A comedy of errors? More like a farce

Mid Ocean News (07 July 2006)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

UNFORTUNATELY, Mr. Editor, there is nothing like getting the day off to a bad start. It does little for the disposition and there’s every chance it will influence (badly) the rest of the day’s events - and that, sir, is exactly what happened last week in the House on the Hill.

Telecommunications Minister Michael Scott was leading the debate for Government on amendments to the Criminal Code – stiffer penalties for sexual assaults and other related offences. He wasn’t just standing in for the Attorney General and Minister of Justice (who sits in the other place, down the Hill). We were told that he was, in fact, the Acting Minister because Senator Mussenden was abroad.

But that’s not why the trouble began.

It started shortly after Minister Scott began reading from his prepared Brief when he told us Government intended to make further amendments to the amendments. He said that the changes were as a result of representations from the Judiciary with whom, we presume, they consulted after drafting and after tabling the legislation in the House.

The purpose of the original amendments were to increase the maximum sentences judges and magistrates can hand out. However, it was apparently the considered view of the Bermuda bench – after they were asked - that magistrates should not have the power to sentence offenders to any longer than five years imprisonment. So initial attempts to give them sentencing power of up to ten years were to be scrapped. Government also intended to add a couple of new offences which had apparently been overlooked the first time around; two offences were to be dropped from the initial list as well, as we later found out.

I have said it before, Mr Editor: It’s not brain surgery that we are being asked to perform each week on the floor of the House on the Hill, but it would be nice to have better notice of what we are being asked to approve, especially when we were being asked at the last minute to cut and paste legislation.

The first we learned of the amendments to the amendments was halfway through the Minister’s presentation when he directed the Government Whip, Ottiwell Simmons, to share copies of the changes with us. The trouble with that was that were insufficient copies for all of us on the Opposition benches - and no, Mr. Editor, I don’t know what they knew on the PLP side of the aisle or when they knew it if they knew it.

It did not get any better either, Mr. Editor, when the Minister finished reading from his Brief and sat down, he said, to hear the views of other members.

He heard them alright, but it was not what he wanted to hear.
The Opposition had not yet even received their photocopies and when we did – as we were subsequently to learn –we were missing a page.

A comedy of errors?

Farce is more like it.

There we were, Mr. Editor, going back and forth, complaining that this was no way to do the country’s business. I remembered the caution of former colleague and senior politician Jim Woolridge: no bull in a hurry ever made a calf. This is how mistakes get made – and missed. In this case, if there was going to be calf, there was a risk it would be two-headed with two different sets of amendments flying around, one of them icomplete.

Bull-headed is how Government appeared to those of us on the Opposition benches as speaker after speaker on our side exhorted the Minister to do the right thing and rise and report progress to give us time to study the changes and consult; in short, to give us time to do our homework.

Discord set in and bickering broke out and even the Speaker seemed powerless to turn the mood around until Finance Minister Paula Cox had a quiet word with her colleague Mr. Scott (we could not hear what was said), before moving that we go to lunch a half hour earlier than usual, presumably to see if we could sort things out, outside the Chamber and off the air.

“There seems to be some unreadiness and disconnect”, Ms. Cox told the Speaker in moving the early adjournment. It was the understatement of the day as it turned out.

One apology, one meeting, and one explanation later, Mr. Editor, we were able to resume debate after lunch. We were back on track. UBP members Suzann Roberts-Holshouser and Louise Jackson were able to make their points for the Opposition. There were chiefly three:

* First, the legislation should be gender neutral and provide equal protection for boys as well as girls when it comes to sexual offences. Cabinet Minister Wayne Perinchief had remarked on the unique offence of intruding on the privacy of females – but not males. “We used to call them peeping Toms”, said the ex-cop of a time when he walked the beat, “when webbing was a national past-time before we had TV”;

* Secondly, the infrastructure which provides support and assistance to victims also needs to be improved. Far too many cases go unreported and far too few convictions are secured in those cases which are reported ; and

* Thirdly, if Government is truly serious about cracking down on sexual offenders then they ought to be looking at introducing minimum sentences of imprisonment – like they did with bladed weapons (otherwise more commonly known to most of us as machetes and knifes).

