Mid Ocean News (25 Nov. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'
Poor planning, plain and simple - or as one wag said: 'It's a good job these guys aren't running the country'
WOULDN’T you know it, Mr. Editor. We sit on the Monday for 16 hours to get through the Throne Speech debate, finishing up at three thirty in the morning on Tuesday, and then on Friday of the same week we’re all done after four hours and out for the day by two o’clock in the afternoon. Go figure.
But let me give you a little help along the way. It’s poor planning, plain and simple.
I told you last week how we could easily have spread the Throne Speech debate over two days, possibly three, and still have gotten on with any bills or motions or business the Government wanted to take up. It’s done elsewhere and it’s a practice that we’ve followed before.
But the Government a.k.a. the PLP get to call the shots. They wanted the debate over in a day – even if it went into the early morning hours. We presume that they didn’t want to subject themselves to the Opposition spotlight for more than a day, although the official line from the PLP was that they have lots of business they want to get on with, and they want to get it done before we break for Christmas.
Business, huh? What business?
We learned on Thursday that the PLP intended to only take up three of their seven items on the agenda – all of them quite simple and straightforward and unlikely to engender much in the way of debate. As it was the Opposition actually supported all three: amendments to the Motor Car and Auxiliary Bike Acts so as to permit the refusal of vehicles licences in cases where there are unpaid court fines as well as regulations for what we hope will become widespread use of defribrillators.
There were four other items which could have been taken up by Government which they chose not to do: the introduction of the demerit or point system for traffic offences (which the Opposition has also proposed); new landing and air navigation fees (the cost of flying in and out of here); and the PATI paper (PATI? Don’t tell me you have forgotten already: Public Access To Information). They have all been held over, I’m guessing, to give us something to do this week.
Three new pieces of legislation were tabled:
* The Clean Air Amendment Act which, according to the Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum, is designed “to enforce the Ministry’s enforcement capability”.
* An amendment to increase the number of people who can serve on the Bermuda Hospitals Board; and
* A Taxes (Rates) Amendment Act which will see cruise ship passengers become liable to a daily departure tax rate of $20 per day or part of any day.
The Minister Without Portfolio Walter Lister also proposed three take note motions. He wants us to take note of the financial statements of the golf courses for the year ended March 31 2001; for the BLDC for the year ended March 31, 2004; and for the Housing Corporation for the year ended March 31 2005. It’s nice to see this new-found enthusiasm. We wait to see the purpose.
Bottom line, Mr. Editor: Perhaps the pace will now pick up, and we’ll soon find the House in better order. However, as one observant wag was overhead to say on the way out the door on Friday : “It’s a good thing these guys aren’t running the country”.
FACT of the matter is, Mr. Editor, it was a wonder that we were even there in the House on the Hill until two o’clock that afternoon. What it was, was that we got a little extra lift from – wait for it, they’re baaaack – a plethora of lengthy Ministerial statements. There were eight or nine in total from half a dozen Ministers (yes, some have more than one) that took close to an hour to read.
There was even one from the Head Man - and no, not on independence, and no, not on his recent discussions in London, but on seniors. It was this statement of the Premier’s coupled with that of Finance Minister Paula Cox that caught my attention. The two of them didn’t connect the dots, but I will.
The Man Who Called Himself P wanted to trumpet the publication this week of “The Changing Face of Bermuda’s Seniors” – a study covering some 50 years which has been put together by the Statistics Department which is now part of the Premier’s portfolio of Government departments.
He teased parliamentarians with some of the facts:
* In 1980 some 69 percent of our seniors owned the homes in which they were living and the number had increased to 71 per cent by the year 2000. Eight out of ten also own their own home mortgage free.
* While some 27 per cent of home-owning seniors owned more than one property in 1991, the number had slipped to 25 per cent by the year 2000.
* While the Premier didn’t tell us the year, he told us that the study will show that some 1258 seniors were renting and paying an average monthly rent of $768.00 as compared to the average rent for everybody else of $1,021.00 per month.
* Half the seniors have a household income of less than $36,000.00 per year and - to quote - “they depend on their Government pension for their income”. Good luck to them, eh Louise?
