Total Government silence greets Opposition's questions over Clifton

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.

A co-operation operation

EVEN minor amendments in the House can be taxing, Mr. Editor, especially when members are given the wrong bill to approve. Such was the case when Transport Minister Dr. Ewart Brown tried to pilot through the Miscellaneous Taxes (Rates) Amendment (No.2) Act 2005. The reason it was labelled No. 2 was because it was earlier this year that we passed a similar amendment – that would be No. 1 - to change the cruise passenger head tax from a flat rate of $60.00 to $20.00 per passenger per day. But the new Bill seemed to overlook what we had done in the House nine months ago. So there we were on the floor of the House, trying to figure out what went wrong and how it could be amended.

It was amended – but with a caution from the Opposition. No bull in a hurry ever made a calf - as senior politician and former MP, C.V. Jim Woolridge would so often remind us, inside and outside the House.

He was right.

It turned out later that we had amended and approved an early draft of the Bill which was incorrect.

“We have to perform a little surgery”, Minister Brown told members later that night when he explained to members why he had to withdraw the earlier bill and introduce a new draft. In this case, the patient had to die.

“The first bill was flawed”, explained Dr. Brown.

“And who proceeded with the flawed bill?”, ribbed Maxwell Burgess of the UBP.

“The surgeon”, confessed Dr. Brown.

But with the co-operation of the Opposition, who agreed in principle with what was proposed, and who had spotted the error, the way was made clear for passage of the correct bill that same night.

Even the Deputy P himself, Mr. Editor, was moved to describe this cooperation as “an unique experience”.

We had two words for him by way of reply: You’re welcome.

Turtles & skinks: No WMDs

THERE wasn’t much in the way of disagreement either, Mr. Editor, on Government’s plans for Cooper’s Island. Another take note motion, this time on a proposed land use and management plan which was up for discussion. But even where there is agreement, it can take time. Minister of the Environment Neletha Butterfield picked up where she left off last week when she presented Government’s White Paper on Bermuda’s Marine Resources – and read to us again, almost word for word, from a report on plans for Cooper’s Island that most of us were supposed to have read. It took her over just over an hour.

Her Shadow, the Opposition spokesman for the Environment, Cole Simons, took all of ten minutes to reply. Good report, he said, we agree with the recommendations: make this East End island a part of our national parklands and a living museum.

But agreement didn’t stop other members from talking. It is a fascinating place: -

* Suzanne Roberts Holshouser from St. David’s wanted to give her full backing to the project and hoped that the museum there would show the history of St. David’s “and in that way give back what was taken away.”

* Turtles still come to Cooper’s Island to lay eggs. “Turtles crawling across the sand is something every child should see”, said Suzanne who encouraged supervised field trips.

* Others were fascinated by the so-called sunken forest and the fact that there was a rifle range there that dated back to 1901, as well as some 15 storage bunkers, some of them underground, which the US Navy left behind. But, thank goodness, no trace of any WMDs, Mr. Editor.

* Cooper’s Island was also once home to the endemic skink (haven’t seen one of those, Mr. Editor, since I was a boy) and while sadly none have been spotted there recently, the hope is that they will come back through reintroduction to an area that has all the makings of becoming a first class nature reserve.

Environmental terrorists

TAKING greater care of the environment must have been on our minds. Just earlier in the morning we had worked our way through amendments to the Clean Air Act. The objective there was to enhance the enforcement powers of the Ministry to crack down on those who would pollute the air. Again, the Opposition was in support, and again Shadow Minister Simons was brief. He has no truck with people who disrespect the environment. “Environmental terrorists”, he called them.

MPs Ottiwell Simmons and Maxwell Burgess wanted to see something done about the noise too, especially those operations who like to go 24/7.

But Minister Butterfield said that she would like to know who they are. Licences are usually issued with restrictions, typically limiting operating hours from seven to five six days a week only.

Call me if you hear of any breaches, she said. Her number is in the book.

“That’s what I like to hear”, said Maxwell, adding: “and that’s why we deserve those increases [in pay].”

As a matter of interest, the Act only applies to “controlled plants” which, as you might expect, includes the incinerator, BelCo, stone crushing, cement and asphalt facilities to name a few - and no, Mr. Editor, it does not include the House on the Hill.

The Clean Air Act only covers “ambient air” the air that we breathe outside a controlled building and not the air inside. That’s the responsibility of the Department of Health.

The Christmas PACE

LOOKS like longer days and nights, Mr. Editor, as we countdown to Christmas. As it was we didn’t finish up until after midnight, and we have been told to expect at least one extra sitting on Monday the 12th assuming that our last day before the holidays will be Friday the 16th. The special sitting is being set aside to set the PACE – The Police and Criminal Evidence Act, a humungous bill (read girt big) of some 100-plus clauses, which stretches out over 100 pages, the explanatory memorandum of which – some 26 pages - exceeds most Bills.

But I also notice that it is minus a couple of controversial provisions which were there when the Bill was first presented earlier this year – those are the provisions which allowed for the court or jury to draw inferences from an accused’s failure to mention facts or provide an account when confronted with allegedly incriminating evidence. It looks like the Defence Bar has prevailed.

I can’t imagine the police are very happy with the change – the provisions are after all in use in the U.K. – or the prosecution? - but that’s another story, Mr. Editor. For another day?

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