The day we were caught looking

Mid Ocean News (02 June 2006)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

OKAY, you’re right, this was not our finest hour. But it happens, Mr. Editor … and last Friday it happened in the House on the Hill.

Two speakers: one long and the other short; the first for and the second against; and then a form of parliamentary brinkmanship of wait and see. Each side waited for the other to speak first; the Opposition looked to the Government; Government to the Opposition; and when no one rose, the Speaker had no choice but to bring debate to en end.

In the end, myself (and others) were caught looking.

It happens – and, Mr. Editor, this isn’t the first time debate has collapsed in this way in the House on the Hill, and I doubt it will be the last, absent any serious changes to the Rules – which is to raise once more the subject of reform, a favourite subject of mine, as you know, but not of the powers that be; although perhaps now it has piqued the interest of a few more members of the listening – no, scratch that – watching public.

Of course what was surprising, to some, Mr. Editor, was that this happened with this particular Bill, most especially in view of all the advance publicity which it had received, its purpose, and the controversy it had attracted. But therein probably also lies the explanation.

That this was a Private Member’s Bill in the first place spoke volumes too. It came to us not as a Government Bill, but as an amendment to Human Rights Act proposed by one of their backbench and former Cabinet Minister.

Its purpose was to make unlawful discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation – just like it is unlawful to discriminate against others for example on account of their race, religion or political beliefs or because they were born out of wedlock: in short, the Bill was looking to extend and ensure equal protection for all from discrimination under the law.

Ms. Webb put the case when she spoke first – as she was required to do as the private member who brought Bill. She took just under 90 minutes and gave a comprehensive account of the need and the reasons for the Bill.

The public gallery to her immediate right was pretty full for the debate, and it included a number of the more prominent and visible and vocal members of Bermuda’s clergy. So full, in fact, that it prompted Ms. Webb to wonder aloud that she couldn’t remember the last time the gallery was so packed. “I do”, shouted out Ms. Pat Gordon-Pamplin, whose memory, Mr. Editor, is as strong as her voice. “That would be when the residents of Mary Victoria came up here to flog Glenn Blakeney and the Government [for their plans to build more homes in the neighbourhood – which were subsequently abandoned]”.

On the other hand, Mr. Editor, the Chamber wasn’t so full for the whole time Ms. Webb was speaking – not that that is that unusual when it comes to debates in the House on the Hill. Members do have a habit of drifting in and out from time to time, and they are able to keep an ear on what’s going on inside the Chamber through radios in the communal committee room and in our respective caucus rooms. Meanwhile, the Speaker had informed us at the start of the day that three members had written to say that they would be absent for the entire day, abroad, for various reasons: namely, Ministers Michael Scott and Terry Lister of the PLP Government and Mrs. Louise Jackson of the Opposition UBP.

When Ms. Webb completed her presentation and sat down, PLP backbencher Nelson Bascome, also a former Cabinet Minister, like Ms. Webb, rose to speak next. But he wasn’t that long, maybe ten to fifteen minutes. He was against. He thought (I think) that the proposed change was unnecessary, and that he was going to be voting against.

It was when he sat that all hell didn’t break loose. The opposite, in fact.

Now I don’t know what the Government plan was (no surprise there, Mr. Editor) but I do know that we in the Opposition had decided to wait to hear from the Government first. They have a member of the Cabinet, the Minister for Community Affairs, Mr. Dale Butler, whose portfolio includes some responsibility for the development and protection of human rights in Bermuda – and we wanted to know the position of his Ministry on the efficacy of the proposed change.

We had also been led to believe that more than just Minister Butler was going to speak.

But in the end, no one rose from the Government benches. Neither did any member of the Opposition – and that, Mr. Editor, as the Speaker brought down his gavel, was that. At least when it came to debate on the Bill.

We then moved to the committee of the House – a standard parliamentary (next) step when the Speaker comes out of his chair, the Deputy Speaker, Dame Jennifer Smith, assumes chairmanship of the Committee of the House, and members review and speak to the Bill clause by clause.

There weren’t many clauses.

There were no questions.

There were no exchanges.

The Dame put the question – and the practice on the Hill is to call for a voice vote in the first instance, and in this instance the nays out shouted the ayes, and the chair declared that the no’s had won out.

A roll call is only required when three or more members in the Chamber stand (and here I am quoting the rule) “to challenge the opinion of the Chair” and request “a division” and shouting “names, Madam Chair, names”: members inside and outside the Chamber then have two minutes to get to their seats to have their votes recorded.

But no one did stand – and that became that, Mr. Editor.

Write and wrong

NOW, you’re no recent arrival, Mr. Editor, and neither am I, and neither are many of your readers.

But according to Minister Dale Butler it was a “recently arrived” news reporter who misheard what he had to say when she reported him in The Royal Gazette as having told her that: “Black people who want to join that party [the UBP] want to be white.”

Not true, said Minister Butler in a prepared statement which he read to the House earlier in the day. He claimed he had been misquoted.
What he said he said was this: “Blacks who want to join that party want be right”.

Oh.

Like right as opposed to left on the political spectrum, I was wondering? Well, actually, no, according to Minister Butler, what he meant was right in the context of the constant criticism he and his colleagues take to the effect that they are “learning on the job”, and that they are “incompetent, incapable and inadequate”.

So, the Minister explained in his statement: “I went on to comment that because of the constant labeling of our Party this way, who would want to join something that was so wrong”.

Oh.

Now this was a statement, mind you, about an interview that appeared in The Gazette on the Tuesday, Mr. Editor, and, as you know, members of the House cannot ask questions, much less interrogate a Minister on its contents, unless they take the matter up on the motion to adjourn.
But we were wondering what had happened to the retraction and the apology for what Mr. Butler declared “a gross misrepresentation of the truth”.

We had not seen or heard of one – and that of course was because there wasn’t one - and ike you, Mr. Editor, we learned the next day, in reading The Gazette, that the reporter was standing by what she reported the Minister as having said.

Oh.

Right then: whose write and whose wrong? Inquiring minds want to know … but we’ll have to figure it out for ourselves, I guess.

All in the timing

WE don’t just mark time in the House on the Hill, Mr. Editor, for the sake of it. But I’m sure to the outsider it looks that way from time to time. We had three relatively straightforward Bills before us in the morning before we got to Renee’s Bill after lunch. It was a wonder really that they took as much time as they did.

One was the amendment needed to bring us in line with the new daylight saving period which has been adopted by the United States, the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November. The Premier explained that just about everyone was agreed on this, including the Opposition. Nevertheless we got a short history on the origins of the practice here and abroad. On the other hand, Opposition Leader Wayne Furbert was inclined to be brief (and pun-ishing) in his response: “It’s a timely motion, Mr. Speaker, but let’s not waste any more time and get on with it. We support it”.

We then had amendments to the 1951 Public Transportation Board Act and an even more dated piece, the Partnership Act of 1902. The former actually abolishes the Board as a separate statutory entity; it now becomes a Department within the Ministry of Transport.

On the other hand, the latter is going to give partnerships the option to assume the status of legal persons by registration.

Transport Minister Dr. Brown told us that the PTB move was to enhance accountability and extend the benefits of being public service officers to all PTB employees. It’s an end to a quango that we didn’t know was a problem.

The partnership amendment was one of the recommendations that comes up from those in the industry, and was needed to keep Bermuda competitive with other international business jurisdictions. But we also heard this recommendation dates back three years – which makes you wonder, Mr. Editor, just how competitive can Bermuda be if it takes this long for the legislative machine to produce.

The case for reform continues.

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