The seven pressing challenges
When I was invited to speak to the Probus Club last week, I was pleased that I was able to choose the topic for the day. It was very tempting to speak about my love for sport and how it is so important to building strong communities and providing opportunity for our young people as they mature and partake in competition, fellowship, and are afforded the ability to travel and represent at any level.
After all, much of what I have done in my life is because at a young age I was kept active and played every sport I could: football and cricket for many years, including at the highest local level at the end of both careers; squash and golf, until politics tempered my game; and basketball, tennis and less competitive sports thrown in for fun.
To this day, I still work out every morning.
Sadly, as both my grandfather and father passed while I was young — and they were both young when they passed — I believe that if you don’t use it, you lose it.
This leads me on to my topic: some of the challenges, and opportunities, we face in Bermuda.
I love Bermuda and I have an enormous amount of energy and passion to make a better future for all. So, even at times if I appear to be critical, it is with the view that you must identify a problem and then offer solutions to fix it.
Having said that, here are some of the critical challenges and opportunities we face:
1, Health and the cost of healthcare (which is why the preamble was sport-related)
If you are raised to be active, it is likely that good habits will continue in life and help with your health throughout your life.
Our challenges with healthcare are a result of a variety of reasons, the first of which is that we are living longer. And here is a telling fact: in 1980, the percentage of our population 45 and over was 27.6 per cent. In 2016, it had risen to 48.4 per cent.
Couple this with other facts such as our small community and that we expect the best of healthcare.
Add to this the reality that many of us do not do enough to take care of ourselves, partake in adequate exercise or eat a balanced diet.
Then, when we consider there is abuse generally of some goods and services offered in the healthcare system, this leads to our present-day situation where we are struggling with some of the highest healthcare costs in the world.
The sugar tax is not the answer.
When the One Bermuda Alliance was in government, we worked hard to contain and then reduce the cost of healthcare. Slow progress was being made.
I also took it personally as the Premier and consequently formed the Premier’s Youth Fitness Council because it was clear to me that there was not nearly enough activity in our schools. One school had no PE classes at all!
Among the solutions that can have a tremendous improvement in healthcare:
• We must promote physical activity and ingrain it in our children when they are young
• We must educate our young people on healthy lifestyles and good choices, with a significant focus
• We must control the use and misuse of our healthcare system
• We must manage and, where appropriate regulate, insurers and providers
• We must offer incentives on health insurance for healthy living
Do I need to say much about the challenges we face and the critical need to fix it?
I do not wish to point fingers, as many well-meaning people have been involved, but the problem is not getting any better. There are also many great educators in public education.
They are not the problem, the system is not the problem and the stated intent by the Government to eliminate middle schools will not solve the problem.
The problem is one of accountability and standards.
I am sure that we can agree that you cannot have success without accountability and standards. Everyone must bear the responsibility to do their jobs, and when problems arise fix them.
At present in education, we pass the buck too often.
A child is disciplined in school and the parents call the Department of Education to say the school is wrong and then the department calls the school and directs them not to be so tough on the child.
In the past, we have promoted our children to the next year when they have not passed the present year. Then the next year, we do it again.
We change the May 24 holiday because some say our children need a long weekend to recover after a holiday!
The cycle will continue without accountability and standards.
We must create an education authority, similar to the successful Bermuda Tourism Authority. This will take the politics out of education and hold those in charge responsible and accountable for their mandate.
3, The economy
We are in recession again and under attack from alphabet organisations such as the EU and OECD, and some countries around the world, who want to make a name for themselves or to take business from us.
To be clear, I support fintech. It was, after all, an active initiative of the OBA. But I do not support the unbridled attraction to our shores of those who promulgate cryptocurrency and initial coin offerings.
Did you know that 80 per cent of cryptocurrencies are scams and that more than 90 per cent of ICOs fail?
Thus, we should consider what impact this type of business will have on our international reputation. How many sustainable jobs will this create for Bermudians? The Government is fixated on an opportunity that will not be a third pillar of our economy and could stain our reputation.
We need to get back to basics by protecting and building on what we have in international business. We need to attract more tourism investment, which will lead to more opportunity, jobs and visitors to our island. We must make immigration reform happen. And we must stick to our hard-earned reputation of being a first-class business jurisdiction with ease to market in the businesses we have on island.
Here is a sobering fact: in 2007, there were 39,849 jobs in Bermuda and in 2017 that number had dropped to 33,653 — a decline of 6,196 jobs.
In 2007, there were 18,131 work permit-holders in Bermuda and in 2017 there were 9,634, a decline of 8,469. These figures alone identify the scope of the problem as well as the root of it.
At this moment in time, all we have going for us is the airport redevelopment and the St Regis project, both initiatives of the OBA.
