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Bermuda’s delicate economic balance

There is an increasing sense of exasperation evident among the captains of Bermuda's offshore industry.

The same irritation is also being expressed by employees of the sector's local satellite businesses as well as by a growing number of professionally unaffiliated observers.

Simply put, it comes to a feeling that too many Bermudians routinely undervalue the industry's significance and continuing contributions to Bermuda.

It is indisputable that since the creation of Bermuda's modern international business model in the late 1980s, a truly global industry has taken root and flourished here.

The direct, indirect and induced economic and social benefits are enjoyed by all.

Overall living standards for Bermudians have been significantly lifted along with per capita income levels. And a new tax base not dependent on the vagaries of a seasonal tourist trade, one with a multibillion-dollar turnover and an international reach, has been established.

So what the hell do Bermudians have to complain about, ask genuinely perplexed industry boosters? Why would they do anything potentially to sabotage their own economic self-interest along with the broader interests of their community?

From the industry's vantage point, this is exactly what some Bermudians have been doing in recent months: engaging in potentially destabilising behaviour while seemingly labouring under the illusion that they exist apart from the whole and would miraculously escape unscathed in the event their actions contributed to a loss of confidence in the island among outside investors.

How else to explain the large-scale demonstrations against immigration reform, which paralysed the island and stalled, at least for the time being, long-promised changes, some of which would clearly benefit our primary industry and its employees? Or similar protests against reining in unsustainable levels of public-sector spending draining government funds and jeopardising the entire economy?

There is now an almost palpable frustration in some industry quarters with the parliamentarians and activists who choreographed these exercises in political street theatre.

Indeed, in a rare foray into local affairs, the offshore industry's largest lobbying group said last week that it considered “government fiscal challenges and potential civil unrest tied to local political battles over immigration policy and spending priorities” to be immediate and pressing obstacles to short-term growth in the sector.

There is more than a little merit to their arguments.

Certainly, Bermuda boasts a fair few political figures of all ideological stripes who are too often guided by impulse and short-term expediency rather than by any longer-term considerations.

Such opportunists and provocateurs were in evidence during the rallies and marches that punctuated Bermuda's winter and spring.

In some instances, their objectives were clearly borne of partisan self-interest, not principle. These instigators were entirely more focused on undermining or perhaps even toppling a numerically weak government that was vulnerable to public pressure rather than offering any pragmatic course corrections to the proposed immigration and budgetary plans.

The blunt-force methods they employed in pursuit of a laughably transparent and entirely self-serving agenda were almost recklessly irresponsible at times.

Shamelessly stoking the fires of resentment and suspicion, appealing to economic, racial and cultural anxieties, could not help but put some dents in Bermuda's well-deserved reputation for stability and dependability.

The immediate goal of unseating and replacing the existing government was allowed to eclipse the long-term economic security of Bermuda and all Bermudians. As the financial services sector's lobbyists pointedly noted, it is all too easy for local political leaders to forget that even short-lived events can have far-reaching consequences in this increasingly interconnected world, affecting Bermuda's global standing and ability to draw business.

But the reality is many thousands of Bermudians, most of them not particularly politically minded or ordinarily given to participating in public demonstrations, joined these rallies.

The advertising industry likes to say the consumer isn't an idiot — he or she is your spouse. Or your brother. Or your cousin. Or your best friend. And this applies as much to “consumers” targeted by political messaging as any other kind.

Those who marched, and marched repeatedly, on Parliament Hill and through the streets of Hamilton were not all responding to the fiery oratory or deliberately stirred-up emotions of the moment.

They weren't even necessarily responding to the issues that nominally prompted the demonstrations. For these protests became umbrella events, encompassing all manner of widespread concerns and grievances.

The people taking part were reacting to deeper and more fundamental issues, among them: sharpened economic insecurity and a growing sense of social inequality resulting from Bermuda's large and rapid fiscal contraction throughout the recession; a continuing sense of estrangement from a primary industry that they neither fully understand nor feel themselves qualified to directly participate in — something especially true of older Bermudians; and, perhaps, a more generalised sense of dislocation and uncertainty about what the future holds for this community.

There can be no doubt the challenging economic circumstances that have prevailed in Bermuda for almost a decade now have aggravated and widened some of the fissures running through our society. We are, in certain ways, a more fractious community than we once were.

And this is precisely why good judgment and shrewd common sense are called for at this time to narrow these chasms of mutual misunderstanding as best we can.

All of our livelihoods, in one way or another, now owe in some measure to Bermuda's financial services sector. But the fact is, a not insignificant proportion of the population believes itself to be detached from that industry and largely untouched by its contributions to the economic wellbeing of Bermuda. And that should be cause for genuine concern among leaders in all areas of our public life.

Perhaps we need to consider embodying a public relations answer to the nonpartisan Spending and Government Efficiency commission to underscore how very interconnected and interdependent we all are within Bermuda's fragile economic system.

A blue-riband body comprised of political, corporate, labour and community leaders with a mandate to explain and to promote economic stability, reduce our vulnerability to internal disruptions and to encourage sustained growth and living standards by way of public hearings, televised and online sessions, and other traditional and social-media initiatives may be the most effective way to go.

For if we are ever going to successfully appeal to those considered to be inadvertently sabotaging their own economic self-interest and the community's broader interests, we first need to make them aware of just what those interests are.

Deeper issues: many taking part in the Pathways to Status protests were reacting to deeper issues, among them: sharpened economic insecurity and a growing sense of social inequality (File photograph)

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Published August 26, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 26, 2016 at 4:46 am)

Bermuda’s delicate economic balance

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