Late, late finish: There must be a better way to do country's business

Mid Ocean News (18 Nov. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

CALL me crazy, Mr. Editor, but there I was at two o’clock in the morning rising to my feet in the House on the Hill to deliver my own Reply to the Government Throne Speech. It took me about 50 minutes. But you have to wonder whether anybody was actually listening at that hour aside from the reporter from The Royal Gazette whose job it is to listen, or at least to appear to be listening, and to make sense of it all for the newspaper the following day. Good luck to him, Mr. Editor, along with a good night’s sleep, I hope, before he started typing up his notes.

And I wasn’t the last speaker either. That distinction fell to George Scott of the PLP who spoke after me for just under half an hour.
So for those of us who were still there at that hour - not everybody does stay to the bitter end: can you really blame them? – we didn’t make our way off the Hill, in what appeared to be varying states of consciousness, and back home to our beds until three thirty or so in the morning.

So here I am the next morning writing this column and thinking – as I hope all of my colleagues were – and please no cracks about how thinking can be a dangerous thing – that there must be a better way to do the country’s business.

Of course there is.

One of the practices around here over the years has been to spread the Throne Speech debate over at least two sittings - and look to adjourn each day at a reasonable hour. This would appear to be give more members an opportunity to speak at reasonable hours as well. In fact, we did do just that as recently as last year, and while we rose fairly early in the night on the first day I seem to recall that we went rather late into the night on the following Friday.

The challenge is to get members to limit the length of their speeches, voluntarily.

There are no limits on length – or line either, Mr. Editor, although as we all know, politics is not cricket, although these days the reverse is probably true, but I digress. But there are limits when it comes to the motion to adjourn (20 minutes)or congrats and obits (3 minutes), and in each case I am always amazed at how much we actually can and do cram in when we have to.

But that, Mr. Editor, if you will pardon the expression, is actually easier said than done. There was a suggestion at the outset of the debate – and it came from the two party whips, of which I am one, the PLP’s Ottiwell Simmons is the other – that our members try to confine their speeches to 15 minutes or so. The suggestion came about because the Government wished to shoe horn the Throne Speech debate into the one day, Monday the 14th.

It’s their call. They are the Government and they control the House agenda. The Opposition can only follow. Follow we proposed to do, after the Premier gave his short wrap of the Throne Speech ( and, Mr. Editor, I don’t think that P was any longer than fifteen or twenty minutes), and after Dr. Grant Gibbons delivered the Official Reply of the Opposition to the Throne Speech.

But we went off track almost immediately when the first speaker for the Government Minister Dale Butler took all of 90 minutes to make his contribution: half an hour before lunch and one hour after.

Any hope for 15-minute contributions faded with each minute that ticked by after the luncheon interval. Meanwhile, I kept a record of the day’s speeches (that helped keep me interested and alert, along with plenty of tea, brisk walks around the precincts, a rest in the Opposition’s sitting room, and a glance at TV – outside the Chambers - from time to time: and how did those Cowboys come from behind to clip the Eagles, Mr. Editor?), and by my accounting the shortest of the day belonged to Suzanne Roberts-Holshouser who was up and down inside 22 minutes. Walter Lister of the PLP was a close second at 25 minutes. He was one of only six Ministers to participate in the debate (excluding the Premier).

One of that group was the newest Minister Wayne Perinchief who ran in second to his Cabinet colleague Mr. Butler on length with 65 minutes, and despite the time he spent we heard not a word, not a peep, on this new Ministry of his and its plans.

As it was, the scorecard reads 21 speakers in all: 11 for the Government ( by George, they always have to have the last word and they have the greater number to make sure that is so) and an even ten for the Opposition. I reckon the average was around 40 minutes per member with half a dozen of us taking to our feet to speak in the late evening, early morning hours.

Working it out

ROCKET science it isn’t, Mr. Editor, but if every member spoke for 15 minutes minimum we would be talking (and listening presumably) for a solid nine hours.

That would take us until nine in the evening and that seems like a reasonable day in which to speak and be heard. But when it comes to the Throne Speech the debate can be quite wide-ranging: Government is supposed to outline its legislative programme for the year, and its policies, while the Opposition wants to hammer away at where it thinks the Government has gone wrong and what it would do were they in charge – and, give and take a little here and there, Mr. Editor, that was pretty well the thrust of the debate in the House on Monday, and some of us, er, most of us, took a little longer than others.

Meanwhile, the expected is both planned for and accommodated in the U.K. where they appear to have worked out an alternative way. I was interested to learn from that Parliamentary Bible, Erskine May, Mr. Editor, that the Throne Speech debate in the UK is divided into three parts (reading a book can be a good diversion too, in a long debate).

The first part is that stage in which Government policy is debated, especially in relation to the contents of the speech. The second part is usually directed to more specific areas of policy which are chosen by the Opposition – can you imagine? - of which the House (and Government) is informed in advance. The third part allows for a series of amendments to be made to the Speech which are typically moved by the frontbench of the Opposition. Meanwhile, time is also set aside for the usual transaction of public business, i.e. bills or motions, if there are any.

A key number of speakers are chosen by each side and almost certainly they don’t try to squeeze it all into one long day’s night.

What’s coming

WE were told that Government wanted to do the Throne Speech debate in one sitting because Government wants to get on with a crush of business expected between now and the Christmas recess. Funny then that no legislation was introduced on Monday. But we do have some bills (3) and regulations (3) to get on with this week which were tabled on day one.

They look pretty straightforward but you never know: two of the Bills have to do with forbidding the issue of vehicle licences where fines are unpaid, and a third prepares the way for the introduction of a points system for traffic offences.

The regulations have to do with airport landing fees, air navigation fees and defibrillators – and, yes, as far as I can see, while tourism may be hurting, it’s only a coincidence, Mr. Editor, that the regulation of defibrillators has been tabled with the first two items.

There’s a quartet of motions too – all of them the take note variety: Government’s White Paper on Marine Resources; another on plans for Cooper’s Island; a third on the Public Access To Information Paper; and lastly, but not least, the most recent report of the Public Accounts Committee of the House on the Government Accounts for the four years 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. Take note or not, they could be quite lively – and I mean the debates, Mr. Editor, and not just the Accounts.

R.I.P. Frankie

SURPRISE, surprise, Mr. Editor, the raft of Ministerial statements which I had expected, never materialised. Not a one. It was an unexpected but welcome change as it meant we did get on to the Throne Speech debate quicker than anticipated.

Still there were congrats and obits to contend with, and one of Bermuda’s outstanding footballers was remembered by both sides of the House on the day he was buried: Frankie Brewster.

It is always a shock to lose someone so suddenly, and so young, Mr. Editor, and such was the case with Frankie. He stood out as a terrific role model, as solid and as dependable off the field and he was on it.

May he rest in peace.

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