People of this country are entitled to know what's going on, and why

Mid Ocean News (27 May 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

People of this country are entitled to know what's going on, and why

SHORT day, short week, short column, Mr. Editor? Not on your life. It may have been brief last Friday in the House on the Hill but it was explosive. We wanted to move a motion of censure against the Minister responsible for Housing, Ashfield DeVent, on account of his failure to keep his promise to consult with the Mary Victoria/Alexandra Road residents before proceeding with plans to construct more homes in their Prospect neighbourhood.

Here was the motion I was asked to present on behalf of the Opposition: “This House deplores the failure of the Honourable Member Ashfield DeVent in his capacity as the Government Minister responsible for Housing to honour his commitment to consult with the residents of the Mary Victoria Prospect area before proceeding with plans to construct further homes in their neighbourhood, that commitment having been given in a motion approved by this Honourable House on the 8th day of March 2004 and subsequently confirmed by the member himself in a letter to area residents dated March 23rd 2004.”

I was subsequently informed – by telephone before Friday - that the Speaker had reviewed the proposed motion and amended it to the extent that he had deleted the reference to the March 8th motion and the March 23rd letter, but otherwise it was a go.

This is the amended version the Clerk handed to me after proceedings began on Friday: “That this Honourable House deplore the failure of the Honourable Member responsible for Housing to honour his commitment to consult with the residents of the Mary Victoria Prospect area before proceeding with plans to construct further homes in their neighbourhood”.

Yes, Mr. Editor, while reading the motion, I did identify the Honourable Member responsible for Housing as Mr. Ashfield DeVent. But who else, Mr. Editor, were we talking about?

But back to the real issue. This was a motion that the Government moved quickly to kill, first through PLP Whip Mr. Ottiwell Simmons (who was telling us it was unparliamentary and that I should take the matter up privately with the Minister: what a quiet cosy chat with me over tea? It’s the residents whom he needs to speak to, Mr. Editor, not me), followed by the Premier, the Man himself ,aka no more Mr. Nice Guy, who accused me of misleading the House and the public, declaring that the Minister had consulted the residents.

Those were their objections and very quickly the Speaker was suddenly putting the matter to a vote of whether the motion should even be allowed. It struck me that the Government was intent on applying their parliamentary muscle to muzzle a motion which they didn’t like. I struck back. Not just for attention but for explanation.

The people of this country are entitled to know what’s going on – and why.

The way we see it, the Opposition is entitled to bring censure motions against the Government; in fact, you might say it’s the Opposition’s duty to do so where and when warranted. They are after all expressions of disapproval and the opportunity afforded the Official Opposition to bring them on is something of a tradition under the Westminster system. You could look it up, Mr. Editor, in Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary practice, which is what a lot of people have been doing.

We stood our ground – and walked - as the Official Opposition.

We didn’t want people to overlook the reason we brought the motion forward. The promise to consult was made on the floor of the House. It arose out of another one of those stormy debates we had on the Hill back in March 2004. Shadow Minister for Housing Wayne Furbert had brought a motion calling for the rejection of any further building of homes in the Mary Victoria, Prospect area.

It was the Government which changed the motion – through Mr. Simmons, in fact – to a watered-down take note motion: -

“That this Honourable House take note that it is premature to reject any further building development of new homes at Mary Victoria or Alexandra Roads due to the negative impact economically, socially, and psychologically, given that the Minister has clearly indicated that he is prepared to enter into constructive dialogue with the affected stakeholders with a view to effecting a compromise”.

An alert Leader of the Opposition Dr. Grant Gibbons added the words “and in the spirit of compromise will cause the planning application to be withdrawn pending compromise”, to which Minister DeVent agreed.

You could look it up, Mr. Editor. It’s there on the record.

As I remember, the Mary Victoria/Alexandra Road residents went home happy that night. They were expecting “constructive dialogue” with the Minister, and it wasn’t long after that debate that the Minister sent each of them a letter, underscoring his promise: “I will honour my pledge to withdraw the application pending further consultation with you and your neighbours”.

