The power game goes on ... with another PLP blackout on criticism

Mid Ocean News (22 July 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

PLEASE, Mr. Editor, let’s have no suggestions about turning off the power for the House on the Hill on a regular basis but the fact of the matter is that things went pretty well when we had to make up for the loss of Friday on Monday and did what was originally meant to be two day’s work in one.

It did mean that we didn’t get home until after eleven o’clock at night – for those members who stayed until the end and not all do, Mr. Editor – but the day’s work saw the passage of six pieces of legislation and debate on one Opposition motion (which was curtailed again), and this after the usual assortment of Ministerial statements (three of them, all of them on the BelCo blackout), some congrats and obits (the Fire Service and BelCo featured prominently, but for congratulations not condolences), all of which was roundly capped by a skirmish on the motion to adjourn.

I don’t expect that it was any kind of record, but the pace definitely picked up and makes a summer exit before Cup Match a distinct possibility. I couldn’t say the Chamber was electric either, but I can confirm that the air conditioning was working – and that helped.
The first sign of any political heat was generated about mid-day when Health Minister Patrice Minors took us through a Bill which brings an end to the National Drug Commission.

It’s going to be lights out for the NDC as a quasi- independent statutory body in the war against drugs. With the repeal of the National Drug Commission Act, it will become just another non-statutory advisory body within the Department of Health within the Ministry of Health and Social Services. Like the Road Safety Council or the Water Safety Council or the Air Advisory Board or the Trucks Advisory Committee within the Ministry of Transport, explained the Minister, as she sought to re-assure members, in the face of fierce criticism of the move by the Opposition, that the work of the NDC would not be stymied.

We were told the move was part of a holistic approach. That word again, last uttered by the Member Who Could Not Be Named to describe the PLP approach to Bermuda’s housing crisis. Hole-istic is more like it – an approach with holes in it. Minister Minors took offence and thought that we were making light of a serious matter. She explained that in her dictionary holistic meant treating the whole person and not just the symptoms of the disease and that the co-ordination of treatment will be improved through integration into the health system of Bermuda.

Shadow Health and Services Minister Michael Dunkley wasn’t too impressed with the argument. He pointed to the recent study - Untangling Bermuda’s Quangos – commissioned by the PLP, and headed by former Cabinet Minister Renee Webb (her again), which catalogued the demise of the NDC under the PLP but recommended the NDC be strengthened as an independent body, not collapsed into the Ministry.

As far as Opposition Leader Dr. Grant Gibbons was concerned the debate was akin to the last rites for the NDC. This is a burial, he said of the Bill. The NDC had barely been alive, on life support, under the PLP. Colleague Cole Simons further lamented the demise of the NDC as a quasi-independent body as it had originally been deliberately designed to develop outside the clutches of the Government of the day as a bi-partisan, community-oriented, community-driven instrument in the war against drugs.

War? What war, Mr. Editor?

What about a Plan even?

Shadow Minister Dunkley wanted to know what the Plan now was – assuming there still was one. We had last heard that one was ready back in August 2003. It was, replied the Minister “but we had some challenges with it. We are reviewing it again with the establishment of the Health Council”.

Oh. We are back to wait and see. Let’s hope it’s not another two years before we see the revised Plan.

By the way, there was a vote on the Bill. Government could only muster 13 votes in favour at the time, but it was enough to carry the day. The Opposition only managed ten. Close maybe, but close only counts in horseshoes. Horse shoes, Mr. Editor, horse shoes.

Reeling them in

ON another front, Mr. Editor, the war was stepped up on mules and pushers with amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act later in the day. No vote was required as this move received the full support of the Opposition UBP. Minister Minors was again in charge – this Act falls under her Ministry – as she once again read a well prepared script.

