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Budget Reply: calls for immigration reform

Patricia Gordon-Pamplin: delivered the Reply to the Budget in the House of Assembly (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Boosting the working population with more foreigners would help ease financial pressures on Bermudians, the Opposition claimed yesterday.

The One Bermuda Alliance said the island needs an attractive immigration policy and expected to see the controversial Pathways to Status policy returned under a new name. The OBA Reply to the Budget suggested the Progressive Labour Party acknowledged behind closed doors the need for more guest workers — despite public messages to the contrary.

Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, reading out the OBA’s response, warned immigration could be “Bermuda’s Brexit” because it is splitting the country and causing uncertainty in business.

The Opposition’s finance spokeswoman in the House of Assembly, who delivered the speech because shadow finance minister Nick Kempe sits in the Senate, said: “The fundamental inhibitors to growth remain the same from the OBA’s time in government.

“A clear and welcoming immigration policy is needed to ensure that we can attract the global expertise and capital needed to grow our stagnant economy and drastically increase our working population.

“Furthermore, it is essential that we arrest the exodus of long-term contributors to our economy.”

She added: “We fully expect to see Pathways to Status presented repackaged with a different name. It is long overdue.”

Days of demonstrations shut down Parliament when the former OBA administration tried to table its inflammatory legislation in March 2016.

The Bill was designed to make it easier for long-term residents to gain permanent residency and status, but was withdrawn after the protests.

Mr Kempe admitted yesterday: “Perhaps it was rushed.”

However, Craig Cannonier, the OBA leader, claimed: “Mr and Mrs Bermuda are beginning to understand the importance of opening our doors.”

In her 26-page Budget response, Ms Gordon-Pamplin cited the 2018 annual report from the Fiscal Responsibility Panel, which said expanding the workforce was “the only realistic counter to the island’s demographic challenge from a rapidly shrinking and ageing population”.

She added: “This is a pivotal moment in Bermuda’s history and this issue cannot be avoided any more as it is presently being subjected to a slow death by committee.

“The Premier purports to be able to pass immigration reform because he feels he has the people’s trust.

“The OBA welcomes him to move ahead.”

She claimed that many people who have lived and worked on the island for more than ten years were “forced to keep one eye on the door” and invested their savings overseas.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin said: “At some point we must allow workers and their children, who have an extended period of employment or residence in Bermuda, the ability to fully formalise their relationship with Bermuda through some form of pathway to status mechanism.”

She suggested support appeared to exist within the PLP.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin said: “It is well known that members of this government are stating in meetings with international business that they recognise the need for increased immigration. This is in stark contrast to much of their public political messaging.

“Like Brexit, will immigration split a political party? Unlike in the UK, will a leader emerge in this government to unite the country around this issue in the name of prosperity?”

The House heard that an increased residential working population would help alleviate issues including debt, through greater payroll tax collection and local spending; healthcare costs, thanks to “generally younger and healthier” guest workers; global company compliance requirements, as businesses must do more to justify their presence in Bermuda; and individual tax burdens, as more workers would spread the cost further.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin added: “While it would be nice to think that all that growth can happen from returning Bermudians that went overseas during the seven years of famine, recent history does not support that happening without also increasing the number of guest workers.”

The finance spokeswoman called for more capital to be invested in the local economy, to help entrepreneurs struggling to find financing through banks.

She also said government service delivery should be changed, and pointed to previous comments from David Burt, the Premier, made in his days as junior finance minister, that offered support for privatisation.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin called for an independent education authority and more aid for business development.

She was heavily critical of the PLP’s performance during its first stint in power, which she blamed for the country’s precarious financial position today.

She said: “The PLP did the exact opposite of best practice. Capital expenditures grew along with the yearly deficits as did the incessant borrowing and related interest costs on the debt.

“From 2001-02 to 2007-08, government revenues grew each year by 6.8 per cent on average, however the public debt grew by 116 per cent, from $128 million to $277 million. This reckless management of the people’s money was a recipe for disaster waiting to happen.”

Ms Gordon-Pamplin added: “Seven years of plenty were followed by seven years of famine.”

She claimed that 2009-10 was a particularly bad year as the public debt doubled in 12 months from $335 million to $666 million.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin said: “During the seven years of famine, our debt grew by 512 per cent, or sixfold, from $335 million to $2.05 billion.

“The preceding examples are highlighted not just to cast blame, albeit well deserved, but so as to frame the realities of that time as the debt created from the mismanagement of projects and operational overspending under the last PLP administration continues to haunt us to this day.”