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Burt’s master plan pays off – now comes hard part

Give credit to David Burt. The Premier is a master politician.

When he called the General Election five weeks ago, he caught the One Bermuda Alliance on the back foot, placed a figurative noose around the neck of the barely nascent Free Democratic Movement and was able to set the narrative for the early part of the campaign.

As a result, he now sits in the House of Assembly with an historic 30-6 majority, a six-seat gain on the 2017 General Election that means he can govern comfortably until 2025 if he so wishes.

Certainly, he has a lock on the leadership of the Progressive Labour Party. No previous leader can match his success. While large majorities can be hard to manage and may well sow the seeds for future divisions, Mr Burt is now the man who delivered two crushing wins for his party and has so far avoided the kind of infighting that bedevilled his predecessors as premier. He will be hard to dislodge, even if there was a viable leadership contender; there is not.

Now comes the hard part. Mr Burt has received the voters' thanks for his government's management of the coronavirus crisis.

He sought the mandate because of the hard decisions that loom on the economy, which remains in deep trouble. At the same time, he has promised a transformation of the economy so that its benefits, such as they are, can be shared more equitably on the basis of race. And somehow he must do this while also bringing Bermuda's galloping debt under control.

That's a lot of promises in the best of times. Now Mr Burt has to deliver.

There has been some magical thinking that because Mr Burt and the PLP managed Covid-19 well they can do the same for the economy. But with the virus, the Government followed a single plan which, while it needed to be adjusted over time, was relatively straightforward. Certainly, closing an economy is a hard decision to make, but it was also the only possible decision.

Bringing about an economic recovery, especially when your second economic pillar is all but shut down and its major element is closed for two years, is much harder. An economy is much more complex and the ramifications of decisions are harder to predict and can have massive unintended consequences. And the PLP's economic record, as has been stated previously, is not that good.

So Mr Burt and Curtis Dickinson, the finance minister, have their work cut out for them. But they do at least have a mandate. They can be bold and if there are hard decisions to be made, and there will be, they should be taken early. Delay will only prolong the pain to come. With a 24-seat majority there are no excuses for not acting.

For the OBA, the picture is much less clear-cut. Unprepared and unable to field a full slate of candidates, Bermuda's centre-right party needs to go back to the drawing board and do the kind of deep self-reflection it avoided after the 2017 election.

Relying on a reputation for economic competence and casting aspersions on the PLP's earned reputation for self-dealing is obviously not enough. The OBA needs to decide what its core values are and what it stands for, attract candidates and supporters who share those values, and set out its policies accordingly.

Voters generally have an idea of what the PLP stands for and roughly what it will do in power. It is harder to say the same for the OBA beyond platitudes about bringing people together, especially when the PLP can be relied on to conjure images of pepper-sprayed senior citizens when they do — as unfair as that may be.

It also needs to carry out a root-and-branch restructuring; while the PLP vote largely held in this election, the OBA vote seemingly collapsed.

Historically, a low turnout has benefited the OBA and before it the United Bermuda Party. Its failure to turn out its supporters in 2020 borders on criminal negligence.

In the end, responsibility has to lie with the leadership of the party. Craig Cannonier has political strengths: great charisma and a genuine desire to improve Bermudians' quality of life. But he has to be held accountable for the party's lack of readiness and the weakness of its message. It is hard to see how he survives for very long as leader, and he should resign.

Who will replace him is an open question with just five MPs to choose from. Deputy leader Leah Scott lost her seat and others may be too inexperienced. Former premier Michael Dunkley — the only OBA candidate to increase his share of the vote — has already lost two general elections as a party leader but may be the only interim choice until new faces can be found and brought forward.

Rebuilding the OBA will be harder now with the emergence of the FDM. Although at the outset it might have been thought that it would mainly be a threat to the PLP since it is led by Marc Bean, a former leader, and numbers a former PLP Cabinet minister — Patrice Minors — in its ranks, it appears to have taken away as many or more OBA votes and knocked the OBA into third place in many of the seats where it ran. Its pro-capitalist views, support of small government and a progressive stance on many social issues suggests Mr Bean's party could supplant the OBA in time as Bermuda's leading centre-right party, but without the albatross of Front Street and the white establishment hanging around its neck.

Mr Bean's failure to win a seat does not mean the death knell of the FDM, although it makes its job harder. Over time, its policies will come under closer scrutiny and an occasionally breathtaking honesty and courage to think the unthinkable will need to be modified to the realities of governing. For now, the FDM has very quickly established itself and if it can keep itself going and relevant in the coming years, it may signal a long overdue political realignment.

Some other lessons can be learnt from this election. The OBA decision to go negative in its campaigning as a means of slowing the PLP's momentum appeared to backfire.

Mr Burt's presidential style of campaigning — in which voters could have been forgiven for believing he had single-handedly ended the coronavirus pandemic — did him no harm, but campaigning in this way means that when things go wrong, and there will be times when they do, there will be no one else to blame; no Cabinet ministers to sack or civil servants to throw under the nearest bus.

If you campaign as Superman, you are your own kryptonite.

The PLP once again demonstrated that it is a highly effective campaigning machine, and was able to turn out its support more effectively than the Opposition parties.

Similarly, its advertising and mainstream and social-media campaigns were more effective, as was its on-the-ground canvassing approach.

But only 60 per cent of registered voters in contested constituencies turning out should be a concern. That's close to another record and not one to be proud of.

Jubilant PLP supporters and disheartened OBA and FDM backers should also heed history.

In 1985, the UBP crushed the PLP 31-7, with the National Liberal Party winning two seats. Thirteen years later, the PLP, having reformed itself, became the government for the first time. Nothing is permanent in politics and voters can change their minds.

Gaining and keeping power requires listening to the public, resisting the temptation to believe your own public relations and staying humble.

Mr Burt and the PLP have been given the voters' trust; it should not be abused.

Moment of triumph: David Burt proved himself a master politician with a second crushing election victory (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published October 02, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated October 02, 2020 at 4:10 pm)

Burt’s master plan pays off – now comes hard part

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