Club.

"The hurricane force winds and blinding rain make for a unique golfing experience, one other destinations can't match" he added. "In fact, the wind is carrying our drives so far that we keep losing them. The Pro Shops are thrilled with the volume of balls and rain suits they're selling".

The Department of Tourism also announced an exciting new initiative. Tourism ambassadors, in full rain regalia, will distribute complimentary sets of rain grip gloves to every arriving visitor between December and April.

"This is the type of creative thinking we need to turn tourism around in Bermuda. Don't let anyone tell you we're not a winter destination", the leaf covered and shivering Minister proclaimed.

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The Tourism Minister must be thrilled to see Golf and Spa season is in full effect:

From the Bermuda Weather Service:

Issued at 4:30 am - Wednesday, 2nd February, 2005 Headline - A storm is born

Public Synopsis - Strong gale to storm force winds persist as a nearby storm continues to deepen. This storm will stall to our east, keeping cloud, showers and very windy conditions for our area during the next several days.

Today - Overcast with periods of rain or showers... Winds gale force to storm force north-northwesterly, with hurricane force gusts... High near 64°.

Tonight - Mostly cloudy with a few showery periods... Winds strong to gale force north-northwesterly, becoming north-northeasterly... Low near 53°.

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RG Opinion 01 Feb. 2005

Education: The other 'E' word

Empowerment, specifically economic empowerment, emerged in 2004 as the dominant political issue. There’s little doubt that this will continue into 2005, after the United Bermuda Party tabled the Economic Empowerment Act 2004 – a sample bill to be debated when Parliament resumes in February.

But while there has been plenty of talk about empowerment, there’s been far less about the other ‘E’ word, one that must be an integral component of any empowerment initiative.

The missing ‘E’ is education.

The importance and current state of public education hasn’t gone entirely without mention. A number of people have touched on the issue including most memorably Principal Melvyn Bassett’s speech to the Hamilton Rotary and Robert Stewart in an excellent Opinion in The Royal Gazette of Oct. 16, 2004.

Education’s role in the empowerment of our economic minority is undeniable, but the topic just doesn’t seem to consume the community – or spark a much-needed debate – as the mere invocation of the term ‘empowerment’ does.

Undoubtedly, education is the most critical component in advancing any long-term initiative, whether sponsored by the UBP or PLP, meaning that these issues must be addressed hand in hand. Empowerment can’t truly occur without a first class public education system, and education alone can’t overcome the legacy of racism, sexism, age discrimination and other institutionalized hurdles.

Ultimately, the goal of empowerment must be to reach a point when a formal policy is no longer necessary, but a superior education system will always be vital. Before we can even begin to discuss education however, there are some difficult truths that we must come to grips with.

Bermuda’s public education system is in disarray, and has been in a steady decline for as long as most people can remember. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but we are where we are, and we’re all in this together. So if we want to correct the situation we must focus our energies on learning from the past and present, and not become consumed with assigning blame.

And where are we? With somewhere over thirty-five percent of our children enrolled in the private system – and rising – the verdict seems to be in: the parents of one-third of our students have given up on public education. With tuitions around thirteen thousand dollars a year, this is not a decision parents will take lightly, in effect paying twice for education. And how many more of us would follow suit if the cost wasn’t so prohibitive? If that isn’t enough to indicate that we need to make a change then what is?

It’s also important not to condemn everything and everyone within the public school system. We can all point to success stories – incredibly dedicated and effective teachers, successful schools, or students who have succeeded in spite of the system – but somewhere, something is terribly broken. And when something is terribly broken the answer is not to play on the fringes as we’ve been content to do.

The facilities aren’t the problem. Successive governments of both parties continue to sink millions of dollars into brick and mortar improvements. Money isn’t the issue. The Ministry of Education is more than adequately funded, particularly when you consider that the per student cost is lower in the private schools than the public system.

And while there are many factors that have led to where we are today, the most significant must be a tolerance for low standards, poor discipline, an inadequate curriculum, social promotion and a bureaucracy that seems to answer to no-one.

If private schools produced the abysmal graduation levels that we are seeing out of the public system they’d be out of business in no time. Parents would pull up stakes and go elsewhere. In response, the school trustees would fire the principals, under-performing teachers would be removed, and the curriculum would be improved for example. But we’ve seen none of this in the public system, and the Department of Education’s budget and staffing continue to grow and grow.

The missing ingredients must be the simple principles of competition and accountability. Entrenching these basic concepts in such a broken system can only be achieved through a fundamental and comprehensive overhaul of public education in Bermuda. No more short-term tweaking for short-term political gain.

These principles, the driving forces behind Bermuda’s economic success, are by no means incompatible with the administration of education – that’s exactly the environment that the schools are preparing our students to participate in. So why does the system itself not reflect that reality?

Competition is healthy and is already in place within the schools. Our students are competitive with each other already, both academically and athletically, and will go on to compete for scholarships, university placements and eventually employment.

Why then, should we not have competition between public schools?

Next week: some proposals for comprehensive reform through competition and accountability.

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