December 2005 Archives

I've been thinking about a lot about the All Bermuda Congress that Khalid Wasi is floating. He's been doing the media rounds and is talking a lot of sense.

But every time I hear the phrase 'All Bermuda Congress' it conjures up some image of a Bermudian chapter in the Kama Sutra.

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I'm interested to see if the proposed 3rd party (let's be realistic, the NLP is no more) in today's paper gets off the ground.

I'm skeptical for a number of reasons.

They do seem to have one important side of things in place: funding. But there are other bigger hurdles than that, the PLP proved in 2003 that you can win elections on a shoestring budget.

My first cause for skepticism is that the move to single seat constituencies prior to the 2003 election effectively ended any hopes for 3rd party or independent candidates. Dual seats were conducive to vote-splitting between a PLP and UBP candidate or a main party and 3rd party/independent candidate. Vote splitting happened pre the 1990s, but the past 15 years have been characterised by party based voting.

Now, with single seats, it's a use it or lose it proposition. The change didn't just correct the constituency size problem, but it effectively entrenched a two-party system, shutting out anyone else.

Secondly, there's some practical problems for 3 parties to recruit a full slate of candidates. Talk to people in either party and they'll tell you that it isn't easy to attract candidates. Maybe that's because the parties are so unappealing, fighting the same old battles the same old ways, but finding 72 candidates for an election is hard enough, let alone 72 good ones. Now, if the All Bermuda Congress were to run an island-wide campaign, we'd be looking for 106 good men and women. Not a chance.

Those are the biggest hurdles facing any attempts to launch another party. And Khalid Wasi is well aware of this:

"At this stage it is just a feasibility study. Bermuda cannot handle a third party, the NLP proved that, but the two parties are at an impasse."

Khalid has been pushing for this for some time, since the 1998 election in fact, and he and I had a number of discussions in 1999 and 2000 about the viability of a 3rd party and whether the UBP could survive. The UBP has proved it can survive, but it remains to be seen whether it can take back the Government.

Although Khalid hasn't named the backers, it's not hard to guess the main players. Khalid is clearly the driving force, and for those who know Khalid, he's a thinker who gets pretty cerebral when he speaks. Putting his ideas into practice and not speaking over the electorate's heads will be the challenge. He'd need to be surrounded by some people who can keep him in reality and what is achievable.

The other main player will clearly be Mike Marsh of Bermudians For Referendum. He's been pushing the Switzerland model of direct democracy for years, where many issues are put to referendum. Mr. Marsh is a very difficult person to deal with. I can tell you that from experience. If he takes a prominent role then he may be a turn-off to potential supporters.

But from the article today it appears that Khalid and his team are well aware of these problems, which is why he's pitching this as not a 3rd party, but a replacement for the UBP. On that basis he might have some reason to hope. But the prospect of the UBP disbanding today is much less than in the 1999 period.

I do however have some sympathy for his argument. And I must confess that as a young Bermudian active in politics I despair that I'm expected to continue a fight from the 60s that is not relevant to me.

Bermuda's political evolution is probably being retarded by the continued existence of the UBP and PLP. My pragmatic and idealistic sides are constantly arguing over what the best course of action is; effect change from within a party or work from the outside of each.

Bermuda's politicians might want to take a page out of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's book, where he recently resigned from his own party in an attempt to rock the foundation of Israeli politics.

It's an interesting option that may just be what it takes in Bermuda to end the UBP vs PLP 40 year war.

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A co-worker of mine has pointed out the absurdity of this concession in the Bank's revised plan for the Triminham's site redevelopment:

An additional 230 square feet of specialty retail has been added on Reid Street as suggested by the Chamber of Commerce on October 11, it said.

230 square feet? That's an area of about 10 ft by 20ft, or 15 by 15.

That's not a concession, that's a closet.

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I still haven't emerged from my reinsurance cave, and won't until the New Year, but I did want to chime in on a couple of issues that have been nagging at me.

