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
Professional Services $79,225
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:
Interior Designer $9,648.16
Maintenance Materials $32.05
Contractor Payments $772,379.17
Building Section $163,663,02
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.
ODDLY enough, Mr. Editor, the public's right to information happened to be the subject of debate in the House on the Hill. We were asked to take note of Government's proposals for Public Access To Information legislation for Bermuda. If all goes well, according to the Paper, the system should be up and running in three to five years' time.
Well, we in the Opposition are all for a statutory right to information but in the meantime, if the PLP really do believe in transparency, in openness, and in sharing information, why don't they follow the recommendation of their advisers and get Pro-Active – now.
No, not the contractors, Mr. Editor, although the need for such legislation was most certainly underscored by no better example then the way in which the PLP managed the Berkeley construction contract. Their actions from day one on that project have spoken louder than any fancy words or promises of change.
If there was the will to get on with it, there are ways we can go about it today – and without a great deal of expense either. There will be expense: the Premier told us it will cost anywhere from $4-$6 million to implement the necessary legislation over a five-year period.
But for my money, Mr. Editor, any meaningful change has to start at the top and in the way in which we conduct our business in the House on the Hill. We wouldn't be re-inventing the wheel either, but rather implementing recommendations that have been urged on all Legislatures by Parliamentarians across the Commonwealth.
Here's some of their recommendations arising out of a study group which met in Ghana over a year ago – which sadly did not feature in Government's PATI Paper:
MPs should lead the way for civil servants by setting a positive example through their own openness.
Parliament itself should play a key role in overseeing and reviewing access to information regimes.
Any access to information legislation should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that it is effective in ensuring the public's right to know.
All public bodies should be required to report annually and the information should be laid in Parliament in a public document.
Parliament's oversight role should include such mechanisms as questions to Ministers and holding Ministers to account for any failures to implement access to information law in their ministries.
Parliament should play a key oversight role regarding the independent administrative body responsible for implementation of access to information legislation, including its appointments and funding.
Parliament should take the lead by opening up its own practices and procedures to the widest possible extent, including televising debates and operating from the presumption that committee meetings are open to the public such that closed meeting are the exception rather than rule.
We don't need to wait until 2011 to bring about those changes. We could get on with them now. If there was the will, Mr. Editor, if there was the will.
Speaking of which, the PLP Government certainly made their position on transparency once again clear when it came to Wayne Furbert's motion to have a select committee of the House investigate and report on what went wrong with the Bermuda Homes for People housing project at Southside.
Not only did they not want to debate it, first chance they got Minister Walter Lister moved to for a vote to kill any discussion – and they succeeded. We should have known – they do have the numbers,
Mr. Editor, to cut off access to information when they want to.
Lord knows, Wayne
'TIS the season to be jolly, Mr. Editor, so let's end with a couple of lighter moments from debate in the House.
First up was this exchange between Wayne Furbert in his capacity as Opposition spokesman for Housing, the Premier, and Deputy Speaker Dame Jennifer Smith who was chairing the debate. Mr. Furbert was arguing his motion for a select committee of MPs to investigate the Bermuda Homes for People project at Southside.
Mr. Furbert said at one stage that he doubted members of the PLP Cabinet and Caucus knew what had gone wrong.
The Premier took a point of order. The Cabinet were fully informed, he said.
But he didn't say his Caucus knew, Mr. Furbert observed.
The Premier took another point of order. The PLP Caucus were told, he insisted.
Dame Jennifer called on Mr. Furbert to withdraw his comments.
"I guess," said an exasperated Mr. Furbert, "the Lord only knows."
Then there was this exchange between the UBP's Maxwell Burgess and Walter Lister of the PLP. Maxwell was expressing in the strongest possible terms his chagrin that the Royal Gazette headline, "Affordable and Available", was not about homes, but about drugs, and he called on the Government and the new Minister for Drugs to get concerned and get on with the job.
"We are," interpolated Mr. Lister, "and we are concerned about drugs in containers."
"That's the problem, Mr. Speaker," replied Maxwell without missing a beat. "They worry about drugs in containers when they should be containing drugs."
The interpolations then ceased, Mr. Editor and Maxwell continued on, uninterrupted.
Wait 'til next year
FOR those like yourself, Mr. Editor, who follow these things closely, you will recall the promise to ask about all of the consultants in Government's employ. We tried. We tried asking the question of the Man in charge aka the Premier.
It has been refused. We have been instructed by the Speaker that what we actually have to ask the question of each of his Ministers if we want to know what, if any, consultants are in the employ of their respective Ministries.
With the House on the Hill going down for the holidays today, this is one time we actually have to say: wait 'til next year.