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The dangerous lure of populist politics

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Bob Richards

Short-termism is a common weakness of democracy. More often than not, it seems politicians will shy away from dealing with a major problem that requires making tough, long-term decisions that are likely to be unpopular. This trend is particularly marked when election time approaches.

In many parts of the democratic world, it seems that the old political tradition of political parties governing according to their ideology or set of principles has given way to a “govern-by-focus-group” model. If a government proposes a policy on whatever hot-button issue, the blizzard of social media posts and opinion polls will soon let them know who opposes it and why.

In such cases, should the government then abandon the policy and come up with something more palatable to the majority of voters? There will be many who would argue that governments should change tack with the winds of public opinion and that is what democracy is all about — giving voters what they want.

However, the problem with this is that major, long-term issues get pushed aside because dealing with them would lose votes. Such an approach encourages a style of government that is populist and opportunistic, rather than pragmatic and principled. The problem for politicians is that most voters will reject short-term pain, even for long-term gain. As Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, once famously said: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

Myopic decision-making is a widespread problem and is evident across the democratic world with issues such as climate change, underfunded pension plans, social security and budget deficits. In Bermuda, we are facing a gamut of issues that require long-term policy-making, including the growing public debt, the ageing population and the lack of economic growth that has led to problems of unemployment and underemployment.

What is notable about the One Bermuda Alliance government is that it has had the courage to put forward bold ideas that could be unpopular with significant numbers of voters to address these issues — but has sometimes failed to follow through on its own policy announcements.

Immigration reform is one area in which Government has taken some bold steps, such as the Incentives for Job Makers Act 2013. It would be difficult to dispute that the massive outflow of expatriate workers in recent years has severely damaged the economy, has caused jobs to go across all sectors, hit government revenues and overall, has cost Bermudians dear. Yet, because protectionist instincts will always rise to the surface in hard times, legislation aimed at stopping and even reversing the expat outflow was always going to be controversial.

This week, in an interview with this newspaper, Michael Fahy, the Minister of Home Affairs, said the Government did not “have the appetite” to pursue another initiative, commercial immigration, so the idea that was first put forward in the 2013 Throne Speech would go on the back burner.

Senator Fahy said: “We wanted to make sure there was some opportunity for job creation, but the various models that would make it worth our while, they are just not there and I don’t think the economic benefits to Bermuda are there at this time.”

In another example, Government formed the Sage Commission to come up with ideas on promoting government efficiency to deal with the burgeoning debt. Following on from Sage’s findings, Bob Richards, the Finance Minister, announced in his February 2014 Budget Statement: “Further reductions in costs after 2014-15 will not be achievable without either staff layoffs or the outsourcing of non-core functions through mutualisation or privatisation.” He listed the likely candidates for outsourcing, including parks maintenance, the Department of Social Insurance, the aircraft and ship registries, waste management and airport operations. An Efficiency and Reform Authority was to be established the take the idea further.

After some noisy opposition, the plans were shelved and were not even mentioned at all in this year’s Budget. Given what the Finance Minister said in 2014, one can only assume that Government either plans to start laying off staff or has abandoned efforts to trim its spending. And so the debt continues to grow.

Whether or not one agrees that government should outsource functions to cut costs is beside the point.

The Government proposed the idea because it believed it was in the best long-term interests of the Island. But it has not followed through on it, presumably because it believes it would be a vote-loser at the next election.

The brand of fiercely confrontational party politics in Bermuda does not lend itself to sensible, long-term decision making. There is little in the way of cool-headed analytical thinking or deliberation evident in the typical House of Assembly debate. As a general rule, when a collaborative approach to dealing with an issue is proposed, the proposal comes from the party in opposition.

Short-termism could be said to be a dysfunction of our democratic system, but finding a realistic solution is not easy.

Some countries, including Hungary, have created an “Office for Future Generations” (OFG) to speak for those who are too young to vote and who don’t even exist yet, but who will be affected by short-termist policies enacted today.

Even without any institutional power to override the decisions of elected representatives, such a body could serve a useful purpose by highlighting the likely implications of today’s policies on our children and grandchildren. It would remove excuses for inaction.

Maybe Bermuda needs such a voice. In the meantime, as the back burner piles up, it is only a matter of time before long-term issues become immediate-term crises.

Michael Fahy
The House of Assembly