While some have been scrambling to look up the Rules of the House (and that’s a positive development, Mr. Editor), I hope they will also take the time to look up the meaning of “consultation” in their dictionaries. You can be sure, Mr. Editor, that the residents of Mary Victoria and Alexandra Roads know what the word means. Talk to them. Not me. It hasn’t happened and the Minister, who speaks for the PLP Government on Housing, has been called to account for a broken promise… by the Official and Loyal Opposition.

Pearls of wisdom

WHAT no humour? Well, Mr. Editor, this hasn’t exactly been funny. But a sense of humour is important so the last lines on this (for now) go to two constituents of mine whom I happened to see over the weekend.
The first one asked quite matter of factly: “How are you?”
“Not bad”, I replied, “not bad, thank you”.
There was a pause and then this comment with a broad smile: “You referring to your health …or your behaviour … or both?”.
Then after church on Sunday, this pearl of wisdom: “Like my mother used to say, God bless her, you stand up for your rights and lay down for your wrongs”.

Listening closely

EVEN before the event, Friday was shaping up to be an early day, although a handful of Government Ministers did their best to protract proceedings reading into the record prepared pre-packaged Statements – to which you can only listen. Or not. There’s no debate. No questions allowed.
I happened to listen. There was an interesting assortment: -

The Minister responsible for Public Safety Randy Horton reminded us that he had not given a statement for some weeks. True. He made up for it in one fell swoop, with a nine-page sweep of what the Bermuda Police are trying to do to crackdown on crime generally and on increased recklessness on our roads specifically. The police have their hands full.

“There have been over 10,000 incidents in the BPS dispatch system in 2005”, read the Minister, “and the overwhelming majority of those incidents have required Police attendance”.

And?

“Hundreds of those incidents will become protracted investigations that will be brought to a conclusion many months, sometimes years, after initial reporting”.

I add no further comment, Mr. Editor. That about sums it up.

Health Minister Patrice Minors had a five-page statement and a warning on the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse for women during pregnancy. The National Drug Commission – which the PLP have now done away with – had done a survey of 216 pregnant women between the ages of 17 and 46 years over the last three months of 2004. The results have apparently prompted the Ministry to develop a prevention strategy to warn would-be mothers of the risk they run when they choose to smoke or drink – even moderately – during pregnancy.

But neither of them could top Finance Minister Paula Cox who gave a ten-age up-date on business at the Post Office. Or lack of business. There are apparently changes in the offing and there had been a meeting of 200 staff recently at Devonshire Recreation Club. “Change is never easy”, the Minister read to us, “but the process is assisted when you keep the lines of communication open”. ( Couldn’t agree more, Mr. Editor, as would the residents at Mary Victoria, Alexandra Road, but that’s the other story.) We didn’t learn precisely what staff were told at the meeting, but the Minister afforded us some insight with her comments:

* The fact that the GPO is “an unique entity” within the Government stable “in that it has to compete with the private sector as it provides services”; and

* The fact that the GPO is having to compete “in a demanding economic environment” and there is a need to find ways “to provide a faster and more reliable and efficient postal service”.

As a result, we were told that there are some internal changes on the way and that a new senior management structure has been approved. But no details. Presumably like the proverbial cheque, they are in the mail. We get this picture though: The GPO is losing business and money, fast, and something drastic needs to be done to stem the flow.

Making an early day of it

COUPLED with congrats and obits, the Government didn’t get to the Orders of the Day until after noon. There were housekeeping amendments to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (matters which had been overlooked the first time around) followed by Minister Walter Lister’s take note motion on WedCo’s 2004 Annual Report. He was the only member to speak, apparently: I wasn’t there. But what I did find interesting is that Government chose not to adjourn for lunch at 12.30 as we usually do but to rather continue on. What without lunch? No way. Minister Lister kept it brief and they were out of there before one o’clock. The Premier and his troops must have decided to take advantage and make it an early day.

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