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Trust and accountability

The Premier is often called, sometimes sincerely and sometimes ironically, “the brilliant David Burt”.

And certainly the Premier does sometimes give the impression of believing he is the brightest person in any room. That's fine to the extent that self-confidence is a crucial element of leadership, although risky when it is viewed as arrogance or hubris.

More worryingly, Mr Burt can also give the impression of believing that he is so much brighter than anyone else and so persuasive in his brilliance that anything he says will be believed.

Mr Burt has got away with this in the past — his claim early on in the Covid-19 crisis that Bermuda was carrying out aggressive testing when the exact opposite was true springs readily to mind — but his recent justification for holding the election appears to have fooled no one.

Given that, it is mystifying why Burt thought it necessary to pretend that he called the General Election on Friday as a cost-saving measure when it is nothing of the sort.

In his announcement, Mr Burt said he was concerned that a series of likely by-elections prompted by retirements from the One Bermuda Alliance would each cost about $30,000. These expenditures would then be followed by a General Election, which would have had to have been by the end of 2022.

The idea that this cost-saving measure justifies holding a General Election now is dubious. Without getting into detail, a government that has added $520 million to Bermuda's debt burden in just a few months should be able to find more savings than the $90,000 or so that the by-elections might cost. Simply not replacing one retiring mid-level civil servant would achieve the same goal.

In fact, Mr Burt gave the real reason for the General Election in his same announcement: “The truth is, tough times lie ahead and the Government needs the backing of the people to make the hard decisions today that will benefit all Bermudians in the long run.”

This is indeed the truth and, while amateur psychologists will note that by saying “the truth is …”, Mr Burt is subconsciously signalling that other parts of the statement are not true, Bermuda will face hard decisions in the next two years and also face the likelihood that the coming winter will be very harsh.

Of course, Mr Burt does not need to go to the polls to get enough support for those hard decisions. With two years left in its term and a 14-seat majority in the House of Assembly, the Government has the power to do whatever it wants. So the idea that he needs a further mandate is nonsense.

What Mr Burt and his colleagues know is that holding an election now makes political sense. It is quite possible that Bermuda's economy will be in even worse shape in 12 or 24 months than it is now, so calling an election is to the Progressive Labour Party's advantage. There is also no telling whether the OBA will up its game, so it also makes political sense to go to the polls.

For partisans, this is not a debate.

For those who believe a strong PLP government is synonymous with a strong Bermuda government, an election now makes eminent sense. But for the less rabid and swing voters, there are more questions.

Bermuda has benefited from a rare unity in the past six months. People from all parts of the political spectrum have put partisanship aside to deal with the Covid crisis, which is, outside of the United States, a health crisis in which political views are not especially relevant.

The Government has received high marks for managing the crisis, but in fact, it has done what any government should have done and has done, whether liberal or conservative. Around the world, those governments who have listened to the scientists and kept politics out of it, have managed this well — the examples of the liberal New Zealand government and the conservative Australian government taking broadly the same approach stands out.

So it is fair to question why Mr Burt would choose to take political advantage of a non-partisan moment, especially when coupled with the sheer logistical problems of holding a socially distanced election. The scientists will know that Bermuda is always one superspreader away from a second spike, and we have already one example of how visitors or returning residents may carry the virus but not test positive until their third test when they have already been out and about on the island for days.

It is also fair to ask what advice Bermuda's health professionals — the outgoing Chief Medical Officer, for example — have given on the advisability of a General Election as soon as October.

It has been suggested that there is some hypocrisy in questioning the advisability of a General Election at the same time that social activities such as shopping and eating in restaurants are being encouraged. But those activities are regulated — a maximum number of 50 people can take part, and mask-wearing and general hygiene requirements are in place.

A General Election campaign is harder to regulate. Armies of candidates and canvassers would normally go door-to-door, while rallies and meetings would also figure. Perhaps in this Covid-19 election, some of those activities will be limited, but that goes back to the central point: when there is no requirement to hold an election, why hold one when it will be inevitably limited in its essentially democratic process of candidates talking to voters?

Then, too, there is the problem of students being prevented from voting. In 1998, the PLP was rightly critical of the United Bermuda Party's decision to hold a November election, thus depriving students of the right to exercise their vote. As a result, every General Election since has been held during the holidays for universities — until now.

Certainly some students are remaining in Bermuda to do distance-learning and Mr Burt has requested that the advance poll be held on September 14 to allow those going to British universities a chance to vote. But, presumably, many other Bermudians will be deprived of the vote, as some will have travelled to university already or will do so before September 14.

This is an astonishing breach by Mr Burt of a commitment made by the PLP to young voters 20 years ago. It is made worse because there is no need to call the election now. Mr Burt easily could have waited until Christmas to hold the poll.

So what does all this mean? Mr Burt has called an election two years early for purely political reasons. In doing so, he has deprived some young Bermudians of the vote and will inevitably cause a campaign to be held that will be limited in its scope, thus tarnishing whatever mandate he hopes to get.

By claiming that the election is being held as a cost-saving measure, Mr Burt is providing voters with two matters to ponder as they don their masks and socially distance their way to the polls. The first is that Mr Burt has a gift for spin and political gamesmanship, but appears to mistake the game of politics for the hard work of governing. The second is that when Mr Burt is disingenuous, it means that he holds the recipient of that disingenuity — in this case, the electorate — in contempt.

Does this matter compared to the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis, the economic catastrophe facing Bermuda or the restructuring of health and education?

It does. There should be trust between the Government and those who have given that government its power. If the electorate cannot believe the Government, then the system fails. And if the governors hold the public in contempt by being economical with the truth, even if those untruths are small, it means that at heart they do not care about them. Politics and governing then become an exercise in power, not a heartfelt attempt to improve the public welfare.

In 2020, the world is replete with examples of governments that are more interested in power than doing good and who are prepared to lie about everything. In the end, politicians are accountable to the voters, and the voters are obliged to show they will not be taken for granted. Bermuda's voters should exercise that obligation on October 1.

Smoke and mirrors: David Burt's chief reason for having an election in October does not pass inspection (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published August 24, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 24, 2020 at 8:46 am)

Trust and accountability

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