Abuse of power: the PLP is treading dangerously

  • The path less travelled: when David Burt took the decision to exclude the Governor and the Opposition from the traditional process of announcing the Government’s plans for the next parliamentary year, and any form of debate on those plans, it set a dangerous precedent (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

    The path less travelled: when David Burt took the decision to exclude the Governor and the Opposition from the traditional process of announcing the Government’s plans for the next parliamentary year, and any form of debate on those plans, it set a dangerous precedent (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

The One Bermuda Alliance was right to object to the Progressive Labour Party government’s publication and mail-out of a two-year report on its progress since it was elected.

There are times when the line between what constitutes government business and what constitutes party business is blurred. This is not one of them.

Quite simply, a document trumpeting what the PLP has achieved since coming to power is wholly political and aimed only at telling voters how much progress the party has made and, by inference, why voters should give it a further mandate.

This is particularly concerning when there is, in effect, no right of reply and, in this context, it should be remembered that the Premier, David Burt, cancelled the Throne Speech and the ensuing debate on it.

There would have been nothing wrong with the Government using taxpayer money to report on its progress in the Throne Speech, and then proceeding to participate in the House of Assembly debate on the same document. But by first dispensing with the Throne Speech debate and then publishing a document trumpeting what the Government has done to meet the promises of its 2017 platform, the PLP has taken taxpayer money and used it to further its political ends without fear of contradiction or scrutiny.

There has been some attempt to excuse this by noting that the cost of the document, in the overall scheme of things, was not that high — at $5,719 or, as the government press release helpfully stated, only 19 cents per household.

It does not matter if the document cost $5,000 or $50,000. It should not have been paid for by the taxpayer.

What makes this more remarkable is that just before the document being mailed out, Mr Burt justified the Throne Speech cancellation at least in part on the basis of cost — supposedly about $10,000. This is a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, or political spinners being caught in their own webs. You cannot congratulate yourself on the one hand for saving the taxpayer $10,000 — or roughly 40 cents per household — by cancelling the Throne Speech and then argue that the cost of the document was only half that.

All of this further serves to create the impression that in Bermuda, government and party are indissoluble.

It may be that having been the Government for 16 of the past 21 years, the PLP’s leaders have come to see the two as being the same, or simply assume that the PLP is the natural party of government. Thus Mr Burt uses the PLP annual delegates conference to lay out his government’s vision for the next year in the full knowledge that he will receive a warm welcome and need not fear contradiction, while at the same time using public money to release a retrospective document on his party’s performance.

But this is not how democracy works. Voters consent to being governed by one group of individuals or another by exercising their vote, and they reserve the right to vote entirely differently on the next occasion.

It is true that incumbent parties have a good many tools at their disposal to help them towards re-election. The sudden occurrences of roadworks and improvements in marginal constituencies is one classic example that has been used by all governing parties in Bermuda. And the soft and hard power of an officeholder can also be an effective tool.

But it is by no means an infallible one and abuse of office, as in this case, carries its own risks. Voters eventually come to dislike these kinds of abuses, and politicians must always beware that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. You need look no farther than the example of how the same Republican politicians who pursued the impeachment of Bill Clinton with such vigour are now forcefully protesting against the impeachment of Donald Trump to see how that works in real life. What goes around does indeed come around.

The OBA is also right to condemn the timing of this document, which has been released just weeks before the Pembroke Central by-election when voters will be indeed measuring progress. How useful for the PLP that they now have a document, paid for by themselves, to review, and no equivalent means of seeing or hearing an alternative view.

It may also be that these events do not seem to be of great importance. After all, the amounts of money concerned are relatively small, and in Bermuda there is always an opportunity to badger a politician in the grocery store or on the street corner.

But as this newspaper noted when discussing the Throne Speech previously, democracy is not swept away overnight. It is gradually eroded like a limestone cliff being battered one wave at a time. All seems well until, one day, the cliff is hollowed out and collapses. Equally, the publication of one document may not seem that significant. But now the precedent has been set. Next year, or before the next by-election or election, a bigger and better document will be released, and when that is questioned, the response will be “but this is not the first time”.

Democracy depends on rules and laws, but rules and laws alone cannot guarantee democracy. That structure of laws is held up and held together by norms and mores, written and unwritten, which protect our basic freedoms. Certainly, those norms change as the times do. But they should do so on the basis of consensus and with care that they are not harming the fundamental basis of democracy.

The Progressive Labour Party is treading on dangerous ground.

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Published Nov 15, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 15, 2019 at 8:13 am)

Abuse of power: the PLP is treading dangerously

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