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Jetgate: indifference no excuse for inaction

Back in the fold: The new Minister for Public Works Craig Cannonier, right, pictured during his time as Premier accompanied by his then-Deputy Michael Dunkley at the 2014 Spring Bermuda College Commencement Ceremony

Politicians are a risk-averse breed as a rule.

Not for them any grand deed or word, any principled beau geste, which flies in the face of the popular mood. Not for them any bold initiative which challenges outdated but entrenched social conventions or cultural taboos. And certainly never, ever for them even the most honourable course of action if it might lower their standings in the opinion polls.

Political utilitarianism, bereft of most ethical considerations, might not always achieve the most desirable ends. But it does have the benefit of eliminating the likelihood of short-term blowback. So it is the preferred guiding principle of most elected officials not only in Bermuda but around the world.

It’s precisely because defiant damn-the-torpedoes acts of moral courage are so relatively rare in political life that we tend to remember and celebrate those who do make principle their watchword.

And it’s also because they’re so uncommon that any abrupt breaks from the political norm said to have been made for high-minded reasons are always subject to particularly intense scrutiny and speculation. People want to determine what, if any, strings are attached.

The Premier’s mini-shuffle of his Cabinet is even now being put under such a critical magnifying glass.

Overshadowing even full-throated commitments by the new Education Minister to make the Island’s public schools a top policy priority is, of course, the return of former Premier Craig Cannonier to the front benches.

It’s far from unknown for politicians who have abruptly fallen from grace to stage comebacks. Sir John Sharpe, who resigned as Premier following a bitter and protracted civil war in the United Bermuda Party in the 1970s, reemerged a decade later as Sir John Swan’s most able parliamentary lieutenant.

He became the lynchpin of Cabinet and a valued member of the kitchen cabinet for many years, throwing off any lingering stigma associated with his brief and unhappy leadership.

When he died Jack Sharpe was hailed as Bermuda’s “first People’s Premier” by Dame Jennifer Smith. Similarly fulsome accolades poured in from all quarters of the community and all parts of the political spectrum for a man who had become one of our most respected and genuinely beloved public figures. But he was required to spend several years in the political wilderness before he had the opportunity to re-establish himself as one of Bermuda’s canniest legislators.

By way of contrast it’s been just eight months since Mr. Cannonier stepped down as Premier for his role in the influence-peddling “Jetgate” scandal.

The Premier has made an impassioned and lucid case for his decision to bring Mr. Cannonier back to Cabinet as Public Works Minister. But the obvious sincerity of his arguments notwithstanding, it’s almost inconceivable that the idea of rehabilitating Mr. Cannonier after just a few months’ banishment to the Siberia of the back benches has not been surveyed, focus-grouped and polled to death in recent weeks.

The only conclusion to be drawn is the great majority of voters care far less about Jetgate than the Opposition, a relative handful of activists and those optimists who believed the new OBA broom really would sweep clean rather than simply rearrange the dirt and grime of local politics in fresh patterns.

Clearly the Premier is confident there’s unlikely to be any long-term political fall-out from his decision to invite Mr. Cannonier back into Cabinet. He must have good reason to believe the public will forgive if not entirely forget what is being passed off as a rookie error (albeit a masively scaled one) on the part of an otherwise dedicated, determined and dependable political newcomer.

Bermudian voters are indeed famously tolerant, so much so that even cats are said to envy the number of lives some of our Members of Parliament have been blessed with. And Mr. Cannonier does give every appearance of being chastened and even, perhaps, improved by his experience.

However, in this instance tolerance amounts to just another word for indifference. And the fact is Jetgate remains an open-ended scandal, one we cannot afford to be indifferent about.

The precise circumstances surrounding Mr. Cannonier’s resignation and the subsequent departure of former OBA chairman Thad Hollis, a decent and honourable man who had pledged to reveal the full facts of the matter and then left (or was forced out) before doing so, remain opaque. The results of a police inquiry, which may or may not be ongoing, have never been made public.

The Premier may well be correct in his surmise that most Bermudians aren’t particularly interested in the answers to these and other outstanding questions. But indifference should never be an excuse for inaction. And the reality is Bermuda requires some kind of final resolution to this seedy matter.

All of the remaining Jetgate-related questions need to be answered in full, sooner rather than later. Because no matter how sound the Premier’s political calculus, the affair’s ethical, legal and moral dimensions also need to be addressed. The OBA’s understandable lack of enthusiasm for taking its political lumps by coming completely clean on Jetgate should not be allowed to place the long-term integrity and workings of our constitutional arrangements in possible jeopardy.

Frankly, that’s a risk all Bermudians should be averse to running.