They have created jobs for Bermudians and investment for Bermuda. They should result, when completed, in more opportunity for Bermuda and Bermudians.
Finally, on this point of our economy, we need to stand up and be proud of who we are as Bermudians and fight for what we do and why.
We must use every opportunity to promote Bermuda to the world so we are seen through our lens and not through those who work against us for whatever reason.
4, Government spending
The OBA was on a solid glide path to a balanced budget after inheriting from the Progressive Labour Party a budget deficit of $330 million in 2012-13. In addition, in the first 30 days of being in government, we had to borrow money to pay wages for those in the Civil Service!
Under the PLP government, the reality of a balanced budget has been pushed back.
In addition, accountability to the taxpayer has gone out the window with actions such as:
• More than a million dollars being paid to a doctor who was a former premier without transparency and contrary to the advice of the professional body
• Two Cabinet ministers with little or no responsibility
• Many Cabinet ministers having aides approved by the Premier — even the Minister without Portfolio has one
• The firing of the chief executive of the Bermuda Health Council without substance or explanation
• A government office opened in Brussels despite there being no allocation for it in the 2018-19 Budget
I could go on, but this year alone, the Government will pay $124 million in interest on our debt.
Interest, not principal.
With a shrinking tax base, high government and private debt levels, a high cost of living and an economy in recession, we cannot afford to increase government spending and raise taxes on a stressed tax base. The Sage Report should still be a guiding factor.
The next budget will be very interesting. If it is not prudently crafted, it could be economic suicide.
5, Gangs, guns and the carnage of our young people
Since 2009 we have had 56 murders, 38 of which were firearm fatalities. All 38 killed were black males.
Since 2009, we have had 115 fatal road traffic crashes.
These are numbing facts. When it happens, we all want action. We talk a lot about each death.
Do not believe for a moment that we are not all connected.
I was the Minister of National Security for four years and, in the first week with the responsibility, I was called early in the morning on Christmas Day by the Assistant Commissioner of Police to inform me of a murder the previous night. The mother of the man murdered worked for me. I saw his picture on his mother’s desk many a day at work.
I visited the family home later that day ... celebrating Christmas Day by attempting to bring comfort to a family who were crushed overnight.
I have visited too many shattered families in their homes, grieved at the hospital too many times, comforted too many gunshot victims and been in attendance to too many funeral services. Yet this trend will not stop. It will not stop until we firmly commit to “enough is enough”.
There is no excuse that can be acceptable for why 171 people have died by being murdered or by road fatality in the past ten years.
We need to take a deep, inward look at ourselves and ask why we have let this happen.
Why did we allow “Johnny” to be unemployed for so many years, but bring home a new fridge for Granny one month and then a new car at Christmas without asking questions? Then he is murdered.
Why did we allow “Mikey” to drive like a maniac daily when we know it could end in disaster?
Why, as a community, have we become so critical of others but will not take responsibility for our own family and friends?
The answer is within us.
We must not rely on the Bermuda Police Service to bail us out. Instead, we must provide the tough love every day to our families and friends.
6, Divide and conquer
We need to stop dividing ourselves with every issue that arises, whether it be immigration reform or any other emotive issue.
A sitting PLP Cabinet minister, while in opposition, orchestrated a storming of the Senate, followed by a protest of the first immigration consultative meeting, and a roadblock of East Broadway. The silent majority remained silent.
Witness the division sewn by the PLP over the airport redevelopment, which included the illegal blockage of the House of Assembly when people were used as pawns by the demonstrators. Yet recently the PLP was all smiles at the airport roof-wetting ceremony and not a word was said about any dissatisfaction with the deal. I will refrain from saying more on this matter, as there is a joint select committee looking into it and I do not wish to prejudice that report. However, be assured that I will have more to say once it is delivered.
We need to stop dividing people for personal or political gain because it creates scars that cannot be easily healed.
We can and must debate issues in a mature fashion for progress — without such, there will be a lack of substantive progress.
Race is the No 1 impediment holding us back.
Just about every subject, every issue, turns into a conversation on race. And while we argue, or withdraw, our competitors eat our breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Race is an ugly scar on our past; it has left wounds that have taken decades to heal and continues to be a division that encumbers our future.
We must move forward together. If there are those among us who want to remain burdened by an evil of the past or are not genuine in us moving forward together, we must not allow them to hold us back.
I will always be bullish on Bermuda. However, with the experience I have, and the energy and passion that still flows through my body, I will not shy away from calling it like I see it and from working with those who are genuine and want to see a brighter day tomorrow.
• Michael Dunkley is the former Premier of Bermuda, an Opposition backbencher and the MP for Smith’s North (Constituency 10)