New beginning for OBA
Cole Simons’s accession as leader of the One Bermuda Alliance, and therefore Leader of the Opposition, signals that the party is beginning to accept its humbling at the polls on October 1 and is beginning the long process of rebuilding.
That rebuilding could not happen while Craig Cannonier was still leader. Mr Cannonier is a good man and has been a dedicated servant to the community since erupting on to the political scene as leader of the Bermuda Democratic Alliance. Then he was a political newcomer and a breath of fresh air. Since then, he has metamorphosed into the person who led his party to the heaviest defeat in Bermuda history. As long as he remained leader, the OBA would be tied to that debacle.
This newspaper had already called for Mr Cannonier to step down, but he seemed initially reluctant to do so. With some time to consider, he apparently decided the party could not move forward with him at the helm. He was right, but that will not have made the decision any easier.
Mr Simons is hardly a fresh face, having been an MP since 1998 and a longtime shadow minister and Cabinet minister. In many ways, he defines the term “safe pair of hands”. As Progressive Labour Party MP Christopher Famous has noted, he is one of the least confrontational MPs in the House and has long built ties and friendships across the aisle.
Calm and unflappable, he will bring a steadiness to the OBA, which it needs right now. Whether he will be the long-term leader of the party, or more of an interim leader as it reflects and rebuilds, remains to be seen. He will inevitably be compared to David Burt, the Premier, and will need to show he can match him in the House and in the country.
Past leaders have grown into the role – the late Frederick Wade springs to mind – but Mr Simons may also end up serving until a younger MP such as Jarion Richardson or a complete newcomer emerges.
In the meantime, Mr Simons must start the rebuilding process.
The OBA, like the United Bermuda Party before it, has had difficulty pushing back against the notion that it represents the old white establishment. Unlike right-of-centre parties in other countries, it has struggled to adapt or to accept changing times.
In part, this is because it has always been somewhat amorphous, which has, ironically, made it easier for others to label it and harder for it to set out its own identity.
Mr Simons would do well to take his team of surviving MPs away to hash out just what the party stands for and what its core principles are.
Political parties are at their essence groups of like-minded people who come together to gain power and to implement the policies they believe are best for their communities.
But for parties to be successful, parties must have a clear message based on their central values. Voters need to know what a party stands for. For parties to be successful and to present a logical message, their policies need to follow from their values.
Certainly there needs to be room for flexibility and scope to address the needs of the people. But first, a party must have a clear identity.
Right now, it is not clear what the OBA believes in. It is generally pro-business and believes in smaller government, seems to be anti-debt and believes in diversity and the races working together.
But none of this is that clear. Mr Simons needs to work with his team and their supporters to enunciate a clear set of principles that they believe will guide Bermuda. From there, the policies will follow, and they should be generally aligned with those principles. If Mr Simons can achieve this and if these ideas and policies are popular, supporters will return and the party can rebuild its structure —beginning with its branches and grassroots base, which has fallen into disrepair.
Mr Simons has a clean slate to work with. He has early opportunity to set out the direction in which he thinks the party should go through his selection of senators who need to be in place fairly quickly. After its defeat, he has a slew of ex-MPS, ex-senators and former candidates to choose from, but he may also want to cast his net more widely.
The OBA is also in the process of selecting a new chair after former chairman Justin Mathias and former deputy chairwoman and election candidate Catherine Kempe put their hats in the ring.
Mr Mathias claims he was driven out when Jeanne Atherden stepped down and was replaced by Mr Cannonier. He also lost a by-election. He is framing his candidacy as a change candidate who will try to move the party away from its white, oligarchic legacy, but has been short on specifics as to how he would do that.
Ms Kempe has yet to set out her stall.
To some degree, the role of chairman should be more administrative, and as has been noted, there is plenty of work to be done there. Mr Mathias is not wrong in setting out a philosophical position; he just needs to be more specific.
Whether Mr Simons should back a candidate or not is an open question. But what should be clear is that the chairman should support the leader, whoever it may be, and not the other way around. If Mr Mathias is successful, this is something he will need to keep in mind.
Again, Mr Simons will need to keep in mind that the PLP is not the only opponent his party faces. There are many who like the fresh ideas and spirit — and lack of establishment ties — of the Free Democratic Movement.
If the OBA wants to be the Opposition and a government-in-waiting, it will need to make clear it is the only alternative. It has advantages over the FDM in that it has six MPs and three senators — a much bigger platform than the new party.
Mr Simons and the OBA need to use that advantage to clearly express what they believe and to explain why they would be a better government than the PLP.