An old soldier’s final campaign
Election postmortems tend to be more Rorschach Test than rigorous analytical exercise: those conducting them usually see what they are predisposed to see, ignore information which does not conform to their pre-existing notions and rely on gut instinct as much as raw data.
This is particularly true when an election result is loud and clear and as unambiguous as a Mack truck, which was certainly the case in Bermuda on July 18.
A hundred different onlookers will have a hundred different interpretations of such a consequential event, one which saw the ruling One Bermuda Alliance ousted from office after a single term and the Progressive Labour Party returned to power riding the crest of a massive wave of popular support.
With the PLP taking fully 60 per cent of the votes cast and two-thirds of the 36 parliamentary seats, the era of Bermuda elections being reasonably close-run things in terms of how the popular vote is distributed between the two major parties came to an abrupt end for the time being.
For this was the kind of lopsided outcome unseen here since the halcyon days of the United Bermuda Party, when that party drew more than 62 per cent of the vote at the 1972 election under then Premier Sir Edward Richards.
So there’s a certain unavoidable irony at work given it has fallen to Sir Edward’s son to provide one of the more perceptive and succinct analyses yet offered of the causes of the 2017 election upheaval.
Former finance minister and Deputy Premier Bob Richards was, of course, the highest profile casualty of the OBA election rout. He lost his Devonshire seat to political giant-killer Christopher Famous in a race some commentators have said perfectly encapsulated the prevailing mood of dissatisfaction with OBA leadership.
Even his harshest critics, Mr Famous among them, rarely questioned either Mr Richards’s economic judgment or his willingness to work diligently to restore fiscal responsibility and accountability to our disorderly public finances (if you need to refresh your memory as to just how disorderly they were when Mr Richards took over the Finance portfolio in 2012 simply skim the Spending and Government Efficiency commission summary of findings).
But, as Mr Richards pointed out this week in a wide-ranging interview with The Royal Gazette, despite the fact restoring financial stability was a key 2012 campaign pledge which had been successfully delivered on both he, on an individual level, and the OBA, collectively, were nevertheless soundly repudiated at the polls.
To him this failure to gain electoral traction even on an issue where the party’s competence went largely unquestioned was symptomatic of a much broader malaise: namely, a gulf between those responsible for crafting public policy and the public mood, a gulf which the OBA repeatedly failed to acknowledge, let alone address.
For Mr Richards the cause of many of the OBA’s subsequent problems in terms of credibility and appeal is easily enough identified, and he believes its consequences proved fatal to its re-election prospects. He dates the origins of an ever-widening schism between the government and the governed to the resignation of former Premier Craig Cannonier.
An appealing if inexperienced political newcomer who led the OBA to its electoral victory in 2012, Mr Cannonier stepped down just 17 months later to spare the OBA further embarrassment as a result of the still-murky Jetgate scandal.
That grubby business, which involved government and party officials jetting off in the private Gulfstream of an American hotel and casino developer who contributed heavily to OBA campaign coffers, was eventually consigned to an unmarked grave like so many other Bermudian political scandals before it.
But before that happened Jetgate had cut short the promising leadership of Mr Cannonier who, Mr Richards broadly hinted, was the scapegoat rather than the major culprit in the affair (“The public doesn’t know what happened. Craig was made to be the fall guy … The resignation of Craig Cannonier, I think, was a very traumatic event for the OBA. Very traumatic. I think it had long-lasting effects)”.
Mr Cannonier’s abrupt departure from office caused considerable distress and fragmentation within the OBA. Not only that it also helped give rise to an increasingly widespread public perception that the old campaigners of the UBP who had joined the Young Turks of the Bermuda Democratic Alliance in 2011 to form the OBA had gained the whip hand within the party. As Mr Richards suggested this week, the recycling of so many familiar UBP faces – including his own – in prominent Cabinet positions and the sidelining of younger talent certainly did very little to burnish the OBA’s bona fides as a new and more forward-looking political movement.
And it was at this point, he believes, the OBA was thrown into the political tailspin it never successfully pulled out of, losing its broader appeal by falling back on some of the same individuals and outdated institutional thinking the new party had been specifically created to supersede.
Unlike those officeholders who come to view their seats as birthrights, Mr Richards is fully aware there is a time to get involved in politics – and a time to bow out gracefully before the electorate takes the decision out of your hands.
He clearly has regrets about contesting what proved to be one election too many — and has not sought false solace in either self-pity or second-guessing the electorate. Rather he’s refreshingly pragmatic about the verdict voters returned and is encouraging some of his former colleagues who were re-elected to the House of Assembly to be mindful of one of the messages the public sent on July 18: namely that it’s time for new blood and new ideas in the OBA.
“It’s time for the old soldiers to shove off,” he said. “I’m one of them. It’s time for new people to replace some of the old soldiers that are left. I think that’s what’s going to have to happen with the OBA, because people just have to accept that you do your bit. The company is not yours. You serve your time and you step aside and other people have to step up and run the show. I know this to be true. I have seen this growing up the son of a politician. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, there comes a time when you have to step aside.”
In many ways Bob Richards’s take on the election amounts to as much a personal Rorschach Test as anyone else’s. But his opinions are informed by the kind of knowledge and first-hand experience few of the rest of us will ever have. So it’s probably reasonable to infer his conclusions owe somewhat more to palpable facts than wild-eyed hypothesising.
And for that reason alone a shattered OBA seriously interested in rebuilding and rebranding itself before the next election could do a lot worse than to listen to him.
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