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The rise and rise of Teflon Jason

With attention focused on the uproar caused by the death of George Floyd in the United States and the continued Covid-19 crisis, many may have missed the mini-Cabinet shuffle that took place last week.

In normal times, this would have received more attention than it did — it marked the entry of Jason Hayward, the House of Assembly's newest MP, into the Cabinet. It also marked the demotion of Jamahl Simmons from the Cabinet to a junior ministry, and a reduction in duties for three other senior ministers:

• Wayne Caines had immigration removed from his national security portfolio and given to Mr Hayward

• Home affairs minister Walter Roban had municipal reform moved to Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch's portfolio in public works

• Lovitta Foggo, the Minister of Labour, Community Affairs and Sport, lost labour to Mr Hayward

Of these moves, the biggest is the promotion of Mr Hayward to the Cabinet. He has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of government since becoming a senator in 2017, winning the by-election to fill the void left by the late Walton Brown a mere seven months ago.

Now he has responsibility for immigration, one of the most sensitive areas of government.

Mr Hayward clearly has the trust of the Premier, who may also want a loyal supporter in Cabinet. Mr Burt used up some personal capital in forcing Mr Hayward's nomination on the branch committee for Pembroke Central, and the public reasoning for this appointment is that labour and immigration are now so critical to Bermuda's wellbeing that they need a dedicated minister.

That a relative newcomer should be given that responsibility speaks volumes for the Premier's confidence in him — and confidence in himself to give the job to Mr Hayward over the heads of politicians with much thicker résumés.

Even so, Mr Hayward has a difficult job ahead of him. Although he has toned down his rhetoric, the former president of the Bermuda Public Services Union has a track record as something of a firebrand. Shortly after becoming a senator, he caused shivers in boardrooms with a call for independence, and he has made other controversial statements as well.

He has not been gaffe-free in recent months — a statement that the retail sector, which is Bermuda's fifth-largest employer, was not that important to Bermuda's economy also raised eyebrows and dropped jaws. For all of its technical accuracy in terms of gross domestic product, it was a surprising pronouncement for a former government statistician to make.

On the other hand, Mr Hayward will have support from trade unions, and this may prove useful in times of labour challenges, which are likely in the next few months as economic pressures grow. Having said that, he may find he needs to adjust now that he is on the other side of the table.

At the very least, he needs to be seen as an honest broker, and employers will need reassurance that he will not be biased. It's no accident that a trade union leader has never held this particular portfolio. The conflict of interest is too obvious.

And the difficulty of balancing the needs of business and the drive for economic growth against the expectations of employees, especially Bermudian workers, is why politicians from both sides of the political aisle have rarely left this particular area of government with enhanced reputations.

Indeed, this shuffle has to be seen as a demotion for Mr Caines. It is impossible to make the argument in Bermuda that overseeing the police and the other uniformed public services is a higher priority at this stage than immigration and labour.

And Mr Caines's long struggle to settle the relatively minor question — although not to those concerned — of mixed-status families is notable. Three years ago, the Progressive Labour Party promised comprehensive immigration reform and despite the passage of the Mixed Status Families Bill in March, there is still a long way to go.

Events, as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once commented, have interfered for sure — especially Covid-19 — but the record before that was poor as well.

It is less of a demotion for Mr Roban, who hands the municipalities to Colonel Burch, but it is easy to read frustration on the Premier's part over the lack of progress in this area as well.

In fact, after the Senate rejected plans to abolish the elected corporations in March 2019, Mr Roban could have brought the same Bill back to the House in this session and forced it through, but did not do so.

The Covid-19 crisis is a valid reason for delay — Bermuda surely has bigger problems now than who chooses the members of the corporations — but it is hard to see another reason for this change, especially given Colonel Burch's reputation for effectiveness and general disregard for public relations or popularity.

Ms Foggo doubtless will be disappointed at the hollowing-out of her ministry. It is logical to tie financial assistance to workforce development, but opinions are mixed on her performance during the Covid-19 crisis and it is tempting to believe that Mr Burt was among the less impressed.

In the meantime, Mr Simmons's fall from grace continues. Although his demotion may have been more a matter of mathematics than the reason for the shuffle, since by law there can be only 11 MPs in the Cabinet and Mr Hayward would have been the twelfth, being the one left standing when the game of musical chairs ends is never a happy moment.

While the former Minister of Economic Development Minister will be still close to power and in the Cabinet Office, this marks a downturn, but Mr Simmons's career proves one thing above all others — he is resilient and should never be counted out.

The final move in the Cabinet was the shift of casinos from finance minister Curtis Dickinson to the Premier, which can be taken at face value. Mr Dickinson will be the hardest-working man in politics for some time to come and does not need to use his precious time on the complexities of gaming, but by taking it under his own wing, Mr Burt is showing it remains a government priority.

Indeed, Mr Burt appears to be trying to get election promises finished. It is possible that he wants to capitalise on the credit the Government has received for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis before being held responsible for the inevitable economic hardship to come. That gives him a short window to call an election, and he needs to show the Government has delivered on its promises.

The important question is what it means for Bermuda.

Undoubtedly, it does show that the Premier recognises the critical importance of immigration and labour in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. An already weak economy is now reeling from the coronavirus lockdown and the importance of generating jobs and growing the economy is more urgent than ever, if that is possible.

And nowhere are political differences more clearly defined than on this issue. The Government will put heavy emphasis on the rights of Bermudians to be considered for employment and new jobs first, but there will be also intense pressure to find ways to encourage investors and job makers to come to Bermuda.

That a shrinking population and workforce go hand in hand with a shrinking economy is inarguable. The problem is whether the economy can be expanded if immigration is being restricted.

Mr Hayward has now been given the job of trying to solve that particular puzzle. His success, and Bermuda's, depends on him getting it right.

A sprint not a marathon: Jason Hayward's seemingly non-adhesive qualities have led to a Cabinet post within seven months of claiming victory at the Pembroke Central by-election to succeed the late Walton Brown (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published June 10, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated June 10, 2020 at 9:16 am)

The rise and rise of Teflon Jason

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