Wheels of Government grind slowly . . .

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”.

Say what? Say this for Mr. Simmons. He likes to speak his mind. He also likes to fish for fun – on the ocean, Mr. Editor – and brings the occasional one, or two, home for dinner. Now his Government is recommending that all recreational fishermen, like himself who take to the sea for pleasure, be licensed from now on – and that they pay a fee for that licence and that they report on their catches.

Mr. Simmons isn’t too keen on what he sees is too much regulation. “There are some things I just don’t like”, he told his colleagues. “No keys, no licences or permits, please.”

“I’m a free man and I prefer it that way”, he declared.

Well, he won’t be fishing for free much longer once the new regime is in place – unless he fishes from the shore. Licences are not proposed if you remain on land when you cast your line.

Mr. Simmons was joined in part by newly appointed Cabinet Minister Wayne Perinchief who also took us back to the good old days when fish were far more plentiful and the fishing easier.

“I would encourage my Government”, he began – and ended when he was hauled up abruptly by a quick-witted Maxwell Burgess who shouted out: “What do you mean your Government? You are the Government!”

Mr. Perinchief caught himself and took another line. He said instead that he hoped the Opposition would press his Government on some of these issues.

We did go back and forth for some four hours. There were 12 speakers in all, six from each side, for an average 20 minutes each. Now there’s a nice orderly change, don’t you think? Until you take into account that Minister Neletha Butterfield took the first 90 minutes to read through the Paper. Literally, Mr. Editor, literally.

Thank goodness, as Mr. Simmons also pointed out, that it was “not an unnecessarily bulky document”.

It was also coloured green and not white - and the subject of take motion rather than a vote. The Minister later explained that it was a deliberate decision on her part not to put proposed Government policy to a vote. She was still interested in opinions on what is recommended.

Stand by then folks, legislation to follow when we’ll see exactly what is or is not planned.

Time to step off

LINES started to draw tighter, Mr. Editor, when we moved on to the Report of our Public Accounts Committee. This is a standing committee of the House established to keep under review Government accounts and the reports of the Auditor General, both the annual and the special. It’s a five person body chaired by the Opposition spokesman for Finance but on which Government has the majority of members (3).

Current chairman Dr. Grant Gibbons –he’s been the chairman for 7 years now – described the group and their work as “bi-partisan in a very functional way”.

That’s nice to know. But the fact of the matter is that you probably don’t know much about their work (even though we were told that they met 18 times over the last session) and what it is they do in between reports. There’s a good reason why that is so. The committee meets in camera, that is behind closed doors. No press allowed. No members of the public either.

Elsewhere the days of secret meetings are over and it looks like they could be in Bermuda too. The committee was recommending they be opened to press and public. Unanimously – or so we thought until one of the members, PLP MP, Glenn Blakeney, after signing the report, expressed some concern over “how it will work”.

He was concerned, he said, about “the partisanship” of some of the members of the Committee (read the Opposition, Mr. Editor, but not of course himself and his PLP colleagues), and how the Committee might be hi-jacked to go on “witch hunts” (and of course one party’s witch hunt is another party’s duty).

So what else is new?

As Opposition Leader and chairman Dr. Gibbons pointed out there are few, if any, jurisdictions that continue to meet in private. “It’s now best practice [to open the meetings up]”, he said matter of factly. “It not only brings some immediacy to the work which we are doing”, added Dr. Gibbons, “it also brings a greater degree of transparency.”

Finance Minister Paula Cox didn’t disagree. She had seen the UK model in action in London. “The Public Accounts Committee is the scrutineer and overseer of the public interest”, the Minister acknowledged.
But in Westminster she learned that the chairman was usually someone who was no longer in the hey day of his political career, a kind of grey-haired wise head, who has the respect of members of both parties.

No offence, Doc.

None taken, said Dr. Gibbons. He acknowledged his hair was graying but wasn’t so sure he wasn’t still in his hey day. Of course, over there they have some 600 members to draw from. We only have 35. But if it helps, continued the Opposition Leader he was prepared to step down.
Step down, Mr. Editor ?! If you ask me we just need to step off and get on with it. This is the practice elsewhere. We can draw on their experience and adopt their rules. What we need is the will from the PLP Government to bring us up to standard.

Berkeley and the new math

CLASH of the more usual variety flared on the motion to adjourn. Berkeley again. We know the Government wants to put the funding of this project behind them, to make the over-runs a thing of the past, but Pat Gordon Pamplin was not about to let the Minister (who sits in another House down the Hill) or the Premier re-write history.

Pat was getting back up from her colleague Michael Dunkley who described Walter Lister’s explanation that cost over-runs are not that unusual on project that size as “the lamest excuse” he had ever heard. It’s now $50-million over the original budget – and still counting, and we have the costs of arbitration still to come.

But the Premier, the original Minister responsible, sought to intervene. He wanted to dispute that the original budget was $70-million and to claim extra unbudgeted works of $23-million.

Excuse me, shot back Ms. Gordon Pamplin, taking a counter point of order as she read directly from the 2000/2001 Budget Statement of then PLP Minister of Finance the late Mr. Eugene Cox who proclaimed in plain and simple language that they had “carefully” reviewed the plans for the construction of the new school and the total budgeted sum was
$71.2 million.

Ouch. The silence was suddenly deafening .You could have heard a pin drop. They might want us to forget, but think of what could have been done with those millions of dollars, 50 or 23 million dollars would have built a lot of homes and assisted those who were – and still are - unable to afford their own.

For a good cause

NOW I don’t usually do requests, Mr. Editor. As everyone well knows, the Colonel included, this is a column and not a radio show. But this week, with your permission, I am going to make an exception. The Minister in charge of all of the Community’s Affairs (or so it seems) Dale Butler challenged me to put this in my piece: Twenty four members of Parliament put their hands in their pockets (our own, I believe) and we came up with a $2800.00 donation to help fund the cost of sending Bermuda students on a 2006 Raleigh International expedition.

They will be going to either Borneo or to Namibia for three months and the trip will cost $12,000.00 per student. Minister Butler and his Shadow Jon Brunson, deputy leader of the UBP, combined forces over two weeks ago to shake us down and they made a presentation to the organisers jointly – outside the House, of course, during the lunch hour.

You might say that we were bi-partisan once again in a very functional way, Mr. Editor, and for a good cause.

| More