First in that list is Renee Webb's Human Rights code amendment banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This is such a no-brainer to me that it just saddens me that in today's Bermuda we can't just get this done and move on. Renee Webb is right. It needs to be done, it's long overdue.

On the Government side, it's pretty clear that they don't want to deal with this, having kicked it into the New Year after Ms. Webb announced her intention to add sexual orientation to the code. And the Premier and his Cabinet's cowardice on this issue is astounding, not to mention against everything the PLP claims to cherish.

The PLP profess to be a movement for equality and fairness. But the reluctance to deal with this suggests that the equality is much more narrowly defined. It's safe to assume that it's not at all about human rights in general but about race. And maybe not even about racial equality but creating a new imbalance. To hold positions that it's not ok to discriminate on race but it is ok on sexual orientation just doesn't wash. Nor does Finance Minister Paula's Cox lame excuse that there is no need for the law.

And then there's the UBP. Seven of their MP's stated that they support protection on this basis but need to see the amendment. That's a reasonable position that comes across as a bit of a hedge. But I'm confident that seven will support a well crafted amendment.

For the UBP it's pretty simple: you can't be for "One Bermuda" and not for protecting sexual orientation in the Human Rights Code. It's as straight forward as that.

For once, I find myself proudly in Renee Webb's corner.

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Last week's House Minutes are now available.

This week's House Orders are here.

It looks like a long session with the Government set to take up all their bills, excluding the Human Rights Amendments, Tobacco Bill and Motor Car Bill but none of their motions

The Opposition will take up at least one of their motions, time permitting.

The web audio stream can be found here.

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Mid Ocean News (16 Dec. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

HERE we go again, Mr. Editor, the usual last-minute rush on the House on the Hill as Government piles on the legislation on the eve of the Christmas recess. It's back to the future, you could say, bah, humbug, as it seems that the more things don't change, the more they stay the same. Surprise, surprise.

Your Progressive Labour Party Government tabled ten new pieces of legislation last Friday and told us to be prepared to do them all this week along with six other items they just happen to have on the agenda.

You want some idea of how ridiculous that is, Mr. Editor? In the six sittings we have had since Parliament was opened by another P in November, we have tackled a total of 11 pieces of legislation, and that includes the gert big, mammoth PACE Act for which we set aside an entire day.

We're being asked to take them up on a week's notice – when the usual practice is to give members two weeks to review and consider – and over a week in which we scheduled the special sitting on Monday to tackle PACE (the Bill, not the speed of debates). There are some important matters too, in those ten new pieces of legislation, which merit a good airing in the House:

There is what appears to be enabling legislation for tax information exchange agreements with other jurisdictions; and,

Amendments (finally) to the Timesharing (Licensing and Control) Act; and,

Changes to the Motor Car Act which will see the introduction of "passenger trucks" as well as trucks for hire; and,

A re-write of the Hotel Concession Act which apparently hasn't turned out to be the great shot in the arm for tourism that it was once proclaimed to be.

They're just four of 13 Bills we may be taking up in a day – lucky us. It could turn out to be a long last day before Christmas as we in the Opposition try not to rubber stamp our way through the country's business.

Meanwhile, some extraordinary effort was at least attempted with PACE. A whole day was set aside. But it was always going to be heavy going, especially when it came to clause by clause examination of the Bill – which is what members are expected to do in the House on the Hill.

This Bill has 103 clauses. It is 109 pages long. In the end, we agreed to examine and approve it by section (six in all) and members raised questions about any of the clauses as we went along. It wasn't scintillating and, frankly, it wasn't as thorough as it should have been and could have been. The irony? PACE is intended to raise standards and to increase professionalism when it comes to policing in Bermuda. Like I said in the House, if you want the job done you have to give the people responsible the proper tools, resources, money and support.

Oh my, Mr. Editor, doesn't that sound familiar?

