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A world turned upside down

Happier times: Curtis Dickinson, the former finance minister, with David Burt, the Premier and new finance minister (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Julian Hall, the late lawyer and politician, once had a newspaper column called “Through the Looking Glass”.

He said he named it after the sequel to Alice in Wonderland because in the Lewis Carroll novel, Alice enters a strange new world through a looking glass, or mirror, and everything is reversed, just as it is in a reflection.

People listening to the House of Assembly last Friday evening could have been forgiven for thinking they, too, had gone through a looking glass.

The six One Bermuda Alliance MPs all spoke on the sudden resignation of the Progressive Labour Party’s Curtis Dickinson as finance minister early last week.

Although a few admitted that they had not agreed with Mr Dickinson on absolutely everything, they all praised him for his character, probity and efforts to steer Bermuda through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was surprising in an Opposition whose job it is, at least in normal times, to criticise the Government.

A listener might have expected the governing PLP’s MPs to bask in the praise of one of their own.

Indeed, David Burt, the Premier, has frequently declared Mr Dickinson to be one of the best finance ministers, Bermuda had ever had — if not the best.

But on Friday, government MPs’ praise for Mr Dickinson’s performance was distinctly muted.

Yes, Mr Dickinson had been a good finance minister and, of course, he remained a member of the PLP team, available to advise and guide, but there was plenty of other talent and he was hardly irreplaceable.

This was the government line for the night.

That did not fully explain why, if there was so much talent, Mr Burt felt obliged to take on the job himself, in addition to being Premier and tourism minister.

There were some hints that Mr Burt would not be finance minister for long; perhaps long enough to steer the Budget through the House. In fairness, he has done this before, and for a new minister to be landed with the Budget just two weeks before its delivery would be a big ask.

But Mr Burt did not say this himself.

Of all the government speakers, Jason Hayward had probably the best speech of the night, cleverly finding the Reply to the Budget delivered last year by Cole Simons, the Leader of the Opposition, who was unsparing in his criticism of Mr Dickinson there; a far cry from his praise on Friday night.

Mr Hayward got his reward yesterday when he was handed added responsibilities for business development by Mr Burt. This may also have been a rebuke to Wayne Furbert, one of the Cabinet ministers who remained notably silent, and who previously looked after these business departments as Cabinet Office minister.

What was also notable on Friday night was what was unsaid, which was perhaps fitting for the “Through the Looking Glass” mood on the night.

First, there was no explanation for Mr Dickinson’s resignation and still has not been. One of the oddities of the Covid-19 House of Assembly, which is held remotely is that it is difficult for ordinary listeners to know who is present and who is not. But by all appearances, Mr Dickinson was not in attendance. If he was, he chose not to speak, and nor did Mr Burt give reasons.

Few Cabinet ministers, let alone MPs, apart from Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, defended Mr Burt himself, although several defended the overall performance of the government.

An exception was Scott Simmons. The government Whip conceded that the public were not happy with the Government’s performance and the PLP had to spend more time listening to the voters. In the land of the PLP, this kind of mild criticism can be interpreted as outright rebellion.

Mr Burt also got help from former minister Zane DeSilva, who managed to weave in his own legal troubles into the debate and to make ambiguous statements that could have been interpreted — although Mr DeSilva seemed to be describing a vast anti-PLP conspiracy — that more of his colleagues might be joining him before the courts in the future.

That kind of support may not be the kind Mr Burt wanted, but it was that kind of night.

Finally, Mr Burt gave a defiant speech in which he seemed to suggest that all was well in the world and that the Opposition was simply criticising for criticism’s sake.

He said: "We are focused on delivering and next week Friday we will be there to deliver the Progressive Labour Party government’s budget. Not the Curtis Dickinson budget, not the David Burt budget, the Progressive Labour Party government budget."

But, in fact, there are legitimate concerns. Mr Dickinson is a level-headed and measured individual. He would not resign on a whim. The public do require an explanation and if Mr Dickinson does not feel ready to give one, then it is up to the Premier, as the leader of the Government to do so.

Nor does Mr Burt’s carrying of the finance portfolio make sense in the medium term.

While premiers have held multiple portfolios in the past, it has rarely worked well. Sir David Gibbons was a better finance minister than he was a premier. Paula Cox ended up losing not just the Government, but her own seat.

With the release of the 2021 tourism statistics, Mr Burt can hardly point to his handling of that portfolio as a success, even allowing for Covid-19 and him having little direct control over the Bermuda Tourism Authority.

So the Opposition is right to question the wisdom of trying to hold multiple portfolios. The Covid-19 pandemic has repeatedly shown that just because something can be done does not mean it should be done, or that it is ideal.

Instead, Mr Burt would be wise after the Budget to return to his role as first among equals as chief executive and allow his ministers, including a finance minister, to get on with their jobs.

Otherwise, Bermuda will be a world like “Through the Looking Glass”, where: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't.”

And that is not good for anyone.

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Published February 24, 2022 at 8:01 am (Updated February 24, 2022 at 7:59 am)

A world turned upside down

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