PLP will use political capital to execute overdue policy change
The Government's announcement that it will relax requirements for permanent residence should be welcomed, although it will be likely criticised from both ends of the political spectrum.
Pro-business advocates and supporters of the One Bermuda Alliance have said with some justification that it has taken the Progressive Labour Party far too long to acknowledge the need for immigration reform. Further, they are already noting the hypocrisy of the party, which opposed similar reforms six years ago.
The latter criticism will be made also from the grass roots of the PLP, which will question how it is that a party that has spoke the rhetoric of “Bermudians First” for years can now talk about the need to relax immigration.
At best, this is a belated recognition of reality, laid bare by the economic crisis wrought by Covid-19. A more sceptical view would hold that this is an utterly cynical move by the PLP, which knew full well what needed to be done, but misled its supporters into believing there was another way for Bermuda to attain economic growth without relaxing immigration controls.
Jason Hayward, the labour minister, would be quick to point out the reforms are not as far-reaching as the much maligned Pathways to Status that the OBA tried and failed to pass in the teeth of wide public and PLP opposition.
He is correct in that these decisions offer a path to permanent residence, not status, but apart from the right to vote — and that's a big exception — the proposals are quite similar.
And again, it is a matter more of tone and language in making this announcement, rather than the details of the policy change.
The finance minister, Curtis Dickinson, who certainly comes from the more conservative wing of the party, said: “The notion that the Government can pursue international economic openness by insulating the economy from changes to immigration laws is incorrect.
“As with all residents, long-term residents add to the labour supply, they consume goods and services, thereby creating jobs. In other cases, they may be job creators. More importantly, they are our friends, our families, and our neighbours. People we see and interact with on a regular basis.”
After discussing Bermuda’s declining birthrate and shrinking working-age population, he added: “In that context, together with the Government’s aspiration to rebuild the economy, in a manner which is consistent with its economic recovery plan, now is the time to accelerate immigration reform for long-term residents within three areas identified by the Ministry of Finance together with our widely recognised specialists on international economics, the Fiscal Responsibility Panel, as follows:
• Rising healthcare costs
• Rising costs of support for the elderly
• The underfunding of pension schemes”
Mr Dickinson’s point here, apart from sounding eerily like former OBA minister Michael Fahy, is that apart from expanding the economy and creating jobs, the presence of non-Bermudians and younger Bermudians, especially, is critical to contain healthcare costs and to support the elderly Bermudian population.
In other words, if the working-age population is not increased — and this can happen only through immigration — healthcare costs will skyrocket, finding ways to support the elderly will become harder and pension schemes will run out of money because more will be taken out of them than is being put in.
Mr Dickinson, as mentioned earlier, is from the conservative wing of the PLP and was a banker, so it may not be a surprise if he holds these views.
But Mr Hayward has been traditionally viewed as coming from the labour wing of the party and is a founder of the People’s Campaign, which fiercely opposed Pathways to Status.
While slightly more circumspect than Mr Dickinson, Mr Hayward said this: “Many non-Bermudians have embraced, integrated into, and contributed to Bermuda for an extended period. These non-Bermudians should be afforded some level of security to enable them to remain.”
He also reiterated the Government’s pledge to put in place “simplified, fair, and modern“ immigration legislation and has also acknowledged that this cannot be simply a matter of dealing with new arrivals to Bermuda, but also acknowledging those who have been on the island for some time.
Inevitably, there will be haggling over details of this policy change.
Promises to allow parents of Bermudian status holders to remain in Bermuda after the child reaches adulthood and to allow children of second-generation Permanent Resident’s Certificate holders to also have PRCs are relatively straightforward.
People who have spent 20 years in Bermuda will also be eligible for permanent residence. For those born in Bermuda or who came at an early age, it is not clear yet what an early age means.
But Mr Hayward was unambiguous on the broad policy. He said: “The Government proposes to expand the eligibility criteria for the granting of a PRC to include any person who has been ordinarily resident in Bermuda for 20 years or more.”
For a government that is already running into opposition over mandatory supervised quarantine and school closures, this is a major test of its ability to pass big changes.
This is the right policy and it can be argued that only the PLP can make these changes, but this will require a large expenditure of the Government’s deep political capital. But that is presumably why David Burt, the Premier, held an early election and it is what a 24-seat majority is for.