We need to repair, not to despair

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  • <B>All together:</B> The Joint Education Committee meets in the Senate Chamber in this file photo. Former One Bermuda Alliance Leader John Barritt says parliamentary committees bring MPs together, and he also believes the round table in the Senate makes for less confrontational debates.

    All together: The Joint Education Committee meets in the Senate Chamber in this file photo. Former One Bermuda Alliance Leader John Barritt says parliamentary committees bring MPs together, and he also believes the round table in the Senate makes for less confrontational debates.


This is an abridged version of a speech recently delivered by former One Bermuda Alliance Leader and long-standing MP John Barritt at the Annual Bishop’s Luncheon

One of my favourite sayings, a West Indian proverb, tells us that the leaky roof may fool the sun but it won’t stop the rain.

When times are not so good, we often hear trotted out this phrase: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Trite, but true. But I seriously question whether this is the sort of response we need or what we are looking for in the face of so many of the challenges we face in Bermuda today: whether they be economic, societal or political.

People are not searching for messages of despair, although they may well feel that way from time to time. Neither will they accept, I think, any more vacuous messages of hope. They are looking for a message of repair, and a realistic prospect of repair at that.

So how do we get there? Repair not despair: that’s my focus today.

The title of a recent best-seller intrigued me, although not enough to make me buy it: “Does The Noise Inside My Head Bother You?” It is an autobiography written by Steven Tyler of the rock band Aerosmith, more recently of American Idol fame as a judge.

No, it is not the noise inside your head that bothers me, Mr Tyler, or anyone else’s for that matter. What bothers us most these days is the noise that comes at us from outside our heads. Whether it is on the TV, on the radio, in the newspapers, or on the internet.

A lot of noise actually. Plenty of sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, if you’ll allow me. While technology has given us so many vehicles to give voice to all matter of opinion, the challenge is learning to differentiate between fact and opinion masquerading as fact. Add as well to the mix, the downright personal attacks which sadly so often seem to feature as a part of disputes and disagreements, but try to pass for debate where there are differences of thought. Much of it on the blogs, so often penned as they are behind pseudonyms or, perhaps more appropriately, noms de guerre.

I am reminded that this is free speech — or the price of freedom of speech and thought. But I have to wonder when anonymity is used to launch nasty, vituperative attacks that are often personal and political, and which seem to feature in one form or another just about any and every offensive “-ism” there is, including but not limited to Bermuda’s most popular trump card racism.

Ever stop to think about why some people feel compelled to speak and write this way? One can often feel the anger, sense the hatred even. Speaking for myself, and myself only, I often detect they are part of a wider campaign, whether orchestrated or not, doesn’t matter, which is to discredit at any cost.

What is the greater goal at play here?

Control and power — which frankly is what politics comes down to.

Power corrupts, Lord Acton once famously said, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And please do not misconstrue what I am saying or trying to say here. I make no indictment of any one particular political party. The truth of Lord Acton’s assessment is well known to those who are students of history. It is an age old story. I have experienced and seen it myself over my 20 years in active politics in Bermuda. It is, shall we say, an affliction that seems to come with the job where men and women start out often with the best of intentions.

Expectations and the demands are high too. What is it Bob Stanfield, the unsuccessful but quite capable leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, said? If the press ever caught him walking on water he knew what the headline the next day would read: Stanfield Can’t Swim.

These afflictions, these constraints, know no bounds. Neither do they know nor do they respect colour, class, gender, religion or political affiliation.

I return then to the new social media, those lightning fast creatures of communication which technology has brought us, like instant texting for example, and twittering, and tweaking, which by their nature and not just by content, seduces us to focus on the headlines, the quick replies and the retorts; and so it is with our politics too. We seem to dwell more on the he-said, he-hits-back tiffs or the “Yes you are”-“No I’m not,” arguments and good old fights between personalities in between elections, invariably ramped up the closer we get to polling day.

But the truth is that the real world, the one in which Bermuda struggles to compete and with which we have to do business to survive, is shaped by deeper structural forces, such as resources, technologies, demographics and economic growth rates.

To ignore them is to do so at our peril.

