Here's a Government that can talk....

Mid Ocean News (19 May 2006)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

Here's a Government that can talk by the mile and move by the inch

FOR a moment there, Mr. Editor, I thought we were on to something last Friday – maybe even a breakthrough in the House on the Hill.

Government and Opposition appeared to be working together. The day’s agenda was going to include an Opposition motion –and at a reasonable hour. The PLP had indicated through their whip that they only intended to take up two pieces of legislation and they were looking to the United Bermuda Party to bring on their motion to consider the benefits of whistleblower legislation for Bermuda.

The motion – in my name – had been on the Order Paper since late November, but the opportunities to take it up had been quite limited. Unlike some other jurisdictions, we have not had a history and practice in Bermuda of the Government and Opposition working together to agree on a set time for Opposition motions. It just doesn’t happen and the Opposition takes up its motion when it can, which is often at the end of a long day , sometimes in the dead of the night, when members are tired and uninterested and irritable and hungry and restless and unprepared. It rarely makes for productive and scintillating debate.

So there I was on my feet shortly after three in the afternoon leading off a very serious and important and timely debate initiated by the Opposition: and that was that the House take note of whistleblower legislation in other jurisdictions, and in particular the Public Servants Disclosure Bill of Canada, and consider the benefits of enacting similar such legislation for Bermuda.

If you’re thinking there must have been a catch, Mr. Editor - because there usually always is in politics – well, you’re right .Why Government were happy for us to take up our motion soon became apparent when Cabinet Minister Randy Horton led off the debate in reply for the PLP. They had their own angle on this one. They had in mind a debate not on our motion but their own, as Minister Horton quickly moved an entirely new motion really, although he tried to call it an amendment.

The PLP wanted everyone to take note of Government’s criminal law reform programme to date “and the Government’s commitment to further reform that will include whistle blower legislation”. Someone somewhere in the swivel service had prepared a brief and that was the approach which Minister Horton just had to get it out – which he did, even though the so-called amendment was withdrawn.

It wasn’t long before the gloves were off, either.

The PLP Minister questioned the Opposition’s motives for bringing forward the motion at all – which overlooks the fact that the Auditor General has been recommending such legislation for two years now and that it comes on the heels of another damning Annual Report on the state of Government’s finances.

“We will never be fooled or misguided by the Opposition”, declared Minister Horton, “and neither will the people of Bermuda”.

That moment was gone – and debate was on.

It ended five or so hours later when Mr. Horton’s Cabinet colleague, lawyer Michael Scott, moved once again to amend the Opposition motion.

The PLP now preferred that the motion read that we take note of the Whistleblower legislation of other jurisdictions “and within the context of Government’s criminal law reform programme consider the benefits of such legislation to Bermuda.”

The Speaker asked us whether we objected – and why would we? The PLP were desperate to make a change that really didn’t amount to much of a change. Sadly, the recommended legislation is still (only) to be considered.

The PLP Government had failed to actually commit to its introduction. Instead all they did was opt to have the last word on their amended motion which was adopted without objection. It looked once again like all talk and no action proving once again how the Government can talk by the mile and move by the inch – and invariably in opposite directions.

No micing, Mr. Editor

STILL, UBP MP Grant Gibbons thought he saw what he termed “a ray of hope” in the prepared PLP presentation. Dr. Gibbons noted that it was only recently that the Attorney General was reported as saying that “further cross-Ministry work is required before a definitive position can be reached on whether there is a need for such legislation”. On top of that, their official responses to date to the repeated calls for the legislation by the Auditor General in his last two Annual Reports have been lukewarm, at best.

A ray of hope maybe, but we’re not blinded by what’s going on either.
Part of the problem here, Mr. Editor, is that the PLP think that the call and the push for reform is just political.

Minister Horton touched on it first when he questioned the Opposition’s motives and he accused the United Bermuda Party of trying to “poison the minds of the voters”.

Finance Minister Ms Paula Cox also took up the theme – as did other PLP MPs who spoke in the debate.

“One recoils, resents and recants, at the subtle and not so subtle inference from certain quarters that this Government is in need [of such legislation] because it suffers from sleaze and corruption”, commented the Finance Minister, “and it’s not true”.

