Promises, promises ...
Party platforms are essential documents when voters are deciding who they are going to elect in a General Election. Of course, they are not the only factor in the decision. A party's previous record and the calibre of candidates are also crucial.
And, of course, platforms are also only a guide to a party's decisions, if elected, during their term of government. Events interfere almost from Day 1 to prevent or change every promise. Indeed, no one could have predicted that the world would be hit by a pandemic in early 2020.
Nonetheless, platforms matter. They are in effect a contract with the electorate. And if the majority of the promises are not delivered on — within reason — then the voters are entitled to hold that party to account at the next election.
The Progressive Labour Party was first out of the gate with its platform, perhaps unsurprisingly since only its leadership knew when the election was going to be called. The One Bermuda Alliance published its full platform this weekend and will be the subject of a future editorial.
Disappointingly, some of the PLP's promises are reheated pledges from 2017, and this has been one of the criticisms of the early election call — the PLP has not kept all of its promises from three years ago.
In particular, its promises for restructuring education are not fulfilled, and have now been modified. In 2017, the PLP promised to abolish middle schools and replaced them with signature secondary schools that would have specialised in different disciplines. The 2017 promise is less ambitious and reflects something of an about-turn by the PLP. While middle schools will still be replaced with secondary schools, the schools will be no longer as specialised; instead, it appears they will offer a variety of skills under one roof.
This is probably correct, since deciding career directions for 12-year-olds was always a ludicrous idea, and the abolition of middle schools always seemed to be an exercise in nostalgia for a predecessor system that was abolished because it was failing. The problem for the PLP is that it cannot back away fully from this major initiative, as poorly conceived as it is.
There are three more welcome elements in the education section of the platform. One is a general commitment to improve teacher quality and training, although this remains tantalisingly short on detail, while the other pledge — to create an autonomous education authority — is also an OBA initiative. Finally, there is yet another promise to give schools more autonomy through schools boards, a long overdue idea that briefly breathed and died in the wake of the Hopkins Report more than a decade ago.
That fact makes clear that politicians on both sides of the political divide have been spectacularly unsuccessful in improving confidence in public education, but begs the question of whether there are any policy areas that would not benefit if they were free from political interference.
The problem may be more that politicians cannot resist the urge to interfere in the detailed workings of their ministries rather than setting clear and well-thought-out policies, and then allowing their professional civil servants to implement them.
The other apparent change of heart from the 2017 platform is in its other major initiative. Before Covid-19, the Government seemed to be determined to implement a system of healthcare that was widely accessible and would have a single health insurer paying claims. The PLP now appears to have backed away from this, moving towards the outcomes-based model advocated by Bermuda First, which opposed the health ministry model.
It is important for voters to look carefully at the PLP's promises in relation to its 2017 promises. Neither of these two major initiatives has been fulfilled, and both appear to have been significantly altered. It can be argued that with experience in government, and having engaged in relatively open public consultation, the PLP has modified its ideas.
But voters would be also entitled to question whether the many promises in the 2020 platform are genuine, or whether, once they have been placed in the crucible of public scrutiny, they will emerge in an entirely different shape?
This is especially important when it comes to the economy, the leading issue in the election amid the Covid-19 crisis. Barring the miracle development of a vaccine, tourism is unlikely to recover for another year, while the closure of the Fairmont Southampton for two years is a staggering, albeit expected, blow for the industry. With Bermuda's major foreign exchange earner, reinsurance, more stable but hardly in meteoric growth mode, the prospects for the economy are grim.
Given that, the need for innovative approaches to the economy is essential. Regrettably, the PLP's proposals fall short. David Burt, the Premier, continues to put great faith in a digital revolution that remains unborn. The PLP claims that 60 jobs have been created in two years. Of course, the Government has been in place for three years, but it is still not clear what those jobs are.
Nonetheless, the PLP has announced the launch of a digital bank, which Mr Burt says will be the banker for the gaming industry, another unfulfilled 2017 promise. Just how this will work and why it will succeed, when evidently all of Bermuda's conventional banks have been unwilling to support the industry because of concerns over Bermuda's “Big Brother” approach to compliance, remains to be seen.
The PLP also promises a Bermuda Trust Fund, which will be “seeded by investors in Bermuda”. This fund will be used to “benefit economically disadvantaged Bermudians to reduce generational income inequality”.
This is a praiseworthy goal, and the platform also promises to use the Human Rights Act provision for “positive discrimination” to assist people of African descent, women and the differently abled.
This newspaper supports the intention of these initiatives, but as with the 2017 education and health reforms, there is little detail behind these ideas, and voters should question just how they will be implemented and whether the end result will be radically different from those in the platform.
Just who are the “investors in Bermuda” that are referred to? Are they non-Bermudians who can use this vehicle to skirt around the 60:40 rule, reform of which is glaringly absent from this platform?
The other factor the PLP is relying on is the cannabis industry, which has indeed had extensive consultation. There appears to be an assumption that this will turn into a golden goose, but, again, just how this will happen remains to be seen. Elsewhere in the platform, there are promises for vertical farms and an increase in leafy green vegetables by 35 per cent, but it is fair to wonder what will happen if all of Bermuda's farmers turn to cannabis-growing.
More positively, the Government looks to expand alternative energy and to help all Bermuda residents to enjoy the benefits.
There is much more in the platform and space does not permit a full examination. But voters should carefully consider what has been accomplished from the 2017 platform, how those promises have changed and how realistic some of the promises in the 2020 platform are.