Is anybody listening?

Mid Ocean News (05 Aug. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

Is anybody listening? Parliamentary reform in Bermuda is long overdue

THERE you have it, Mr. Editor, Parliament is down and out now that we have risen for the summer recess – and, yes, that’s right, we won’t be meeting again for another three months. That’s more than enough time to pause and reflect and take stock of the work which we perform in the House on the Hill, which means that it is time to get serious and take up a favourite topic of mine: parliamentary reform. In my books, and you have heard me go on about this before, it’s long overdue.

More next week, Mr. Editor, on what further changes can be made to not only provide for greater accountability and transparency, but for greater participation by both MPs and the people they represent.

I can see how that might be so: Parliament may well be viewed by those outside its chambers as a small, relatively exclusive club of 36 members, with its own language and practices, most of which seem designed to exclude rather than include voters between elections.

Mind you, Mr. Editor, there are a good number of people who follow the debates closely, and while some of them might eschew the clash that comes from confrontation on the Hill from week to week, the fact is they also enjoy the entertainment that political theatre can bring to the local scene. There are only so many shows in town and this one comes to you live on the radio.

Don’t get me wrong either. Debates are important to the political process: parties set out their respective positions and voters get the measure of their MPs from what they have to say (or don’t say) on the issues of the day.

But, in the words of Peggy Lee (for those who remember the song): is that all there is?

To my mind, Mr. Editor, there can be more – and should be more – to working life as a member of the House on the Hill. Allow me connect a few dots and paint the picture why.

The number one reason is the growing power over the years of the executive branch of our system of Government, namely the Cabinet – a trend that started to take root under the UBP, and which has accelerated and strengthened under the PLP during its seven years in power. It’s a trend made possible by governments with handsome majorities (often too handsome for their own good) coupled with an eager to please, compliant caucus of backbenchers, reduced in too many cases to cheerleaders or bumps on the voting log as they jockey and jostle for (higher)(and greater) position within their ranks.

Power is thus concentrated in the 12 who sit around the Cabinet table. Government is run by the Cabinet Office and information rationed out by press conference or Ministerial Statement. Think again, if you think that is a good thing for anybody other than for those who are in power.

We don’t need to search far for examples of how poorly we are served when such power goes unchecked.

The Big Three spring immediately to mind:

* The Berkeley Institute contract from award to today, and continuing, which by last accounts was two years overdue, $50-million over original budget, still subject to arbitration, and still counting.

* The Bermuda Housing Corporation scandal which warranted a two year Police investigation, which included a referral to Scotland Yard, but led to no real charges being laid (the then DPP told us our laws were out of date and needed revision for that to happen), but which did lead to $7-million being written off according to the most recent financial reports of the Auditor General.

* That Loco Coco Reef lease which, according to the Auditor General who reviewed the terms, was extraordinarily deficient, and which on any view saw the Government pretty well give away the shop at the old Stonington Beach Hotel. (Incidentally, we were subsequently promised a review of the lease and a correction of sorts: anybody heard any result yet?)

I could go on, Mr. Editor, and I will - to make the point.
Let’s start with what the Auditor General had to say in his January 2005 report on Government finances for the year ended March 31 2004:

“The number of apparent or alleged frauds and misappropriation that have come to light in recent years in Government entities concerns me greatly. I worry lest it indicates a growing culture of opportunism or dishonesty by some in the public service”.

That’s some indictment, Mr Editor. The Auditor General then went on to add to my list the following further items: a misappropriation of $160,000.00 from the Government Employees Health Fund by a claims assessor; the $1.9 million allegedly stolen by an officer of the Accountant General’s Department; and a police investigation into $3.6 million gone missing at the Department of Immigration.

On top of that, we then had the Pay for Play scandal and the unanswered questions which continue to surround the management of Government pension funds and which prompted the Ministry of Finance to commission an independent review (of sorts) of practices and procedures.

You are forgiven for wondering just what will turn up next.

In my view, sadly, the wrong culture is taking root. The most recent example comes from the most recent Special Report of the Auditor General dated May 2005 in which he highlighted the continued abuse of credit cards by Government Ministers and senior civil servants, especially when used for the purposes of travel. Some may not think that a big deal, but is when you consider how much the Government sets aside for travel each year: As a line item in the annual Government estimates the travel budget has grown steadily over the years, from an actual $3.68 million in 2002/2003 to a projected $5.138 million for the current financial year, up $422,000.00 from the year before.

