Limits of political power
Victors of landslide election victories do not often get stark reminders of the limits of power within days of their election triumph, but that is what happened to the Progressive Labour Party last week with the controversy over the Rolfe Commissiong appointment.
It is to David Burt’s credit that the he recognised the error quickly, and presumably chastened by the size and rapidity of the backlash, had dropped Mr Commissiong as both a senator and as a Cabinet minister just two days after he was sworn in.
The backlash was noteworthy because it driven less by political leaders than by Social Justice Bermuda, and by women on social media and no doubt within the PLP, where females, despite their lack of representation in the leadership, form the party’s backbone and have done so for decades.
To be fair, One Bermuda Alliance MP Leah Scott was quick to issue a video protest, as were other OBA female candidates, and OBA leader Craig Cannonier condemned the decision on Friday. So, too, did PLP MP Jamahl Simmons without naming names, although he was conspicuously alone in his party and deserves credit for that.
So the fierce criticism the appointment engendered clearly affected Mr Burt.
Initially, the Premier seemed determined to defend the appointment and counted on his own personal popularity and a pledge to monitor Mr Commissiong closely to satisfy his supporters. He also made a rather Trumpian attempt to say he did not know much about the details of the incident itself.
Clearly none of that washed. Mr Burt has more explaining to do. Simply dropping Mr Commissiong is not enough. Mr Burt needs to explain why he concluded that Mr Commissiong’s behaviour was poor enough to prevent him from running for the House of Assembly in the first place, but not equally unsuitable to merit the leadership of the Senate and a Cabinet portfolio.
He could well simply say he made a mistake and has learnt from it, although it seems obvious that there was more to this than that. Mr Burt has fairly acute political antennae. This seems to be a case of hubris in the wake of the election victory numbing his usually strong political sense.
This is a reminder that no matter how overwhelming the PLP’s victory was, it remains conditional. The OBA’s 2012 victory occurred largely because a substantial bloc of PLP supporters did not vote because of unhappiness with their party’s economic management and the whiff of corruption that had settled like a nasty cologne. For the OBA to make its success permanent, it needed to recognise that those who had not voted could return to the polls if the OBA failed to deliver – and they did just that in 2017.
In 2020, a substantial bloc of OBA voters, unhappy with either political choice, but also not motivated to vote against the PLP, in part because the PLP did not exercise its traditional practice of using racial resentment to motivate its own base, never showed up.
As in 2017, voters who stay away from the polls once can return. If Mr Burt wishes to maintain his impressive majority, he needs to listen to the public and he needs to govern to the middle.
The PLP will also know that there is a viable alternative in the Free Democratic Movement. Black voters who would never vote for the OBA, or the old United Bermuda Party, could conceivably vote for a party that has none of its baggage and is led by a former PLP leader. It is unfortunate and perhaps telling that the FDM did not notably condemn Mr Commissiong’s appointment. That may have been owing to a drop in focus after the election or a tactical decision not to criticise every government decision. But it is a miss, especially when FDM leader Marc Bean has a well-documented history of misogyny.
On that basis, Mr Burt and the PLP will know they need to tread more carefully than a 24-seat majority might imply; there are limits to what any government can safely do, and there is also a risk of using up political capital unnecessarily.
This is especially so because the Government will indeed have tough and unpopular decisions to make as Bermuda struggles to escape recession, and it will need to use political capital to defend them because it will feel they are right and necessary.
Clearly, defending Mr Commissiong does not meet that standard.