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Too many captains, not enough sailors

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Factional wars and persistent rumours of factional wars have been constants in Bermuda party politics in recent years.

This is not entirely surprising.

We are living in unsettled and fractious times, after all. Some of the prevailing tensions are bound to be reflected in Bermuda's political culture, just as is the case in far larger and supposedly far more politically sophisticated jurisdictions. Witness, for instance, the deep internal schisms in Britain's Conservative and Labour parties, and the insurgency campaigns that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders waged against the Republican and Democratic establishments during the US presidential primary campaigns.

Like so many other countries, Bermuda is continuing to weakly limp out of recession. And when Bermudians pause to glimpse back at the devastated ruins of the old political and social order, they are concluding it was a sandcastle built well below the high-water mark.

There is well-nigh universal agreement that we need to move on to a more secure and sustainable path. But there's no consensus as to which is the best path to take.

That uncertainty in the community is mirrored in our political parties. And the situation is greatly exacerbated given the outcome of the 2012 General Election when the One Bermuda Alliance won a credible and popular mandate, but only by a paper-slim parliamentary majority.

As a result, the leadership of the present administration has to walk a precarious tightrope in terms of not only its style of governance, but in appeasing various internal factions — and even individual Members of Parliament — to maintain its hold on power.

Indeed, the OBA's continuing tenure on the government benches has rested on a knife edge since former tourism minister Shaun Crockwell resigned the party whip this year and opted to sit in the House of Assembly as an independent — although he has suggested that he will continue to vote with the party that he helped to found.

He has been decried as a spoiler-in-waiting in some quarters, hailed as a man of granite principles in others, for taking issue with both the manner and the substance of the Premier's leadership. But whatever your opinion of Crockwell, one fact is indisputable: given the composition of the House, this individual legislator holds the balance of power in Bermuda politics.

So with only the barest margin for error, Michael Dunkley has the thankless task of trying to reconcile conflicting agendas, priorities and egos within his parliamentary team while creating a policy path forward for Bermuda that strikes a workable compromise between necessity and the stark political realities that he faces.

And that's even before the Premier has to contend with the polarising political rhetoric of an Opposition, which correctly senses both vulnerability and opportunity or the skittish public mood.

Given the OBA's internal difficulties and the community's continuing sense of drift, a united Progressive Labour Party would be very well positioned to mount a formidable challenge to the governing party at the next election.

But the factionalism that exists within the OBA is also a reality in the PLP's ranks. Simply put, both parties are ships with too many captains, not enough sailors and no mutually agreed courses in mind.

Competing and somewhat incompatible visions for the island's future along with the friction generated when outsized and sometimes mismatched personalities clash can be a sure-fire recipe for internal discord. That is certainly been the case within the PLP in recent months. And some of that discord spilt out from the Alaska Hall back rooms into full view last week.

A particularly unpleasant dispute between ailing PLP leader Marc Bean and three of his MPs became a public spectacle and fodder for all manner of speculation and political prognosticating.

When the smoke cleared from that heated spat, Bermudians could not help but be left with the impression that too many of their politicians are continuing to place self-interest ahead of the public interest. It is evident there are elements in both parties entirely more focused on internal wrangling and one-upping their colleagues than on crafting pragmatic policy options for addressing the island's many serious and substantive problems.

To some extent, political parties are always houses divided against themselves. Human nature and political ambition being what they are, it would be entirely unrealistic not to expect to find personal rivalries and rival policy positions existing within the same political groupings.

That has certainly been Bermuda's experience in recent decades. The internal jockeying for position and the various palace coups and attempted coups we have lived through have made party politics not only something of a spectator sport but also, it might be argued, the island's only indigenous blood sport.

We have come to expect the occasional distracting in-house political blow-up. But many of us are weary with these seemingly never-ending antics and are impatient for some actual results. The times, after all, demand them.

The factionalism has to be put aside in both parties and renewed emphasis must be placed on setting and following courses that will take Bermuda closer to where the island needs to be. We simply cannot afford to continue squandering time and potential opportunities while our politicians squabble about who gets to be the captain.

Creating path forwards: Michael Dunkley
In dispute: Marc Bean (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published August 17, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 17, 2016 at 8:20 am)

Too many captains, not enough sailors

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