A little later Finance Minister Ms. Cox gave us an update on those pensions. The Minister was reporting on the state of the Contributory Pension Fund. Government policy to date has been to broadly increase benefits in line with prices (as expressed through the CPI) and to increase contribution rates at a slightly higher rate – that is 1 ¼ per cent a year more than benefits.
That’s now about to change and the rate will be increased to 1 ¾ per cent per year.
Meanwhile, an actuarial review of the Fund – also tabled Friday by the Minister – not only helps to explain why, but also gives us some insight into the challenges ahead. Here’s just a sample of their findings:
* Over the three year period of their study (up to August 2002) the numbers of seniors receiving pensions rose from 8,156 to 9,179.
* By the year 2022 we can anticipate 13,000 or so pensioners rising to a high of 17,194 pensioners by 2032 ( I should live so long, Mr. Editor: I would be 82).
* While in August 2002, there were roughly five working people per pensioner (they are the ones who make the contributions) they are expected to decline in number over the next forty years to about two working people per pensioner.
* Over the next thirty years, total “outgo” ( payments, I presume) is projected to increase to more than two and a half times its current level, from about $70-million in 2003 to an anticipated $180-million in 2033 – a staggering $110 million increase.
* Then there was this finding: “Over the three years ended July 31, 2002, the real rate of return earned on the Fund was about a negative 3 percent per year, as compared to the real rate of return of 4 percent a year assumed at the 1999 review. As a result, the value of the Fund as at 31 July 2002 is some 20 percent lower than projected at the 1999 review (taking into account the different monetary values in which the current and previous reviews are expressed).”
Serious stuff, Mr. Editor – and remember this actuarial review was as of August 2002, and the copies which we received in the House were dated January 2005, so we’re three years later and counting already.
What makes it even more serious is that the average monthly payout in 2002 was approximately $630.00 and, according to the Minister, the maximum possible today is just over $1000.00 a month.
You start to get a sense of what our seniors are facing now, and in the future. With rising costs, especially in health care, you have to wonder whether we as legislators are doing enough to (1) assess the extent of the problem which the community will face in the coming decades and (2) whether we are sufficiently addressing what’s coming.
If Government is going to throw money around, they might think it worth it to spend some more in this direction, eh Louise?
Agreed – sort of
UNUSUAL, you think, Mr. Editor, when Opposition and Government agree? Well, that’s the way it was on those amendments which will allow TCD to refuse vehicle licences where there are outstanding traffic fines. The Opposition UBP was more than prepared to go along with this one – and in fact suggested extending the principle to include unpaid taxes and child support.
Unpaid taxes and outstanding child support are not new issues, countered PLP MP Dennis Lister, taking a typical PLP line. “You had he opportunity to do something about this and you didn’t”, he said. “What you should be doing is applauding the Minister for bringing this forward”.
Pat Gordon-Pamplin is no cheerleader. She spoke next and had little truck for that logic. If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea, she said, and get on with it. “You’re the Government now”, she reminded the PLP.
There were some lighter moments too.
Maxwell Burgess pointed out that where husband and wife are joint owners of the car and one of them has an unpaid fine, the other will be punished as well when re-licensing is refused.
“I can see the headline now”, interpolated one MP, “Government comes between husband and wife”.
Actually what we might see, Mr. Editor, are some hurried transfers in ownership.
The amendments specify no renewal where “the owner” has an outstanding fine.
IF it wasn’t for the Motion to Adjourn, Mr. Editor, we would have been out of the House shortly after 12.30 p.m. That’s when we were through Government business for the day. But seven of my colleagues weren’t quite prepared to let the PLP off that easily.
Mr. Burgess, Maxwell again of UBP fame, raised reports of yet another delay to the opening of the new Berkeley Institute, and the project’s potentially escalating costs. He was joined in his dismay by the Shadow Minister for Works & Engineering Pat Pamplin who also wanted to know not only how long but how much.
It’s $50-million over the original budget of $70-million – and counting.
There was no reply that day from the Government benches. We learned later – from the TV evening news – that Education Minister Terry Lister was being coy about the date at a press conference.
But any way you slice it, dice it or spin it, Mr. Editor, Berkeley is almost certainly going to turn out to have been an expensive education for the people of Bermuda, seniors included - and no chance, I suspect , that the PLP frontbench will want to put down a take note motion on this project and its finances.