Beefing up PAC, man

OKAY then, so what’s this got to do with parliamentary reform? A lot, Mr Editor. Now I appreciate that the usual (and most effective) solution in any parliamentary democracy is to throw the Government out at the next election – and here I confess:

I am strong proponent of the throw them out solution (and no recent convert at that either). But in the meantime how about a few checks and balances in between elections to help keep the spenders in line?

Let me illustrate: Each year we debate the Budget estimates and set aside some 42 hours over two weeks, to give the annual expected expenditure of the Government supposedly close examination.

Close? Hardly.

It usually turns out to be a scripted and predictable pas de deux between Minister and Opposition Shadow which is anything other than a debate, let alone any close examination, as the Minister typically reads from a very long brief prepared by the swivel servants and the Shadow tries to hit what high points he or she can in reply. It’s rare that any other member even gets a look in – and if there are questions, they typically go unanswered.

What we need to do is strengthen a standing committee of the House which was established some many years ago to keep an eye on Government expenditure - namely the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). It’s a five-man committee, comprised of three from the Government backbench and two from the Opposition, but headed by the Opposition spokesman for Finance.

It has not been doing the job it should. It hasn’t been able to.

We learned recently that the committee has been thwarted in its work from time to time by the failure to obtain a quorum. The members recommended in their most recent report to the House of July 2004 that membership be increased to seven.

When they do meet, they meet in camera – that fancy way of saying out of camera range, i.e. behind closed doors.

This is a practice that is woefully out of step with what is done in other more modern, parliamentary jurisdictions: there they are open to the press and public and have the power to summons civil servants and Ministers to explain and to defend, where necessary, any Government decisions, contracts, practices or policies that might come under scrutiny.

I appreciate that they won’t necessarily catch everything. That’s not the point. The important thing here is that those in Government know that they may be called upon to account for any decision they make and every dollar they spend. This then gives a vigilant Opposition an important role to play, presuming that they are up to the job and a government in waiting – and, Mr. Editor, here’s the kicker, in some jurisdictions, these committees are not just headed by the Opposition spokesman for Finance but controlled by the Opposition who are given the majority of members.

Meanwhile, I understand that Bermuda’s PAC is apparently unanimous in its support that its meetings be opened to the public and the press. The committee said in its July 2004 report that information was being sought from other jurisdictions with open meetings to determine conduct and protocol “to ensure appropriate protection for individuals”. That was a year ago.

But this is not rocket science. What we need is the political will to get on with the job.

A beefed-up PAC with open meetings was one of a number of reforms recommended in a report to the House some years ago, and re-submitted for re-consideration again this past session by the Opposition UBP, only to be referred (yet again) to the Rules and Privileges Committee, a committee which is headed by the Speaker of the House but on which the PLP Government has a majority, where both the report and the idea of reform has languished and expired once again. If memory serves, I think the committee met but once this year.

Pity that, Mr. Editor. We have a party in power that calls itself progressive and wants to modernise Bermuda through independence, but comes up short when there already exists the opportunity to do away the old and the out-dated when it comes to the way in which we conduct the country’s business in the Legislature.

The wheel deal

PERHAPS we ought not be surprised, Mr. Editor, by the PLP’s position on parliamentary reform. It isn’t just that this is an idea which is promoted by the Opposition UBP, although I’m sure there’s some of that, but the fact of the matter is that those with power rarely give power up, much less share.

The push for change is going to have to come from those outside Parliament, from those who want to see the sort of change to our Westminster system of governance that will actually lead to greater accountability and greater transparency, not only in theory but in practice

It will not mean that we need re-invent the wheel. It will mean the adoption of modern practices and procedures that are employed successfully elsewhere – whether to the north of us, to the south of us, to the west or to the east – and the creation of parliamentary vehicles to see whether or not Bermuda’s parliamentarians work better when required to roll up their sleeves and work together in the Legislature.

But frankly, Mr. Editor, it’s also an issue that seems to spark little interest outside and inside the House on the Hill. If only there was some way to sex the subject up to make it at least more interesting to the people whom Parliament is meant to serve.

But, wait a minute, perhaps people aren’t the least bit interested in reform because they are not the least bit interested in what goes on from week to week in the House on the Hill. Like one of my colleagues often says about Parliament, it’s irrelevant to most people.

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