On the other hand, Mr. Editor, what is true, is reasonably well-documented : -

• The mal-lingering Bermuda Housing Corporation scandal and the millions of dollars that have been written off (nine million was the last estimate) plus the conviction of a former employee who, that very day in the court downstairs, was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in bilking the BHC of hundreds of thousands..
• The $50-million overspend at the Berkeley Institute (and counting) and all the unanswered questions as to where all the money went.
• The misappropriation of $160,000 from the Government Employees Health Insurance Fund.
• The theft of $1.9 million by an officer within the Accountant General’s Department.
• Missing revenues of $3.6 million at the Immigration Department which at last report was still under active police investigation.

The Opposition United Bermuda Party didn’t make these up. They are taken from the top five list of the Auditor General. Their existence, he reports, along with other “apparent or alleged frauds and misappropriations that have come to light in recent years”, have him worried about “a growing culture of opportunism or dishonesty”. He thinks that whistle blowing legislation may help detect as well as deter.

Such a legislative scheme would also be but one more plank in the development of a solid floor for better governance – and we all know it, Mr. Editor.

Meanwhile, the recent Ombudsman Act isn’t the only answer: the Ombudsman is limited in scope by statute as to what she can investigate – and remember that the administrative actions of Ministers are off limits. But the office is part of the package of better governance.

The same is true of proposed Freedom of Information legislation – which we are still expecting to see this year, but which Government last told us will take a further three to five years to implement once the legislation is in place.

Finally, Mr. Editor, their last defence: if it’s so good why didn’t the UBP put it in place when they were Government? Well, let’s not overlook that the Canadian Act which was under discussion was dated May 2004 and the U.K.’s Public Interest Disclosure Bill was passed in July 1999.

The need for the scheme is also a recent recommendation of the Auditor General – one that first emerged two years ago.

Enough said.

Finance Minister Ms Cox said her Government was always prepared to look at a better mouse-trap to see how it would fit within accountability framework.

But it’s not just mice we need to watch out for, Mr. Editor. It’s the cats too.

No micing.

Not another

LET’S hope it doesn’t take another scandal to galvanise this Government into action, Mr. Editor. The Finance Minister has let slip that we nearly had another recently. The disclosure came in another Ministerial Statement, a follow-up to the one which she gave last week, once again trying to re-assure taxpayers that Government has not lost control of the public purse. Ms. Cox told us that a newly re-established Internal Audit team had uncovered “a serious financial lapse” somewhere in Government (where wasn’t disclosed) and which had apparently led to a dismissal and that criminal charges are pending.

Stay tuned to the news media, I suppose, for further details.

Meanwhile, it very much looks like the Auditor General’s concerns are not misplaced – and that this latest disclosure is but one more reason to get on with adding to the checks (and I mean checks, not cheques, Mr. Editor), and the balances, that will provide for greater scrutiny and accountability.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

SPEAKING of Ministerial Statements, Mr. Editor, which I often do, you’ll love this if you’ve been following the plot for reform. The House on the Hill now has a brand-new glossy booklet to hand out to visitors entitled “Sessions House”. We were informed that it was produced by the House and Grounds Committee under the chairmanship of the Deputy Speaker Dame Jennifer Smith. It’s a pretty smart-looking document and purports to tell the uninitiated what it is we do each time we meet on the Hill.

In it we find this piece entitled “Scrutinising Government”:

“A major role of the House of Assembly is to subject the policies and actions of the Government to public scrutiny. The Government runs the country, but Parliament holds the Government to account. When Government Ministers make statements in the House of Assembly, they are interrogated by the Opposition and by individual members.”

You might say it’s a nice theory – and would that this were so – but it isn’t. Interrogate? You must be kidding, Mr. Editor, we don’t even get to ask questions and questions when they are asked, have to be in writing ten days in advance, and anyway aren’t always answered when they are asked.

There’s also this short passage in the booklet which should draw a wry smile if not a few guffaws: -

“The size of the Chamber and its confrontational design contribute to the special nature of debate, which is lively and robust, but also intimate and often, conversational.”

Lively and robust, but intimate and conversational, Mr. Editor?

Whistling Dixie

AS for the term whistle blowing and how it came about, one of my favourite explanations was this: “bringing an activity to a sharp conclusion as if by the blast of a whistle”. That prompts an interesting thought: To date, in the House on the Hill, Speakers have relied on a gavel which, according to our fancy new booklet, “was made from the remains of a cedar tree which had grown in St. Peter’s churchyard, the site of the first Parliament in 1620.”

I wonder, Mr. Editor: time to trade in the gavel for a whistle? Now that would be some blow in the campaign for reform.

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