Increasingly irresponsible government

The joke is, Mr Editor, that we obtained responsible government almost 50 years ago with passage of the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968 and that it has grown increasingly irresponsible ever since. You think I jest. I don’t.

It depends on how you think government should work. But let’s get one thing straight right from the start. I am not going after the UBP or the PLP or the OBA. Rather this is a critique of how our government has evolved under all three parties whether in Government or Opposition and, if blame is your game, there’s enough to go around for everyone.

First, here’s what got me to thinking along these lines — no, not Terry Lister’s “retirement” and his reasons for doing so, although there is that — but a book entitled Irresponsible Government penned by a Canadian MP, Brent Rathgeber, who quit the ruling Conservatives to sit as an independent on account of his opposition to his Government’s lack of transparency and accountability, notwithstanding their promises and assertions to the contrary.

The Canadian MP also happens to be a lawyer. Any similarities do not end there. He, too, believes that we have lost the plot when it comes to how our legislatures ought to work. He, too, believes in the need for electoral reform, including the introduction of a right of recall.

But for this column, let’s focus on the legislature. It’s a nice follow-on from last week’s column and the thoughtful comments that followed online.

Our Legislature is the supreme body by which laws are made and peace and good order is to be maintained. There’s a reason why its establishment appears first in the 1968 Constitution Order. It is the elected body from which power flows and to which power must account. The country’s leader, the Premier, is selected only on the basis that he or she is the person who can command the support of a majority of members. The leader gets to choose the Cabinet, the great majority of whom (all but two from a maximum of 14) must come from the elected assembly, to whom in return they all must account. Incidentally there’s no mention or recognition in the Constitution Order of political parties and the role they are supposed to play.

Point number one: the elected assembly, in our case the House on the Hill, is meant to serve as watchdog on the Government of the day. More precisely, those members who are not chosen to sit in Cabinet, the backbench, both from Government and the Opposition, are supposed to fulfil this role by keeping a close eye on the work of the Executive.

Point number two: this is definitely not what happens in practice. This is particularly true or more especially true when it comes to protecting the public purse. I give you three examples: * The annual Budget Debate which is meant to constitute actual scrutiny of the estimates, line by line, on what Government intends to raise by way of revenue and how the money will be spent. It has degenerated over the years into anything but the sort of detailed and close examination that is required, with very little follow-up from year to year.

* Construction of the new acute care wing and the cost of healthcare in Bermuda today and going forward: this too, merits close and ongoing examination.

* Bermuda Tourism Authority: Touted as the vehicle which will help rescue a diminished pillar of the economy which by virtue of the way in which it was constructed should be subject to parliamentary and public scrutiny. How else are taxpayers to determine if we are getting value for our money?

You thought I was going to mention PAC again, aka the Public Accounts Committee? Well, I have: but it is only one legislative vehicle through which some of this work is meant to be done and its track record to date has not been good. Neither is it satisfactory to always leave it to the Auditor General. Her office’s work is invariably done after the fact when cash cows have long since left the stable and/or the stable is no more.

They should be catching the misspends, the overspends and the waste as they occur.

What it does mean is more roll up your sleeves work for our legislators. Service on the Hill is not always about attack, attack, attack. It should be more like probe, probe, probe whether that be by committee work or questions (and, yes, answers) in the House, and motions with sanctions where necessary, calling government to account. MPs will still get to score points but point scoring that may help us achieve a government that is truly accountable and transparent.

To those who wondered after last week’s column: no, we don’t have to immediately scrap the Westminster system and look for an alternative. We can first modify what we have and better utilise what’s available.

There’s one other point on which the Canadian MP I also agree: convincing voters that this is important stuff is no easy task. While how we govern ourselves is critical, it is not sexy enough to capture interest and captivate, that is unless and until its importance can be demonstrated in some tangible way. But I am optimistic. I think we are getting there. With our large public debt, sluggish economy, and shrill debates on and off the Hill, which are anything but debates, I find more and more people are catching on to the need to keep a closer eye on government whether spending money or slashing to save.

This may yet turn out to be the silver lining to the dark clouds of harder times. We depend on a more active backbench to take up the cause.

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Published Oct 3, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 2, 2014 at 11:28 pm)

Increasingly irresponsible government

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