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The Budget debate: a tragedy wrapped in farce

Long-held tradition: Curtis Dickinson shows the briefcase containing his maiden Budget at the House of Assembly in 2019 (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Passing the Budget is the single most important act carried out by Bermuda’s Parliament in any given year.

Pedants will point out that the Budget itself does not get passed and has no legal standing. There is a speech called a Budget Statement, which the Minister of Finance presents after — at least in non-pandemic times — some ceremony, followed days later by what is known as the economic debate, which starts with the Opposition leader’s Reply to the Budget.

What is actually approved is the Appropriations Act. Leading up to that, MPs carry out the Budget debate in which various “heads” or sections of the Appropriations Act are debated. Then the whole Act is passed or rejected. The House of Assembly passed the Act about a week ago.

It then goes to the Senate for further debate, although this is something of an exercise in futility since the Senate cannot block or delay the Budget because under the Westminster system, appointed legislative chambers must pass anything that involves spending or raising money.

What matters is that the Appropriations Act must be enacted before April 1, which is when the financial year begins. Without it, the Government has no ability to spend money or raise taxes. It is impossible for a government to execute policies if it cannot pay its civil servants or other bills.

It also matters because how money is raised and how it is spent is the most concrete manifestation of how a party governs. It may adjust taxes to reduce inequity or to encourage economic activity. It may believe in investing in infrastructure, in improving the social safety net or in aggressively reducing debt.

Whatever the policy, it cannot be executed without the Budget being passed, and it is the central feature of democratic government that these plans be examined and tested in the crucible of debate. Indeed, this was the cause of the American Revolution. Less martially, it is through debate that errors can be pointed out, good ideas welcomed and where political parties explain their different visions for the community.

That is what is supposed to happen. In Bermuda it no longer does. The Budget debate in Bermuda is a rubber-stamping farce. And that is a tragedy for democracy.

For three weeks, Members of Parliament are paid to go to the House of Assembly — or in these days sit in front of their computer screens — to listen to one minister after another read excruciatingly dull briefs prepared with massive effort by teams of civil servants. If two hours have been set aside for the debate, the brief will take up one hour and 45 minutes — or more. If four hours are set aside, then the brief will expand to fill all but a few minutes. With what little time is left, the shadow minister will squeeze in one or two questions.

This is not a debate. It is the murder of debate. It is what one party states do. It is an insult to the voters and the taxpayers, who deserve better and should demand better.

There was a time when ministers gave relatively brief presentations followed by debate in which not only the shadow minister but other MPs had the chance to speak on the ministry under scrutiny.

It began to change in the mid-1990s when the United Bermuda Party began to extend the length of its briefs. Some will recall the late C.V. “Jim” Woolridge delivering an exceptionally long brief on tourism with the express purpose of preventing his Opposition counterpart, the late David Allen, from speaking. This was apparently revenge for Mr Allen having taken up virtually all of the previous year’s debate. Then, that was the exception. It has now become the rule, practised by most ministers from all governing parties.

The present debate plumbed the depths. The education debate this year, at a time when Bermuda’s schools are about to undergo their biggest changes in decades, saw the identical brief being delivered twice — once in the House of Assembly by the minister and once in the Senate by the junior minister. In both cases, Opposition and independent legislators had virtually no time to speak.

It might be argued that when the Government has a 30-6 majority in the House of Assembly, there is no need for debate because the people spoke just months ago in the October General Election.

This is nonsense.

First, if there is ever a need for debate, it is when one party dominates. The risks of conventional wisdom and group-think are never higher.

Second, Bermuda is facing its greatest economic challenge in decades. It has taken on unimaginable levels of debt. The Government owes it to the people who elected it to tell them what it is doing and to answer questions and criticisms.

Bermuda has a long history of representative government, which, while assuredly flawed for much of that time, dates back 400 years. Momentous changes have been made since 1620 and most likely will again. But democracy is like a muscle. If it is not exercised, it will wither away. Then, when you most need it, it will be of no use.

For that reason alone, the Government — starting with the Senate today — should end this farce and revert to genuine debate.

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Published March 29, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 27, 2021 at 11:01 pm)

The Budget debate: a tragedy wrapped in farce

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