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Listen to the critics

The Progressive Labour Party discovered this week that even a landslide General Election victory does not give a government a blank cheque to do whatever it wants.

While the PLP was quick to frame the defeat of the Cannabis Licensing Act in the Senate on Wednesday as an example of appointed senators doing the bidding of the British Government, it can as easily be blamed on hubris.

It also gives further ammunition to the notion that this controversy has never been entirely about legalising cannabis but about picking a fight with Britain as a means of building support for independence.

Although that theory remains an outlier, it seems to explain why the PLP and the Premier, David Burt, did so little to satisfy the objections to the Bill that arose — including from within the governing party.

Itching for a fight: David Burt, the Premier, and the PLP have not held back in reminding that the independent senators who blocked the cannabis Bill are Government House appointees (Photgraph by Blaire Simmons)

It remains more plausible that Mr Burt and the Bill’s supporters within the PLP caucus simply assumed that the Senate would recognise the scale of the ruling party’s election mandate and feel unable to oppose this Bill.

The danger of a big majority is that it gives the leadership the feeling that they are invulnerable, while the supportive noises of supporters and yes men drown out the voices of those who raise legitimate objections.

While arrogance remains the most obvious and plausible explanation, it does not explain Mr Burt’s apparent readiness for a confrontation with the Governor and the British Government.

Mr Burt must have been warned that Rena Lalgie, the Governor, would not be able to sign the Bill into law if it violated Britain’s treaty commitments on drug interdiction.

Mr Burt later claimed to have taken advice on this and said he believed it could still be enacted. But that was not what he told the House of Assembly days earlier when he declared the Governor’s refusal to enact the law would “destroy the relationship that we have with the United Kingdom”.

His own attorney-general, Kathy Lynn Simmons, confirmed this in the House, saying: “The UK Government through Government House has confirmed support for Bermuda’s policy and legislation only so far as it does not contravene the UK’s international obligations.

“To be clear, the Governor has indicated that she will be unable to give assent to any legislation that contravenes those international obligations.”

Had Mr Burt shared the legal advice that would have allegedly enabled the Governor to give her assent, Ms Simmons would surely have said so in the House. But she did not.

And she and Mr Burt would also have known that the Governor of the British Virgin Islands had already refused to sign similar legislation, causing a stand-off there.

Given that, if Mr Burt’s main goal in all of this was to remove the criminalisation of cannabis from Bermuda’s books, and enable people to grow enough cannabis to satisfy their personal needs, then he would surely have wanted to find a compromise with the British to draft a Bill that could become law.

But Mr Burt did not. He might have believed Britain was bluffing and would not prevent the duly-elected Bermuda Government from passing legislation, or he might have wanted the confrontation because it would strengthen the PLP’s long-held dream of independence.

In many ways, that dream seems as far off as ever. Despite Brexit, the case for remaining an Overseas Territory remains strong. The number of Bermudians now living and studying in Britain must now number in the thousands. Independence would force them to return or apply for leave to remain.

And Mr Burt may think the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is “a trinket”, but the reality is that if Bermuda was independent now, not a single Bermudian would have the vaccine. Instead, Bermuda is among the world leaders on a per-capita basis for immunisation. That is possible only because the British Government supplied the vaccine to its Overseas Territories.

On that basis, Mr Burt may have seen the fight over the cannabis law as one worth having. And in that sense, it would not matter much if the Senate rejected the legislation or if the Governor refused to sign it.

But it does raise questions about the honesty of the PLP.

None of the concerns raised in the House of Assembly were addressed before the Bill went to the Senate. Unsurprisingly, when these concerns and others were raised by independent senators, the Government did little to respond to them.

When the Bill was defeated, the PLP was quick to remind that the three independent senators were appointed by Government House, the inference being that they were following instructions. But senior members of the PLP know very well this is not how the system works. The independent senators are appointed by the Governor, but they do not get direction from Government House.

They are appointed to be independent of political parties and to act as a brake in the event that the elected government brings legislation that seems unwise. In the event that the elected government is bound and determined to proceed, it can do so after 12 months. But the system is designed to create a chance to take a breath and reconsider.

The suggestion that a veteran nurse who was the chief executive of the Bermuda Hospitals Board, a veteran educator who was principal of the Berkeley Institute. and the chief executive of one of Bermuda’s largest insurers do not know their own minds is risible.

On this Bill, they brought relevant experience to the table, which is precisely what they are there for. That the President of the Senate took the time to consult physicians, that the Vice-President had personal experience of the effects of cannabis on young minds and that the remaining independent senator found gaps in the business structures shows they were not simply following instructions. They did the work.

Rather than pillory them or use this as a political wedge, the PLP should reconsider those parts of the Bill that are problematic. This should include the export provision that seems to be the main UK objection. It is difficult to see how cannabis exports from Bermuda will be commercially viable anyway.

Few disagree that the criminalisation of cannabis has caused unnecessary pain or that prohibition has failed. Rather than focusing on the potential but unrealised financial benefits of cultivation, the focus needs to be on the public-health aspects of the drug, just as it is with alcohol and tobacco.

Rather than stoke the embers of a potential blaze with Government House, Mr Burt and the Government should act in the public interest and consider how to amend the legislation so that it has more public support and might actually pass into law.

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Published March 06, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 05, 2021 at 6:32 pm)

Listen to the critics

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