Why the Webb bill failed

The Royal Gazette
Opinion (31 May, 2006)

Last week certainly was an unusual one. On Wednesday a drag queen defied Cabinet to take centre stage at the Bermuda Day Parade, before Parliament was invaded on Friday by drama queens who delivered a collective “talk to the hand” to the sexual orientation amendment for the Human Rights Code. Someone seems to have confused holidays; I thought we were celebrating Bermuda Day last week? The Queen’s holiday is in June.

All jokes aside, and there’s an abundance of material here, last week was a sad chapter in Bermuda politics. No-one emerged from these embarrassing episodes looking good…except the drag queen that is – two snaps for Sybil. Fabulous!

Ok, no more jokes I promise.

Last week produced no winners; not the PLP, the UBP, those who opposed the change, those who supported the change, not even Ms. Webb who sponsored the amendment. We should all take a step back and consider what transpired last week. Two of the most high-profile segments of our community, our elected officials and segments of the clergy, sent a message that discrimination is ok.

That our MPs on both sides of the House sat silently when presented with an opportunity to stand strong and united against discrimination has been rightly condemned and all too sadly praised. There’s little value in revisiting that argument, Monday’s The Royal Gazette editorial summed it up nicely.

The irony of the defeat of the Webb amendment is that while its time had clearly come, and a majority of MPs almost certainly supported it, timing is what killed it.

Even without the benefit of hindsight it was a safe bet that the amendment adding sexual orientation as a protected class under our Human Rights Code stood little chance of succeeding, for a number of reasons.

The most obvious impediment being the Premier’s positioning of his party for an election (sometime after July 24th 2006 – once his 3 year Premier’s pension vests at a dramatically increased level). Whether he takes the leap and drops the writ is anyone’s guess, but the stage is clearly being set.

The past eight years have seen one debacle after another with the PLP Government desperately trying to make nice with as many voters as quickly as possible. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Premier and his colleagues wouldn’t want to alienate the huge ‘church vote’ – for lack of a better term – on the eve of a potential election.

The same goes for the UBP.

It’s no secret that Bermuda’s black middle class are religious, but more importantly in the political context, they constitute the much-sought after swing vote – the Holy Grail of elections. As distasteful as it may seem, there’s one thing that all politicians can do, and that’s count votes.

Both parties made the calculation that this amendment was a net vote loser; something every MP other than Ms. Webb decided had to be sacrificed with the anticipation of an election in the air. This is the type of change to be made early in a term so people can get over it, not on the eve of an election. This complicating factor leads to another.

It’s all but certain that Ms. Webb is not running for re-election. According to UBP MP Michael Dunkley, Ms. Webb has already assumed part-time resident status. Whether to run again and how much time to spend in Bermuda are entirely Ms. Webb’s prerogative, but the political impact is that Ms. Webb’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle felt that she had less skin in the game than they did. And it showed.

Politics is not a zero-sum game. Nor is it always about being right. It’s about building consensus to achieve a desired outcome – the art of compromise and the art of the possible. By this measure Ms. Webb’s attempt to do the right thing failed miserably, arguably to the extent that it may have actually set back the cause she was championing. I certainly hope not, but time will tell.

A skilled and shrewd politician would have been cognizant of all of these potential obstacles, understood that this process required a gentle hand and deftly guided it through the political minefield.

Unfortunately Ms. Webb opted for the opposite approach, drawing a bright spotlight to a sensitive issue and attempting to publicly cajole her colleagues into agreement.

The approach was all wrong. If Ms. Webb had done her homework she’d have known that the votes weren’t there and held the amendment back until they were.

Several MPs have indicated that they had heard nothing from Ms. Webb since she tabled her amendment. That’s not good politics and suggests that Ms. Webb lost sight of her primary goal: to amend the Human Rights Code, not to simply be right – which she is.

Contrast last week’s shenanigans with the events of 1994, when the Stubbs Bill decriminalized homosexuality, and you have an interesting case study in managing politically sensitive changes through a skittish Parliament.

There was no more skilled a politician than John Stubbs, a man who was acutely aware of the climate in the community, the sensitivities of his colleagues and the art of enacting legislation. Dr. Stubbs spent months working tirelessly behind the scenes, lining up the required votes, and fostering a climate where those who supported the bill but found themselves in a political bind felt secure that they could do the right thing, not what was politically expedient. Only then did he move the debate forward.

Unfortunately political expediency won this time. But it can’t end there.

If those seeking to discriminate feel empowered by last week’s events they shouldn’t. We must stand against discrimination while engaging all sides in an open and honest dialogue about equality and respect for each others human rights. Vilification serves no useful purpose, no matter how disappointing the outcome or how angry one might be.

Bermuda is a community which responds to incremental change. While this slow pace may not satisfy everyone, it may be the only way.

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