Government Whip Mr. Simmons didn’t think increased punishment was the answer, but he didn’t say what was, exactly. He turned instead to clichés to give us one of the more entertaining moments in an otherwise serious debate.

“I am one of those who believes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, the PLP backbencher told us.

“I am, you might say, a cautious man, Mr. Speaker”, he continued, “who believes that you should look before you leap or that you should think before you speak …so to speak”.

Speechless – that’s what the rest of us, were.

Incidentally, and just to be clear, Mr. Editor, notwithstanding his reservations, Mr. Simmons voted for the amendments. “They are just not the total answer”, he clarified.

Limping up Hill

THAT, Mr. Editor, was all we had for the day, by way of legislation – and sadly we in the Opposition helped Government make a meal of it but through no fault of our own.

It’s the second consecutive meeting in which we have only met to tackle one Bill and the pace doesn’t look it will improve any, any time soon. Only two more pieces of legislation were tabled, both of them of the major sort that tend to end up as part of a dialogue between the Finance Minister and her Shadow. They are: -

Insurance Amendment Act 2006: Some 26 pages, the main purpose of which, according to the attached Explanatory Memorandum, “is to enhance the regulatory framework for the supervision of persons engaged in the insurance industry as insurers, insurance manager and intermediaries. The bill also clarifies the role of the Authority and makes provision for appeal tribunals”.

Bermuda Monetary Authority Amendment Act 2006: Not quite so long at nine pages and, according to its Preamble, the objectives of which will include provision “to extend immunity from suit to reporting auditors and accountants; to make new provision for executive members; to make provision for the regulation of money service businesses; [and] to make provision for a fee in respect of exempted collective investment schemes and money service businesses”.

Somehow, Mr. Editor, I don’t expect that these Acts will generate quite the same interest – and debate – as stiffer sentences for sexual offenders. But there again, looking at the Order Paper (see insert) it may be all we have to talk about if we continue to limp along until the summer recess.

Going down Hill

WHATEVER we are doing in the House on the Hill, Mr. Editor, it doesn’t seem half as exciting as what they’re doing in the Chamber down the Hill. Or may not be doing with those salary increases which we know the Government wants. But what we don’t know is what Government wants the Senate President to decide and on which the President has sought legal advice. On the other hand what we do know is that there was a meeting between the President and the Attorney General, and a letter, and an opinion, the contents of which to the time of writing seem to be some sort of a state – or is it Senate? – secret.

Speculation - which fills the vacuum in the absence of Government’s transparency i.e. an explanation of what they are trying to do and why – has it that the PLP Cabinet wants the salary increases treated as a money bill and thus unable to be rejected by the Senate.

This makes for good argument – if the Senate ever gets to argue the case.

The increases came to the Senate – as they have always done – by way of a resolution. The resolution is required by the 1975 Ministers and Members of the Legislature (Salaries and Pensions) Act - and incidentally the actual provision calling for approval by resolution of both the House and the Senate was first introduced in 1979 when the Senate was still called the Legislative Council.

The records show that the PLP have followed the practice each year since they have been in power and sought and obtained the approval of the Senate – after the increases were first approved by the House. The Senate did not initiate this process. It was brought to the Senate by the Government pursuant to validly enacted legislation – and it came as a resolution and not as a motion and not as a bill.

Incidentally, the Bermuda Constitution Order sets out quite clearly what constitutes a “money bill” as well as the restrictions that apply when the Senate considers a money bill which is “sent from the House of Assembly”.

But the same Constitution Order also provides as to who is to determine what is or is not a money bill – and that is the Speaker of the House of Assembly. If the Speaker determines that something is a money bill he is required to attach a certificate to that effect, and, according to the Constitution Order, where a certificate has been issued any such certificate “shall be conclusive for all purposes and shall not be questioned in any court”.

I understand that the Speaker attached no such certificate to the salaries resolution. He didn’t think it was a money bill, presumably.

The plot, Mr. Editor, thickens.

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