Govt. must admit its term limit policy is a mistake

The Royal Gazette
Opinion (29 Nov. 2006)

Here’s a topical piece of trivia for you: What’s the difference between one non-Bermudian or two non-Bermudians filling a job over 12 years? Answer: A few votes.

There’s little else that can be read into the PLP Government’s stubborn persistence in pursuing the dangerously counter-productive work permit term limits policy; a policy that is a month away from triggering a mass exodus of non-Bermudian workers who will be replaced by…a mass influx of non-Bermudian workers.

That’s very sensible public policy indeed.

The only beneficiaries of this revolving door of non-Bermudians might be the moving companies, the airlines, and Premier Brown, who will classify a few more air arrivals as tourists.

It’s time for Cabinet to make a long overdue announcement. It’s time to admit the obvious: the work permit term limits policy was a 2003 election stunt that has run awry and can now be shelved. Except of course that we’re almost certainly facing a spring election, meaning we’re in a period when reality is irrelevant and the Government will act irrationally.

The refusal to change course on term limits is our equivalent of George Bush’s refusal to admit that his Iraq policy was failing, because that would amount to a pre-election admission that it’s failing…even though everyone knew it was failing.

Election or no election, the time has come for the Premier to announce that the policy was a mistake, that term limits won’t work, that they were never going to work and that sending experienced professionals to mentor young Dubliners or Cayman Islanders instead of Bermudians is economic suicide.

The policy itself admits that. Shortly after the 2003 election was resolved, the PLP Government announced that the ‘key employees’ of ‘good corporate citizens’ would be excluded; an admission that the policy was counterproductive, ill-advised and a cynical attempt to grab a few votes.

The irony of this policy is that it isn’t the non-Bermudians who we should subject to term limits; it’s the politicians who are implementing them who should be. Bermuda is led – in the loose sense of the word ‘led’ – by a collection of politicians well past their ‘sell by’ date; 1960’s thinking in the 21st century isn’t serving us well.

Not once in the past few years has the Government articulated what this policy will achieve, or has achieved, other than a sound bite or two that the PLP is the party of Bermudianisation; the facts notwithstanding.

The facts are that the eight year tenure of the PLP has been characterised by a reduction in the number of jobs held by Bermudians and a corresponding increase in the number of jobs for non-Bermudians. Those are the facts.

Inconvenient I know. But true.

The ratio of Bermudian to non-Bermudian jobs has worsened during the PLP’s tenure; the realization of which no doubt triggered the term limit window dressing to desperately shore up support.

In the past week we’ve heard the PLP Government espouse two disturbing positions: foreigners bad (term limits), foreign money good (Premier’s Gala Weekend); two myopic stances which are damaging both our economy and our reputation.

Let’s get real. Can we really call ourselves the friendliest place in the world when we greet our tourists and foreign workers with: “Welcome to Bermuda, when are you leaving?”

This pervasive attitude feeds into one of the most common of the many complaints we level at non-Bermudians: they’re insular; they don’t truly immerse themselves in our culture; they just come to work, work, work.

What do we expect? What would you do if you were told that you can’t stay here for more than 6 years – whether a local successor exists or not – because your presence is both the cause and solution of our problems. The Government has even gone so far as to blame the rush-hour traffic problem on non-Bermudians, with our at least two-car-Premier suggesting that foreign workers shouldn’t own one.

This hostile environment exacerbates ‘expatness’; a phenomenon where the more we demonize and scapegoat foreign workers the more they withdraw from the greater Bermudian community and maximize the economic benefit of their legislated short stay in Bermuda.

Term limits are bad. They fail to increase opportunity for Bermudians, but do increase the cost and operating burden on our businesses, which will look for more welcoming homes.

There’s no two ways about it. Government must step back and admit that it was a mistake.

This is absolutely critical to ensure the continued success of Bermuda’s prosperous but tenuous economy; the continued professional and technical education and training of Bermudians; and to prevent our Government from redirecting some of the most talented individuals in their fields to other jurisdictions, where they’ll ply their trade, share their knowledge and threaten Bermuda’s dominance in insurance and reinsurance.

Economic complacency isn’t unprecedented in Bermuda; we went through this twenty years ago and never recovered. Back then it was tourism’s success which we took for granted; now it’s international business.

Let’s not repeat history.

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