PLP backtracks on land grabs’
Cabinet Office minister Walton Brown revealed yesterday that the Government has not found the money for a Commission of Inquiry into “land grabs” and property theft, nor has it asked Britain to pay for one.
Mr Brown, who first proposed an inquiry and suggested the United Kingdom should foot the bill in 2014, told The Royal Gazette he remained “firmly” in support of those seeking justice for being wrongfully dispossessed of their property.
But he added that “budgetary constraints” were an issue. He said: “We believe that fundamental justice on this matter is about finding out the truth about what happened with people who were wrongfully dispossessed of their property.”
Mr Brown added: “This government continues to look at effective ways to find the resources to conduct an inquiry, to ensure that we as a country can fully understand what happened in the past.
“And as we learn about the loss, pain and hurt of our history, it’s this government’s intent to put in place measures to ensure that such injustices never occur again.”
Mr Brown told Parliament in 2014 that an inquiry could be “underwritten by the United Kingdom Government” so the Bermuda Government did not have to “put up a penny to ensure that victims are adequately addressed for the injustice visited upon them in the previous decades”.
He offered to go to Government House in person to petition the Governor to ask for the money from Britain.
But yesterday, Mr Brown said the Government had not asked the UK to pay for an inquiry and a spokeswoman declined to comment on why, or on whether a request would be made in the future.
The spokeswoman added: “Minister Brown has declined to offer anything further.”
It is understand the Progressive Labour Party administration has had no discussion with the Governor on the topic since it took office in July 2017.
Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, accused the PLP last night of being “outright duplicitous” in the way it stoked anger over the subject while in Opposition, but had taken no action on an inquiry since it gained power.
Mr Cannonier said: “Just do it ... It was a priority for an election but it’s not a priority now.
“Sometimes politicians make noise because it sounds good. Their rhetoric is not matching their actions.”
He said the One Bermuda Alliance wanted a commission and believed that Britain should pay because many of the cases where land and property were taken from Bermudians happened under its supervision.
He said: “A Commission of Inquiry starts the conversation and we know that these things happened.”
Mr Cannonier added that an investigation could bring some resolution, particularly for black Bermudians, who for too long had been scared to seek justice because of institutionalised racism.
He said: “I think there is a fear from the whites of Bermuda that black people are trying to take their money.
“Nobody is trying to take their money. What blacks want is the chance to amass wealth but not in the same way.
“They want to do it fairly, because a lot of wealth in Bermuda was built off of unfairness.”
Mr Brown’s motion to call for the Governor to establish a Commission of Inquiry into loss and dispossession of property was approved by the House of Assembly in July 2014.
An OBA amendment for the House to “take note of the historic losses” and “explore solutions to these injustices” rather than call for a commission was defeated.
George Fergusson, the Governor at the time, rejected the request from Parliament for an inquiry, which sparked a march on Government House, led by Mr Brown.
The PLP Opposition also demanded Mr Fergusson should be recalled and the PLP staged a boycott of Parliament.
The controversy led to a change in the law later that year to give the Premier power to appoint a Commission of Inquiry without the Governor’s approval.
A Government House spokesman highlighted the 2014 legal change yesterday but declined to say if Bermuda had raised the funding of an inquiry with Britain or if the UK would be willing to pay.
Mr Cannonier said the OBA asked for the amendment because it did not want Bermudian taxpayers to have to foot the bill for an inquiry. He added: “This was a motion that, to all intents and purposes, does make sense but we said ‘let’s make sure that while we do this, we are not hurting the very people we are trying to help’.
“We did not want to make the Cabinet and the people of Bermuda liable for paying for this wrong.”
Commentators on social media have questioned when a commission will be established since the PLP won the General Election.
Judith Chambers, of the Civil Justice Advocacy Group, highlighted the subject in a recent post on the Dispossession in Bermuda Facebook page.
What they said: then and now
Walton Brown, the Opposition MP who tabled the motion calling for an inquiry
“Nowhere in this motion is there any specificity about who should pay for anything. The United Kingdom Government seems happy to be able to pay for a series of activities all across the Overseas Territories.
“And if they can be convinced that this one is meritorious of attention, based on a long history of injustice, it would be absolutely incumbent upon the UK to act responsibly and underwrite such an important commission as this country needs.”
“I will ... address the ways in which it can be funded so that on this fundamental issue of justice, the Government does not have to put up a penny to ensure that victims are adequately addressed for the injustice visited upon them in the previous decades.”
“The fact of the matter is that this issue can be underwritten by the United Kingdom Government. They have done very little for us over the decades ... I can personally go to the Government House and request of the Governor to seek funding from the UK.
“At least they should recognise that in 2014 they might have a moral obligation to correct some of the wrongs of the past that they were complicit in, if only through their silence. So this does not incur, necessarily, any money coming out of the public purse.”
Bob Richards, then the Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance
“The representatives from the United Kingdom in this country are paid for by the people of Bermuda. All of their operations are paid for by the people of Bermuda. Do you think that they are going to pay for this? The probability is close to zero.
“My view and the view of the Government is that any matter that will be or potentially will be a call on the treasury of this Government has to be a matter that comes from the Government. It has to be a matter that is decided by the Cabinet.”
Trevor Moniz, who was Attorney-General at the time
“We do not feel that a commission would be useful, either in the case of the large compulsory purchases or in the case of the individual allegations of wrongdoing”.
David Burt, then an Opposition MP
“If there are unlawful property transactions that took place then surely, surely, it is the duty of us in this House to do our best to make sure that we investigate the matter fully.”
“I would first urge the Honourable Deputy Premier to ... go forward with the Commission of Inquiry so that we can actually see what has happened and the country can know the truth. So we do not have to hear about urban legends, so we do not have to hear about stories, so we can move forward from this chapter and see exactly what may come of it.
“And I think that is the most important thing that we can do, because as we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in other countries, if you want to find out what the problem was you have to have the courage to look into it.”
Marc Bean, then the Opposition leader
“We have members in this honourable chamber that are beneficiaries of this past and present skulduggery.”
“Everything is to do with protecting vested interests and not wanting to open up a festering sore because we know when we open it up to finally clean it out and to cleanse it, it is going to be painful. It is going to be painful, but injustice, and the transition to justice, normally it is painful.”
Derrick Burgess, then the deputy Opposition leader
“They would tell you on the other side ‘it wasn’t me. You know, that happened before my time’. But they are today benefiting — benefiting handsomely — from what happened during those years and will continue to benefit. The policies that were put in place guaranteed them wealth for many, many years to come.”
Mr Burt, now the Premier
“Justice is about finding the truth and there is no price that you can put on justice and so we will find the resources to ensure that we have the inquiry...”
Mr Brown, now Minister for the Cabinet Office
“Currently, budgetary constraints are an issue. This hasn’t diminished the Government’s determination in its pursuit of justice. This issue continues to be a focus.”
“The Government has not requested the UK to pay.”
“This Government continues to look at effective ways to find the resources to conduct an inquiry ...”