There are going to be some significant jumps in penalties – fines up to a million dollars and imprisonment for life for those caught, and convicted, Mr. Editor, of pushing drugs. For those who chose not to pay the fines, time will get added on at the approximate rate of three years per $300,000.00. No one was claiming this would be a cure – or whether this will even make a dent. As Shadow Public Affairs Minister Maxwell Burgess pointed out so often it’s the small fry who get caught and not the Big Fish, and the small fry never seem to have the money to pay for lawyers let alone fines. But there is provision now for statutory discounts in sentence, from half to three quarters off, when the little guy fingers Mr. Big. Unfortunately, the assistance has to be given when the little guy is charged. Why not also extend a discount after conviction as well, asked Mr. Burgess? After all there is always the very real possibility that there will be a change of mind after conviction on the lonely ride in the wagon to Westgate. A long stretch in the clink and an opportunity for reduction may be just the incentive to suddenly find voice and start singing.

Making them pay

WHO was it that said crime doesn’t pay, Mr. Editor? It certainly costs the taxpayer – and costs dearly. Just how much crime is on the increase around here featured in the debate on amendments to the Criminal Injuries (Compensation) Act introduced by the Man In Charge (which, in this case, actually was the Man aka the Premier). The maximum which can be awarded to victims of crime (who can’t recover from those who perpetrated the crime) will be increased to $100,000.00 from $70,000.00. There were also a couple of other changes designed to help clear up a backlog of some 107 cases still to be decided.

Yikes. Meanwhile, the budget for the Compensation Board has just about doubled in the last two years from an actual expenditure of $356,000 in the year 2002/2003 to a budgeted $675,000 for the current year. Add to that the budgeted funds for legal aid this year - $1,757,000.00 – and you begin to get the picture. The two of them combined account for over a quarter of the Judicial Vote.

So why can’t we find a way to make the perpetrators pay? Shadow Public Affairs Minister Maxwell Burgess wanted to know. The Opposition came up with a couple of suggestions:

- Work programmes at Westgate and discounts in sentence for those actually pay the funds back out of their own pocket; or

- Payment by instalment following their release (“and catch them when they show up down at TCD to register a car or at the airport when they go to take a trip”, said Mr. Burgess).

The point was clear. Any award for a crime should follow the perpetrator like a ball and chain for the rest of his life – or at least until the sum is repaid.

Take note of this

ANY goodwill that may have built up during the day disappeared at night when the Government moved once again to kill debate on an Opposition motion. This time it was Louise Jackson who felt the brunt of PLP muscle in the House on the Hill. The advocate for seniors had a motion down to “take note” of Government’s amendments of 2004 to the Financial Assistance Regulations. Ironically, it was the same motion which the Minister Patrice Minors had put down on the Order Paper for three months but had never taken up. Leave it to Louise to bring it back on: the Opposition MP wanted to once again highlight the shortcomings of the both the amended regulations and the Government in helping single mothers, seniors and the homeless.

We were three speakers into the debate – Mrs. Jackson, Minister Minors and Shadow Housing Minister Wayne Furbert – when Government Whip Ottiwell Simmons waded in and moved that the debate be brought to an end and put to a vote.

A vote?

This was a take note motion and there is never a vote on a take note motion.

Nevertheless, the Speaker acquiesced and directed that “the question” be put. For those who were puzzled, the Speaker pointed to Rule 27 which reads in part:

“After a question has been proposed, a Member rising in his place may claim to move ‘That the question be now put’; and, unless it appears to the Chair that such motion is an abuse of the Rules of the House, or an infringement of the rights of a minority, the question ‘That the question be now put’ shall be put forthwith, and decided without amendment or debate not withstanding that the mover has no opportunity to make his reply”.

But the question is, what was the question if members were only taking note?

Whatever it was, it was decided in favour of the PLP Government who with their numbers brought yet another debate to a quick end, proving once again that they are in charge inside and outside the House on the Hill.

It was, Mr. Editor, another PLP blackout on criticism … but not the result of any shortage of power. On the contrary, Mr. Editor, on the contrary.

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