I have serious doubts that the way in which we organise our government (small “g” government by the way, which encompasses our Legislature) is serving us well or, rather, as well as it could, as we try to meet those real world challenges which lap up and over our shores.

Carl Jung once said that the meeting of two personalities can be explained as being similar to the contact of two chemical substances, and if there is any reaction, both are transformed. Can we honestly say that about the interaction of political parties in Bermuda? Oh sure there is interaction, but is it the sort of transformation that benefits Bermuda?

Arguably, instead, the problems of Bermuda are not being solved at the political level but rather being played out at that level — exploited even, some might say.

We may claim to be another world, but we are not unique in this. We see too, what goes on States-side, in Canada and in England or Europe. We see problems, we see divisions that become bigger problems; divisions that can and do stymie progress on so many fronts and in so many critical areas.

We need to change the culture that makes this result not only possible but likely.

What we inherited here in Bermuda is a system of government, a style of government if you will, that has its roots in what was a deeply-divided society, a segregated society that was built on not just the assumption but the belief that one race was superior to another, and certainly that all others were inferior; and if that wasn’t enough, we emerged only in the late decades of the last century from a colonial society that was decidedly divided by class as well. Whatever you may think of the way it was, this approach has no place in the modern world today. It is no model for approaching human relations, period.

Government then was predicated on division — a division that was almost certainly guaranteed to develop antagonism, hostility and even hatred between people who otherwise had more in common on this small isle than they had differences.

It is a legacy we need turn around. We can start to do it on the political stage in some little but critical ways — and never underestimate the significance of addressing the little things. I personally am a firm believer that when you correct the little things, confidence builds, and it becomes a little easier to tackle the big ones.

Let me share with you three little things, examples of what I am advocating:

1. Ever been to the Senate, the upper chamber down the hill and compared it with the lower house, the chamber up the hill? Compared the debates? The tone? The tenor? Compare too, how members are around the table in the Senate but across the floor in the House? There is a lot to be said for tackling problem around a table.

2. There needs too to be a sharing of “power” to the extent that elected Members of Parliament, and those appointed, can participate in more meaningful ways in the gathering of information and the development of policy. This can be achieved through the establishment of a fully-functioning committee system where members from all sides get to roll up their sleeves and participate side by side. We have had flashes of how well this could work: Boundaries Commission, Joint Select Committee on Crime and the Public Accounts Committee, which operates as the watchdog of the public purse.

3. And finally technology itself, which rather than just exacerbating division, can be exploited to allow for the posting of parliamentary bills, including drafts, reports, findings, speeches to allow the public to view and comment at their leisure and to communicate directly with their representatives.

There are other reforms too, that can be introduced whether by way of amendment to legislation or by practice, which will mandate inclusion rather than exclusion if you happen to be on the other side, ie the outside. I have a list, neither exhaustive nor exclusive, the purpose of which is to bring about greater opportunities for collaboration to the extent that collaboration becomes the new norm and is neither seen or understood to be capitulation.

It’s not a question of doing away with our form of democracy and the Westminster system. I would use Churchill’s famous line: “It may not be the best, but it is better than all the rest.”

But there is no reason to my mind, no good reason at all, as to why we cannot improve what we have inherited. Indeed it can fairly be said that this is our duty as trustees for the generations to follow. We need to move away from the model that promotes the mindset, once in power, of settling old scores or fighting old battles. Bermuda is too small for this, our resources too limited and our challenges too big.

That is not to say that there will not be disagreement. There should be. There always will be. That’s healthy. Because, to use one of my other very favourite proverbs, from Africa: Whether the elephants make war or they make love, the grass always suffers. We the people are the grass.

We need to modify our legislative means of government to encourage disagreement without being disagreeable. To set the example.

Change is possible — and ultimately it comes down to not just to the system of government you have, but the people who decide who runs what. We are all today men and women of free will. What will always be needed are men and women of goodwill, men and women of goodwill who also have the will to make the necessary changes.

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Published Jul 5, 2012 at 8:01 am (Updated Jul 5, 2012 at 8:00 am)

We need to repair, not to despair

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