No made-up makeover

YIKES, Mr. Editor. Now we know why they delayed answering our questions about Clifton. We thought the costs were running into the hundreds of thousands – and I suppose they were, but little did we know that they were $1 million and counting.

A further $450,000 will apparently be spent on the new home for the Premier as the PLP budgeted the sum of $1,459,836 for the housing project. That compares to the last estimate we had of $500,000 in March from their former Housing Minister, Ashfield who DeVent from the Cabinet at the request of P, the prospective tenant.

Instead of the answers last week when we should have received them, we got a press conference instead. I suppose they wanted to give the impression they were explaining without having been asked (not true), and the impression they wanted to give is one which they could try to spin to advantage (true).

Nice try, but the headline the next day in the Royal Gazette said it all: "Premier's $1.5m makeover." It also made room for Saturday's too, arising out of another set of PQs (parliamentary questions) which had set down for answer by my colleague Michael Dunkley about four suspended police officers, two ousted prison officers and one sick firemen: "Dunkley: Why is $750,000 being wasted? Taxpayers face big tab for suspensions, sick leave."

This, Mr. Editor, on top of other recent disclosures of PLP spending – the African Diaspora Conference ($162,000) and the Bermuda Independence Commission ($335,000) – and people start to get some idea of the PLP priorities when it comes to spending the People's Money, funds collected from the taxpayer.

No wonder then that they want voters to think of Clifton as the People's Home – what does that make Camden then? The People's Second Home? – and that the money is an investment in property owned by the Government.

By the way, and just for the record, Mr. Editor, here are the answers to our PQs on what's planned for Clifton, which we received in the House on Friday, the day after the press conference, one week after they were supposed to have been given:

Internal renovations (House & Apt) $786,611
Furnishings (House & Apt) $240,000
Exterior works $276,000
Infrastructure $78,000
Professional Services $79,225
Total: $1,459,836

That, Mr. Editor, was their accounting of the budget, and no, they did not tell us for whom the apartment has been renovated. We asked as well for an itemised list of expenditures to date and this is what we were also told:

Salaries $14,282
Consultants $73,712.50
Interior Designer $9,648.16
Maintenance Materials $32.05
Contractor Payments $772,379.17
Building Section $163,663,02
Total: $1,033,716,90

If we want to know any more about the People's Home, I presume we'll have to ask again. Meanwhile, I can tell you there are a group of seniors just up the road, Mr. Editor, who will wonder how it is that the PLP Government couldn't find the funds to invest in actual Homes for People to spare them dramatic increases in rent. I suspect too, that they are not alone.

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I must confess to being more than a little bewildered over yesterday's policing changes. While George Jackson, a genuinely good guy who was my neighbour for many years in Prospect, was appointed Commissioner and Roseanda Jones Deputy, the Governor - presumably with the approval of the Government - went on to add a new position:

“I will be appointing a senior officer from the United Kingdom to fill this post, with responsibility for Crime, Narcotics and Intelligence and for providing support to senior officers, by way of mentoring and training, so as to ensure smooth succession planning in the Service.”

Can someone help me out here. If the new Assistant from the UK is responsible for crime, narcotics, intelligence, training and mentoring, just what will the Commissioner be responsible for? Isn't that about everything the police deal with? The only thing that it really excludes is traffic.

It may indeed be the right move for the reasons outlined at the end of the article, but if I was the new Commissioner I'd be wondering who's working for who and who's setting policy here.

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A reader vents:

"More to the point: what's the justification for upgrading 'Clifton' and move P into there, anyway. The Laurels had been upgraded when Jennifer Smith moved in, had security measures already in place and is a far more secure location than Clifton, which can be accessed by a quick hop over the wall at Corkscrew Hill. Absolute insanity. I want them to answer one question: what was unsuitable about 'The Laurels'. Maybe P was too embarrassed to pass by the seniors housing on that road, given the appalling treatment that this government continues to hand out to seniors."

