I was having a conversation today with someone in the UBP where I raised an issue which got some attention on the Let's Talk Bermuda show on ZBM Channel 9 this evening (which again suffers from BBC's awful production values - muted audio levels, terrible picture quality to name the obvious), and is my primary critique of the UBP and BDA separately, and combined, by some of those involved.
Specifically it's the recurring phrase of late justifying a merger 'that Bermuda needs a strong opposition'.
Talk about setting the bar low. This sentiment lacks ambition. It is such a defeatist sentiment that it should never be uttered by anyone in Opposition, let alone those in leadership positions.
Bermuda does not need a strong Opposition, it needs an alternative Government. The goal of a merger, which is inevitable now that both sides - but in particular the BDA - have finally acknowledged that talks have been ongoing for some time now, is not to create a strong Opposition, it is to create a credible and viable group which can attract real support at the next election and articulates an ambitious vision for renewal.
It's ok to acknowledge the challenge of achieving this, but the individuals and organisation must have their eye on the real goal. Voters don't want to vote for an Opposition, they want to check next to a future Government.
This was one of the two fundamental missteps of the BDA launch and first year. Firstly they launched without anyone from the PLP, which gave a first impression of simply a UBP splinter group (which it turned out to be). Secondly, it quickly became apparent that they were fixated on the UBP as their primary opponent, not the governing party. It's difficult to energise people to work for second place.
If this lack of ambition persists into the launch of whatever the merged entity is they might as well not merge.
You saw this sentiment again today with UBP Chairperson Jeanne Atherdon implying that the merger talks should take a back seat to the Budget Reply:
"I think everybody is mindful of the fact that Bermuda needs to have one Opposition party," she said yesterday. "A divided Opposition is not as effective."
Sen Atherden said that while many in the public may be focused on the possible merger, the UBP still had to focus on the Budget, which will be delivered on February 11.
The 'strong Opposition' line is one the PLP use a lot, but it's not a compliment and not genuine in my view. It's condescending, with the underlying message that the UBP/BDA should be content as Opposition because that's their default/natural role, and the PLP has some sort of moral and perpetual claim to govern, and that their 3 decades in Opposition were an anomaly. The flip side is that it suggests the PLP see it as the Opposition's role to check them, not their own members role to check themselves when they overstep - their backbench is too weak.
Sen. Atherden's comment also highlights another criticism I've had of the UBP; they place too much emphasis on the day to day legislative tasks and too little on the bigger picture of positioning themselves to win. This isn't just incessant shallow campaigning, but keeping to your broad themes and reinforcing them in your actions and statements.
The UBP downplay the basic activities of an Opposition - which is to reconnect with voters, craft your agenda and sell your vision - and overplay tweaking legislation and making formal replies.
Legislation is not unimportant, particularly with a PLP who cares little for drafting quality legislation, but changing the Government is the best way to have an effect on public policy - particularly in an environment where the PLP essentially dismiss anything they say anyway and have much stronger internal discipline than the UBP.
The UBP, as recently and repeatedly demonstrated by Bob Richards in Finance, value being right over being persuasive. Bob, and his predecessor Shadows in Finance, have been dead on in predicting the consequences of the PLP's financial mismanagement, but he has not been particularly persuasive.
Another final point. While the BDA as a splinter group needed a PLP MP or two to cross over - at launch - to really make the kind of first impression they needed as a 'better way', the reality at this point is that PLP loyalty remains high, and that loyalty is boosted by being the Government.
As the UBP has seen years now of internal discord, so did the PLP as Opposition. It seems unlikely that the PLP will have the kind of public splits that the UBP in the late 90s did if they lacked the principle and convictions to make a strong stand against the misrule of their Premier Brown.
A new party, a merged entity, does not have to have high profile PLP cross-overs to be viable or credible. It would help, but it's not going to happen now with a new personally popular Premier. It's the PLP that has thrown Bermuda into this financial and social mess over the past 12 years, they clearly lack the answers, so why try to recruit over there? The PLP benches don't have any real talent that stands out. Paula Cox's decision that she didn't have anyone capable of handling the Finance portfolio when she took over as Premier should confirm that.
What I would argue is more important now is for a new entity to be able to activate the sideliners, those educated, skilled and successful Bermudians who have thus far opted out of politics. That is where the Opposition(s) should be looking to bolster their candidate lineup, and it's also up to these side-liners to step up and put themselves forward for public service as the problems facing Bermuda are too significant to be treated as a spectator sport.
That luxury is gone. Bermuda needs pragmatic policies and a new vision. The PLP have not demonstrated any propensity for either and continue to maintain anti-Bermudian policies out of pride and face-saving.