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Commissiong and female representation

Cognitive dissonance is defined as the state of having inconsistent thoughts.

If you have been experiencing this feeling since David Burt announced his new Cabinet on Thursday, you are not alone.

Here's why. In August, Rolfe Commissiong resigned the Pembroke South East seat he had held since 2012 for the Progressive Labour Party.

Mr Commissiong, now a senator, resigned because he admitted he had made an “inappropriate remark” two years earlier. He said he had settled the matter and the other party and he had agreed not to disclose the information.

But he had since learnt the incident was likely to be made public and had therefore decided to resign so that he would not be a “distraction” to the PLP in the forthcoming election campaign.

Mr Burt, the Premier, said he had asked for an explanation about a harassment accusation made against an MP in the last Parliament with the clear inference it involved Mr Commissiong.

He then accepted Mr Commissiong's resignation. This was convenient as it meant Curtis Dickinson, who had captured a One Bermuda Alliance seat in Warwick in a by-election, could move there. A boundary change in that Warwick North East seat had made it more vulnerable to being recaptured by the OBA and Mr Burt was able to ensure that the man he described as the best finance minister in Bermuda's history would now have a safe seat.

Whether this was sheer happenstance or something more deliberate has never been made clear. But Mr Commissiong's appointment as Government Senate Leader and Minister of Community Affairs and Sport begs a number of questions.

How is it that the incident involving Mr Commissiong was serious enough for him to resign his seat, but evidently not so serious that he could be made a Cabinet minister just weeks later? What had changed that made him worthy of what was in effect a promotion?

It makes no sense. It defines cognitive dissonance — the idea of holding two contradictory positions at the same time.

Mr Commissiong has not revealed what the incident was and claims he is legally prevented from doing so, presumably at his own initiative. But Mr Burt presumably is not bound in the same way and the public deserve a better explanation than the one delivered on Thursday.

Either the incident was indeed severe enough to merit Mr Commissiong's resignation, in which case there is no way of justifying his appointment to the Senate and to the Cabinet, or this whole incident was cooked up as a way of moving Mr Dickinson to a safer seat — probably unnecessarily given the scale of the PLP landslide — and this is now Mr Commissiong's reward.

Either way, it is unacceptable and a government elected on the basis of transparency should do better than this. If Mr Burt does not offer a better explanation, he will have demonstrated precisely the kind of arrogance that observers warned was a symptom of super majorities.

Mr Burt's defence is simply inadequate. There is a pro forma defence of the PLP's record of female leadership, followed by a claim the issue had been “resolved to the satisfaction of all parties” and a promise to monitor Mr Commissiong's behaviour.

None of this answers the fundamental question: what did Mr Commissiong do and how could it be serious enough to disqualify him from running for the House of Assembly, but so benign that he could take a seat in the Cabinet?

Mr Burt's defence of the PLP's proud record of female leadership — and two premiers and one party leader is something to be proud of — is belied by his own actions and the dismissal of Lovitta Foggo from the Cabinet.

Ms Foggo appeared to do a reasonable job building the unemployment benefit from scratch. It helped thousands of Bermudians who found themselves out of work as a result of the Covid-19 crisis and whatever teething problems there were were understandable. Being dropped from Cabinet seems to be a cruel reward for that work, and being replaced by Mr Commissiong — who, based on the Premier's own words, apparently has a record of treating women disrespectfully — must make it all the more galling.

But then, when you look at the new Cabinet, this should come as no surprise. Of the 13 Cabinet ministers, only three are women. While Tinée Furbert joined the Cabinet, she did not increase the number, as Ms Foggo was dropped. Attorney-General Kathy-Lynn Simmons was already a minister while in the Senate in the last Parliament. Mr Commissiong's appointment missed a chance to add a female senator.

How is it that representatives of 50 per cent of the population are deemed good enough to fill only 23 per cent of the seats in Cabinet?

In fact, the same problem exists in the House of Assembly, generally. Of the 30 PLP MPs, only seven are women, again making up the same 23 per cent of the parliamentary group.

The ratio is even worse for the One Bermuda Alliance, where just one of the six MPs is female, although the decimation of their parliamentary team gives them some excuse — it was not entirely in their control. But there is none for Craig Cannonier installing an all-male team in the Senate when he became leader. Again, there was some cognitive dissonance in this when he baldly stated in the campaign that the OBA's target demographic was women.

This kind of imbalance does not happen by accident. It happens either because both parties deliberately prefer male candidates over females, or because they do so unconsciously. The latter is known as implicit bias, and if the same disproportion occurred on the basis of race, and black Bermudians, who make up approximately 65 per cent of voters, had 30 per cent of the seats in the House of Assembly and Cabinet, there would be an uproar — and rightly so.

It is probably worth noting for the record that precisely that imbalance does exist in reverse. Bermuda now has three white MPs in a 36-seat House, despite whites making up at least 25 per cent of voters.

Of course, there is a risk of becoming obsessed with identity politics. If your worth is determined by your gender and your race and not your talents, then worthy people will be excluded. But such measures need to be tempered by the reality that for much of Bermuda's history, white males have had a disproportionate share of power in Bermuda, and it was structural and deliberate, and not owing to any innate superiority. It's just good sense that governments should reflect their electorates.

The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau was asked why his first Cabinet in 2015 was gender-equal and pithily answered: “Because it's 2015.”

In Bermuda, it is 2020 and women make up just one quarter of the Cabinet and less than 20 per cent of the House of Assembly. Bermuda should be better than this.

Say what ... : Rolfe Commissiong said he did not want to be a distraction when he stepped down as a candidate pre-election. So what is this?

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Published October 10, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated October 10, 2020 at 8:14 am)

Commissiong and female representation

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