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Amid the distortion, evasion and absurdity around the swanky and expensive renovation of the second Official Premier's residence in 7 years, of which I'll discuss in a follow up comment, I wanted to point out something else that's been going on over the past couple of weeks.

One of the key elements of parliamentary systems is the right of the Opposition to ask probing questions of the Government. And the United Bermuda Party has been using this quite effectively over the past few years in particular. Too effectively evidently.

Why do I say that? Because the Government has taken to not answering Parliamentary questions in Parliament; Sen. David Burch has pre-empted the proper Parliamentary response with his answers in the Senate last week about his quango consultancy and then yesterday regarding Clifton.

Why would they do that? Simple. Because they're ashamed of what's going on and they don't want to be subjected to probing follow-ups on the floor of Parliament, preferring to hide behind the Department of Communication. [Note: more on Parliamentary Questions can be found in this week's View From the Hill]

Parliamentary Question time is a long established precedent that must be respected. It's one of the few tools that the Opposition have to drive accountability. Sadly, the Speaker of the House is the PLP's poodle. Otherwise he'd demand that Parliament be respected by the PLP Government.

I'll follow-up later on the content of yesterday's press release.

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Mid Ocean News (09 Dec. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

ASK and you shall receive. Well, not always, Mr. Editor – and at least not always in the House on the Hill. Parliamentary questions last week for the Government from the Opposition stand as a case in point.

If you travel in and out of town via the Middle Road in Devonshire, you will have noticed a recent upsurge in work on one of Government’s more visible housing initiatives –the property known as “Clifton”, once home to whomever held the post of Chief Justice but more recently earmarked as the new residence for the Premier. So the Opposition went to work too, and asked Government the following questions for answer last Friday: -

* What’s the nature and extent of the work being undertaken at Clifton?
* What was the budgeted cost for the work inside and out?
* What’s been spent so far and on what ?

We have been hearing all sorts of figures, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we didn’t get the answer we were expecting. The fact of the matter is that we got no answer at all. There was no explanation either in the absence of written answers.

Just silence.

We checked and double-checked and discovered that the questions had been received in time –nine “clear” days in advance, Mr. Editor, in accordance with the Rules – and that they had been passed on by the Clerk for answer, also in accordance with past and current practice.

So we wait - and waiting is apparently all that we can do, too. There is no mechanism in the Rules to compel the Government to answer, and no sanction if they do not. The Speaker could intervene – if he wanted to - but again the Rules neither authorise or require him to do so.

Meanwhile, this is the same PLP Government that has before the House a Paper on how to provide for better public access to information – which, if all goes well, will see a legislative scheme for disclosure up and running by the year 2011.

I have to tell you Mr. Editor, at the risk of repeating myself, that we don’t so much need legislation as we need the will from the PLP to share information on a timely and a regular basis – and I am not talking about the kind of information that’s likely to be shared on must see Government TV.

I’m also talking about answering the hard and not so pleasant questions – particularly on the floor of the House in the sunshine of public scrutiny.

On the other hand, Mr. Editor, perhaps the PLP thought that one spending shock per week is all the voters can take. Give the Premier his due, he did after all answer in writing one other – again straightforward question – which we asked: the cost to the taxpayer of the Bermuda Independence Commission? $335,252.66.

I don’t suppose nine “clear” days were needed to research that answer.

They certainly weren’t needed to answer three other questions which had been asked about the terms of the consultancy contract which had been granted to Colonel David Burch by the Minister whom the Premier subsequently dumped – the youngest black male in his Cabinet, Ashfield DeVent.

In his new capacity as the Minister Who Replaced Ashfield, the Colonel told everyone at the bottom of the Hill, in the Senate, less than a week later, that he had been hired for eighteen months at the rate of $12,500.00 a month or $150,000.00 a year, and that he had in fact been paid $26,346.16 over the 67 days he was employed – a rate of just under $400 a day.

