Debate healthy for democracy

  • For the public benefit: David Burt, the Premier, must not deprive the Opposition of the opportunity to respond to its strategic plan for the island (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

    For the public benefit: David Burt, the Premier, must not deprive the Opposition of the opportunity to respond to its strategic plan for the island (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

The late John Stubbs is best known today for being the name behind the “Stubbs Bill”, which decriminalised anal sex, or sodomy, in Bermuda. But as a parliamentarian of long standing, he was also a great student of politics and political behaviour. One of his favourite pieces of advice was this: “When you are in a hole, stop digging.”

Sadly, this worthy advice is honoured more often in the breach than in the observance, David Burt being the latest in a long line of leaders who have failed to heed it.

Friday’s drama in the House of Assembly brought a bad two weeks to an ignominious end for the Premier, but the worst part for him was how unnecessary it was, and how the controversy over the Throne Speech cancellation distracted from his own message.

In that sense, this has been an act of political self-harm.

There was no greater symbol of that than when the Premier who, along with his spinners, had gone to considerable efforts to argue how the Speech and ceremony were a colonial relic, a waste of money, unnecessary in this day and age, pointless because the Government was already guided by its election manifesto, had to concede that in 2020, he would indeed prorogue, or close, Parliament and hold a Throne Speech to properly mark the 400th anniversary of the Bermuda legislature.

And Mr Burt also unwittingly gave an indication of his own weakness as he attempted to justify why his government had chosen not to prorogue, or end, the 2018-19 parliamentary session at the end of July, as has been traditional.

The reason, Mr Burt said, was because the Government had set an ambitious agenda in 2018 and needed time to complete it, without being restricted by unnecessary and arbitrary traditions.

But Mr Burt was, not for the first time, being slightly economical with the truth when he made this claim. In fact, the House of Assembly was held open to allow time for the passage of one piece of “emergency” legislation — an immigration reform Bill aimed at settling the position of so-called mixed-status families.

This Bill was supposed to be tabled in September, but has not, in fact, made it to Parliament yet. It’s an open secret that the reason for this is not because of opposition from Mr Burt’s usual suspects — the shadowy and unnamed establishment — but because of opposition from within the Progressive Labour Party.

Two other unintended and, for the Premier, undesirable consequences flowed from this unnecessary episode.

The first was that he gave the One Bermuda Alliance a cause to fight for. For once, it could present itself as the doughty underdog fighting the arrogant dictator and could claim to be representing the general public. This was not the image the Premier was trying to present.

Instead, he had been trying to portray the OBA as part of the shadowy coalition of defenders of the status quo.

Second, he managed to alienate the Speaker of the House, who had, perhaps, the best moment in his tenure when he courageously defended his right to manage the affairs of the legislature.

In broad political terms, this was an example of the Speaker defending the legislature against the often overwhelming power of the executive under the Westminster system. But Dennis Lister has shown that he will not be taken for granted, and that is vitally important in defending Bermuda’s democratic principles.

Bermuda, like much of the Western world, has enjoyed and benefited from a liberal democratic system of government for the past 51 years. That system of government is under assault in Bermuda and much of the rest of the Western world from various forces.

In the United States, Trumpism is undermining norms and principles that go back to that republic’s founding. In Britain, populists on the Left and the Right are damaging that ancient democracy’s foundations.

And in Bermuda, the idea has been put forward that because the Progressive Labour Party enjoyed a landslide victory in the 2017 election and has an unassailable majority in the House of Assembly, that it has a mandate to do whatever it wishes until the next General Election is held. But this is not correct.

An election victory gives the Government that ensues a mandate, and the bigger the victory, the stronger the mandate. But it is not an unrestricted licence.

The rules and principles of a liberal democracy should still be followed. Responsible leaders understand this.

The central difference between an electoral democracy and a liberal democracy is this: a liberal democracy is not set up to serve the desires of the majority, but to protect the rights and interests of the minority.

This is true regardless of what kind of minority exists. It may be based on race, religion, gender, wealth or more often the lack thereof, or sexual orientation. Equally, it may be based on an enshrined right. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are examples.

But the point of liberal democracy is this: governments change. When they do, the defeated party has a job to do as a loyal opposition.

Attempts to make that job impossible harm the opposition but also the governing party because leaders who never hear criticism are by definition bad leaders.

Mr Burt and his government have the opportunity still to be a great government, but they will not do so by squashing the opposition or by depriving them of their right to oppose through the kinds of petty manoeuvres seen in the past two weeks.

Indeed, many of Mr Burt’s points in the statement he was, through his own hubris, unable to give in the House of Assembly, are well taken. Bermuda does indeed need to change.

It faces huge and growing economic challenges.

Its public education system, by any objective measure, is failing. Its healthcare system is cracking under the strain.

It continues to suffer from economic inequality, and that inequality is most stark in terms of race. The public transport system often fails to deliver.

The irony is that there is little disagreement in the public arena about these problems.

There are and will be disagreements about how to prioritise them and what the right solutions are. That should be no surprise either — many of these problems are complex and do not lend themselves to easy answers.

Mr Burt in his speech presented some answers to these problems, and also rolled out a somewhat different philosophy of government than the one that has been followed by his party for the past two years.

Some of his proposals make sense, while others appeal to the worst instincts of Bermudians.

These ideas should be debated and discussed, not for the benefit of the OBA, but for the public benefit. The public deserve to hear these policies being scrutinised and tested.

That testing and scrutiny should result in better policies and a more informed electorate.

And that’s a legacy Mr Burt and his government should want to leave behind.

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Published Nov 20, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 20, 2019 at 7:29 am)

Debate healthy for democracy

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