The Government’s decision not to hold an Opening of Parliament ceremony is a dangerous sign of how lightly the present administration regards the customs and mores that underpin Bermuda’s democracy.
There is no legal requirement to hold a formal Opening of Parliament, or for the Governor as the representative of the Queen, Bermuda’s Head of State, to read the Speech from the Throne.
Nor is there any legal requirement for the House of Assembly to debate the speech after it is delivered.
And there are some who argue that the speech and ceremony are colonial relics that have no place in modern Bermuda. This, of course, is especially so for members of the Progressive Labour Party government who wish to take Bermuda to independence.
The traditions of the Throne Speech that Bermuda has taken on as its own from the same ceremony in the British Parliament symbolise important separations of power in Bermuda, and their annual restatement is important.
Thus, Black Rod, a representative of the Head of State, walks from the Senate to the House of Assembly and must ask for permission to enter — neither the Queen, the Governor nor any of their representatives may enter the house of the elected representatives of the people without permission. This demonstrates the independence of the elected members of the House of Assembly.
The ceremony itself is attended by the three separate arms of Bermuda’s democratic government: the Governor as the representative of the executive power embodied in the Head of State who appoints the Premier who manages the executive; the two legislative bodies — the elected House of Assembly and the appointed Senate; and the third arm of government, the independent judges who interpret and enforce the laws the legislature creates and the executive applies. This is the only regular occasion on which the three arms of government formally come together, and the rarity of the event reinforces their separation.
The speech itself is written by the Government, and only read by the Governor, apart from a few personal comments at the end. The speech itself is designed to describe and explain the Government’s programme for the year, including what legislation is likely to come forward.
A week later a debate is held on the Speech in both the House of Assembly and in the Senate where legislators defend, dissect and explain the programme, and in the case of the Opposition, criticise and lay out their alternative vision and programme for Bermuda.
Thus once a year, the Government has the opportunity to take stock of its progress and to explain its plans for the year, while the Opposition and independents have the chance to hold the Government to account.
Moreover, these symbols and traditions reinforce Bermuda’s democracy and remind our leaders and community of the principles on which it stands. Like waves striking a limestone cliff, the erosion of these symbols and traditions may be barely noticeable at first, but eventually, the centre is hollowed out and collapses.
Aside from questions of whether the Throne Speech and its debate are outdated, David Burt justified the cancellation on two fronts: first, parliamentarians were too busy with other legislation, having been recalled in September for emergency legislation — the main emergency Bill on immigration being so urgent it has not yet been tabled — and, secondly, that in Bermuda’s straitened circumstances, the $10,000 cost of the ceremony was unaffordable.
While right-minded people applaud any and all efforts to reduce the cost of government, this latter claim is so open to ridicule given some of the Government’s other spending that there is no real value in answering it.
However, there is in fact no real need for the degree of pomp and circumstance that has grown around the ceremony. Before the PLP’s first election in 1998, the ceremony, while essentially the same in terms of its schedule, was more low-key. There is no reason why a scaled-down ceremony should not take place if budget constraints are a real concern — the speech itself is the important thing.
Minister without Portfolio Jamahl Simmons, who does not seem to have a great many public duties beyond defending the Government in squabbles such as this, has since tried to justify the decision further.
First, Mr Simmons claimed that there was no need for a Throne Speech since the public already knew what the Government was doing since it was in the party’s 2017 election platform.
This is nonsense. Two years have passed since the PLP won its mandate and there have been numerous events since then that have occupied the Government’s time and energy — the Caroline Bay debacle springs readily to mind.
Even if a government’s only job was to tick boxes on its manifesto in a world frozen in time on July 18, 2017, a party platform is only a guide to policy — much of the detail is missing.
For example, the PLP said it would replace middle schools with specialist “signature schools”, and has since started on the biggest and most complex restructuring of the education system in 20 years. The idea that parents and teachers should be satisfied with that description and that this is not considered to be a topic for debate in a Throne Speech is an insult.
Equally, the health ministry has embarked on a controversial reform of healthcare financing as part of a 2017 promise to reduce healthcare costs. In the same platform, one of the ways the PLP said it would do this was “through greater competition in the local insurance market”.
Yet this is the opposite of what the Government is now proposing to do — it is now saying there will be only one insurance provider, so that instead of increasing competition, there will be none. This about-turn needs to be explained. The place to do that is in the Throne Speech debate.
Mr Simmons, having said there was no need to tell people what the Government was doing in the next year, then reversed himself and said that if people wanted to hear about its plans, they could attend the opening of the PLP annual conference, which took place last night.
Making the PLP’s conference the equivalent of the House of Assembly makes you wonder if Mr Simmons truly believes that Bermuda is a one-party state. To be sure, the general feebleness of the One Bermuda Alliance as the Opposition may give Mr Simmons and his colleagues the sense that this is the case, but this so undermines the principles of Bermuda’s parliamentary democracy that apparently the democracy no longer exists.
But the reason this should not stand is this: in 1937, in a similar context, the American writer E.B. White said this of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “We decline to follow a leader, however high-minded, who proposes to take charge of affairs because he thinks he knows all the answers.”
Mr White was generally supportive of Roosevelt, but in this case opposed his effort to replace Supreme Court judges with ones who would be more supportive of his programme, thus undermining judicial independence.
The Progressive Labour Party has no more of a monopoly on the answers than President Roosevelt did, regardless of the latter’s singular place in history. Nor does it have the right to abrogate for itself the institution and traditions of Parliament.
Mr Burt and his colleagues no doubt believe that the actions they take are in the best interests of the island and in 2017 the electorate gave them the mandate to carry out their programme. But that does not mean that they are unaccountable and need not answer to anyone. In particular, a party that helped to drive Bermuda to the democracy it enjoys and treasures today should not be — cannot be — the party that dismantles those same institutions.
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