Colonel Burch gave the information by way of a Ministerial statement in that “other place” – as we in the House are required to refer to the Senate – rather than just have the answers shared in the House where the questions had been asked.

The word up from the Minister who replaced Ashfield was that he will soon be hiring a replacement consultant – but the new person will only be paid $8,000.00 a month.

By the way, it also sounded very much like the new Minister was aggrieved that we singled out just his consultancy agreement this time around. After all, he said, there were close to 100 other Government contracts but we asked only about his.

Good suggestion.

We’ll make a point of asking the necessary PQ.

It seems, Mr. Editor, if you don’t ask, they won’t tell.

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HSBC has indicated that they will refine their design proposal for their Front St. building to take into consideration some of the concerns and objections raised.

While it's not clear yet what that statement actually means, it's a positive sign. Let's see where this goes.

It might also demonstrate that a bank is capable of something the Government is not: Listening to the community.

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Just a reminder that as I'm in the busy season at the office posting is and will be light for December.

But speaking of lights, I know we've got traffic issues in Bermuda, but do we really need to start having those flashing message boards around the island, as we did this morning on East Broadway, telling us to buckle up?

It isn't very Bermudian, and seems to be another example of Dr. Brown's Americanisation of everything he touches.

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Ordinarily Government would give anything for the headline in today's Royal Gazette:

Affordable and available

Unfortunately it was about drugs and not housing. What a difference a little context makes.

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Mid Ocean News (02 Dec. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

ALL in a day’s work, you might say Mr. Editor: One piece of legislation designed to curb bad habits on Bermuda’s roads (we hope), a set of regulations to increase landing fees for all planes landing at our airport (we expect), and two take note motions – one of them on Government’s plans to step up protection of the marine environment around our shores, and the other on an accounting of the accounts of Government, i.e. how they spend the money they collect each year in taxes. Then to top the day off we had one or two dust ups on the motion to adjourn - Berkeley again - and we weren’t done until after nine o’clock in the evening.

It was all pretty civil too – until members got to that motion to adjourn.

We started on the road to co-operation with the Bill to introduce the demerit or points system for Bermuda’s road users. Offences are going to be assigned points. You rack up a dozen and you’re done: off the road automatically, all vehicles, up to six months. This was another initiative which found favour with the Opposition. Not surprisingly. As the UBP spokesman for the day, Wayne Furbert, pointed out the points system was first muted in a Discussion Paper on Traffic and Road Safety produced by the UBP back in December 1997. He ought to know too, he was the Transport Minister at the time.

The wheels of government grind slowly. Seven years later it’s finally on the road to implementation.

Debate focused on how it will work – and whether it will. One key ingredient doesn’t require legislative change. It requires commitment. More policemen on the roads at the right times at the right places if we are truly going to get on top of bad driving habits in this island. That won’t necessarily be sufficient either. We need follow-through too. While technology makes possible coordination between the courts and TCD - between the two of them they will be keeping track of the accumulated points –human application will still be required to make the scheme work.

But there’s hope. The changes won’t automatically become law. There’s provision in the legislation for the Minister responsible to delay its implementation – and for good reason.

Explained Minister Dr. Ewart Brown: “We will embark on a sustained period of public education on this Bill to both advise the public of its contents and importance and to also allow our police service and courts to become familiar with the proposed system”.
Good. We would like to see this new law work.

The price of freedom

NOSTALGIA was the catch of the day when we took up the Government White Paper on the Marine Environment and the Fishing Industry (?) in Bermuda. Government Whip and recreational fisherman, Ottiwell Simmons, dropped the first line.

“Please Minister”, he pleaded, “don’t let the environmentalists become so serious about the environment that they take away all of its joys and pleasures”.

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Parliament is in session today from 10AM until...

The live web feed is here.

Here are today's House Orders. The items to be taken up are 1,2,3 and 8 by the Government and 12 by the Opposition.

And here are the (unapproved) minutes from last week's session.

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