Better forms of governance

  • Sprucing up: work continues to prepare Sessions House, the home of the lower chamber of Bermuda’s Parliament, for the 400th year celebration of the founding of Bermuda’s Parliament later this year

    Sprucing up: work continues to prepare Sessions House, the home of the lower chamber of Bermuda’s Parliament, for the 400th year celebration of the founding of Bermuda’s Parliament later this year

The turn of a decade is often the occasion when pundits look back on the successes and failures of the previous ten years and look ahead to the future.

There always will be pedants who insist that the new decade does not start until 2021, and others who note — correctly — that using years such as 2020 to prognosticate about the future is entirely arbitrary. But it is a convenient benchmark. Few in 2010 would have predicted all of the events of the past ten years, including the rise of populism, continued economic challenges, the Arab Spring and its mainly tragic aftermath, or some of the other challenges.

Bermuda itself saw two changes of government, little economic improvement, continued divisions and some positives — notably a recent and welcome drop in violent crime.

What will the next decade hold, and more importantly, what can Bermuda do to influence its own destiny?

One area that is ripe for reform is our politics, and the timing could not be better as 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the legislature meeting for the first time. More and more members of the public, including many former politicians, agree that the Westminster system is ill-suited to Bermuda or many small countries.

In fairness, it does not work very well in large ones, either, including in its birthplace, as the trauma in Britain over Brexit has shown.

The system’s faults are well documented. The first-past-the-post system tends to give all of the power to two parties, and squeezes out those whose beliefs do not neatly fit into their respective dogmas.

The system tends excessively to reward the winner of a General Election, depending on the vagaries of constituency boundaries, and also carries the risk — as the last United States presidential election demonstrated — that a party can win the popular vote, but lose the government depending on how votes fall in particular seats. This makes no sense in a community where the number of voters would be electing one MP if they lived in Britain, or half a congressman if they lived in the US.

The biggest fault of the Westminster system in Bermuda is the talent that is wasted. Arguably, this matters less in larger countries where the talent pool is bigger. There, if the leaders of one or more parties sit in opposition for five years, there is little harm done when the governing party can draw from hundreds of MPs representing millions of people.

But the same cannot be said in Bermuda, where 18 people can end up representing 65,000. Can it be fairly said that some of the 17 people sitting opposite are incapable of doing a better job than those of the 18 who may end up in Cabinet? And can Bermuda afford to wait five years to find out?

The system also concentrates power in the executive. Unlike the US, there is no separation of powers between the legislature and the executive. The Premier drives legislation and manages the Government. And the system of collective responsibility means that a relatively small group of people — six or seven Cabinet ministers — can drive policy and legislation since they can first demand Cabinet support, which in turn can force the governing party’s parliamentary caucus to fall in line and then to drive legislation through Parliament.

Short of resignations, rebelling against the whip or the delaying tactics that can be exercised by the Senate, there are virtually no checks on the power of the Cabinet Office.

The Westminster system creates an adversarial system in which minor differences are exaggerated because of the winner-takes-all mentality.

The dirty little secret of Bermuda politics? The Progressive Labour Party and the One Bermuda Alliance don’t disagree on that much.

Unlike, for example, the echo chambers of US politics where a newcomer who watched Fox News and MSNBC could be forgiven for thinking they were living in two different countries, Bermuda’s political leaders broadly agree on the challenges facing the community: the economy, immigration, healthcare, climate change, tax and regulatory threats from abroad, and so on. And while there may be some disagreements on how to resolve these problems, the reality is that they don’t differ that much.

PLP and OBA politicians agree that the economy needs to be diversified. They agree that climate change is an existential threat to Bermuda. They agree that the present system of healthcare is too expensive and leaves too many people at risk. Most will even agree on immigration — Bermuda needs to attract more people if it is going grow and support its ageing population.

There always will be genuine disagreements on precisely how to solve all these problems. But the reality is that most can be solved if people come together in a spirit of genuine co-operation and open-mindedness to resolve them, provided you take out of the equation the need for someone to take credit for the success. But if there is broad agreement on the problems and even on their solutions, there is little agreement on what mechanism is needed to solve them.

The big solution is to change the way Bermuda elects its politicians. Proportional representation enables candidates representing a broader range of views to be elected on either an island-wide basis or on a regional one. Some jurisdictions, including the Turks & Caicos, now have hybrid systems by which some MPs represent individual constituencies and others are chosen by the whole electorate.

But proportional representation has the disadvantage of creating instability. A plethora of small parties who have to form coalitions can lead to short-lived governments that constantly form and collapse. Italy, before it reformed its system, was a classic example of this, with government tenures averaging about a year.

Some countries instead use what is known as proportional representation with a single transferable vote.

Australia, for example, uses it on a constituency basis. Under this system, if a candidate does not get 50 per cent of the vote from “first votes”, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the second choices of their voters are added to the surviving candidates’ tallies.

This continues until one candidate has 50 per cent support. While not perfect, this does have the advantage of forcing candidates to appeal to a wider electorate than their party base.

Some observers would like to see Bermuda ban political parties entirely and have only independent candidates, as was the case before 1963. While superficially attractive, there is in this the risk that a small number of people could control the House of Assembly as a party in all but name.

Others have suggested that referendums could be used more frequently and widely as a confirming vote on controversial legislation or to initiate change. There is not space here to go into all of the pros and cons of this, but it raises the question of whether elected parliamentarians are representatives, elected by the public to lead and to make decisions on the public’s behalf, or delegates, who are required to follow the majority of their constituents’ wishes on all questions. This is much larger distinction than may seem obvious.

If wholesale reform is not on the cards, there are smaller measures that Parliament could take to improve oversight, limit the power of the executive and to raise the level of debate and discourse.

One, encouraged for many years by former MP John Barritt, who has given these issues more thought than almost anyone in Bermuda, is to give select committees wider scope and greater powers to hold ministers and the executive to account. This works extremely well in other countries and gives backbenchers more responsibility as well.

The second is to give MPs more free votes where members of the Government and the Opposition are not under the whip — this would enable a freer and more honest approach to legislation, and where it is flawed would prevent the Government from simply ramming it through. Exceptions for major legislation such as budgets could be made.

Third, and this is a seemingly small thing, the House could literally change its design.

The Senate, at least in its old chamber in the Cabinet Office, used to sit at a round table, and this seemingly small step reduced the adversarial nature of debate. The same could be done in the House where the practice of having MPs from opposing parties face off against each other is designed seemingly to cause division and to emphasise the separation between the parties.

These ideas are by no means comprehensive and not all will be regarded as practical. But 52 years after the beginning of genuine adult suffrage and 400 years after the first meeting of the Bermuda legislature, the time is ripe to have a community-wide discussion on how we can better govern ourselves.

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Published Feb 3, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 3, 2020 at 7:33 am)

Better forms of governance

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