Maybe Reagan had it right . . .

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

Maybe Reagan had it right . . . politics is more show business than it is the people's business

SO it was Mr. Editor, that the House on the Hill went down for the summer on Friday, not so much with a bang as with a whimper (not counting the closing clash of the motion to adjourn).

But all in all, it was anything but the End which late Ronald Reagan would have recommended. The actor turned politician was convinced that politics was a lot like show business. Keep the plot simple, he recommended, start off slow and end with a really Big Finish.

But give the Government their due. They at least tried. Their Man In Charge led the charge when he began the last day’s proceedings by reading not one, not two, not three, but four prepared statements that took him just under an hour to get through. They were clearly designed to impress us all, not so much by their length, although there was that, but by their contents.

For those who do pay attention on the Hill, it was déjà vu all over again. The same format was employed last year when we broke for the summer at the conclusion of Year One of the Reign of William Alexander the Great and Not So Great Scott - depending of course on your point of view, Mr. Editor, although to Renee He is simply to be known as The Man.

Three of the statements were updates:

* BIC – you remember BIC don’t you Mr. Editor? – is now expected to have its report ready by the end of month. It had initially been expected at the beginning. But this is no surprise to The Man In Charge who obviously has an inside track. MIC is able to tell us that BIC has “not only met, but exceeded its mandate”. Exceeded, huh? Well, we’ll all have to just wait and see exactly what has been exceeded when the report is finally published. We can expect it in August says the Premier after the Cabinet has had chance to study it first. Study or spin, Mr. Editor, or both?

* Absentee balloting: now this was promised in the Throne Speech which started the session and dates back some three years now when, before the last election, the UBP tried to get the ball rolling with a report and recommendations from a small group of interested students. The PLP said they were setting up a swivel service committee to review the options and, thank you very much, we’ll get back to you. Finally, we now have a draft Bill to review. Explained the Premier in his statement:“we have carefully and painstakingly developed the policy proposals and the legislation that will give life to this important initiative.”

I feel their pain, Mr Editor, although a cursory review seems to suggest that the PLP is not proposing to extend postal balloting to all voters who are unable to vote in either the advance poll or on election day, just to those who qualify by virtue of either study or work abroad or illness.

* The PATI project : Don’t you just love the acronyms, Mr. Editor, that get trotted out regularly to keep us informed? This one is short for Public Access to Information ( from the Government) and to this end the Premier tabled a very attractive Discussion Paper for review over the summer - the HANDI-work of the Central Policy Unit out of the CABI-net Office. Presumably, we will take it up when members return to the Hill in the Fall. It’s early days yet and the document is 50 pages long, Mr. Editor, but I did rather enjoy the Section on Contracts which reads in part:

“Where funding for goods and services come form the public purse, the community has an interest in ensuring that public monies are spent wisely. Therefore, it could be argued that those businesses that successfully obtain work from the Government should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than those who do not. This is necessary in order to uphold the Government’s mandate to obtain value for money when purchasing goods and services. This principle is fundamental to maintaining effective and accountable government.

“Allowing increased access to information surrounding government contracts promotes integrity in the bidding and purchasing process. It allows the public to know that the services purchased are delivered in a timely and effective manner, and that both government and businesses are following existing polices and procedures.”

No kidding: We need freedom of information to make that happen?
I bet like me, Mr. Editor, three words immediately came to mind: Bermuda Housing Corporation. Okay, maybe two others, Coco Reef. Okay, okay, one more: Berkeley.. We get the picture. Don’t we?

The fourth and final statement was a kind of Throne Speech In Reverse – and the longest too of the lot, a sort of re-cap of the past session, in the Premier’s words (or more accurately some 3,698 words written for him) of the PLP’s laundry list of accomplishment over the past session. Modesty does not prevent them from singing their own praises – and so forgive me, Mr. Editor, but I can say without fear of contradiction that we have heard it all before.

Ask and ye might receive

WHAT they don’t tell you, Mr. Editor, is what they don’t want you to hear – and we all understand that game. That’s why Parliamentary Questions can some times be an useful tool – even if they do have to be submitted ten whole days in advance. That was how we learned just how much Government Ministers and their travelling parties spent over the previous 12 months on travel: $400,000.00. I expect that wasn’t the headline the Premier’s script-writers were looking for the day after all his statements inside and outside the House on the Hill.

Frankly, Mr. Editor, neither was I. But it happens.

Imagine for a moment then, what it would be like if there actually was a Question Period (like there is most modern parliamentary jurisdictions) and members could actually follow-up Ministerial statements with questions which Ministers would have to answer.

But it isn’t likely to happen any time soon. Parliamentary reform remains a very low priority. The Rules and Privileges Committee, on which Government has the majority of members, which is chaired by the Speaker, and which has oversight of the matter, met but once this year. That, I think, tells the story – but that’s another story perhaps for another time, Mr. Editor?

You had to be there

SAY where was the Opposition then before the motion to adjourn? Good question, Mr. Editor. Certainly not in our seats when we needed to be – and thus the House ended earlier, much earlier, than was expected. Public Safety Minister Randy Horton was concluding debate on the Police Complaints Authority Amendment Act.

We had been spared the 100-plus page Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) and two related pieces of legislation which won’t now be taken up until November, but for what reason or reasons the AG is not telling us – at least not yet. The Police Complaints Authority Amendment Act was one of two items Government said that it did want to take up.

The second was a take note motion on the two most recent reports from the Authority itself– which was to follow debate on the amendments. But the Opposition benches were light (empty in all the wrong places) and, as we all know, only too well, Government doesn’t have to do what it says it is going to do. Minister Horton was overheard to say “I’m tired” - and carried over his motion. What this also meant was that the Opposition was about to be caught short. This was one of those times, Mr. Editor, when you had to be there, in your seat, if you had a motion in your name. But the four of us who needed to be there, were not.

You might say it was a clever move by an alert Government. Let’s face it: Opposition motions are not brought to make the Government look good.

There was one on the deterioration of life in the quality of life under the PLP, another calling for a national sports agenda to enhance support for all sport in Bermuda and a third to take a critical look at the Public Accounts. The fourth was the Bill in the name of yours truly to give the prosecution the same right of appeal as the defence - one of the more controversial issues touched upon by the Serious Crimes Commission and then the more recent Justice System Review, but not yet acted upon. Pity that. Not that the amendment was going to receive Government support; in fact, all indications were to the contrary. Now we’ll have to wait (and see) until the next Session when the Bill can be re-introduced.

But it does make you wonder, Mr. Editor, from time to time, about the efficacy of parliamentary procedure and practice on the House on the Hill. I mean it was only a few weeks ago that parliamentary muscle through numbers was used by the PLP Government to muzzle debate: first with the Mary Victoria, Prospect motion to censure a Minister Who Was Not To Be Named, and secondly on a simple take note motion on financial assistance regulations by Mrs. Louise Jackson.

Cabinet Minister Dale Butler complained that the UBP was coming on strong, too strong, on the motion to adjourn because, he boldly declared, the PLP “was ahead on points”. If only governance were just a game measured by points, but it isn’t. There again, maybe Ronnie Reagan had it right: politics is more show business than it is the people’s business and strategies do succeed over substance.

So where does that leave us, Mr. Editor? On holiday from the House on the Hill, for now, until the 4th of November, the date which the Premier has set for our return.

The 5th of November might well have been more explosive, but it’s a Saturday this year and the tradition around here is that we meet on a Friday, whether short or long.

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