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Killing democracy one Budget Debate at a time

The House of Assembly has completed the Budget Debate, which has devolved into an annual exercise in futility by Members of Parliament, laced with contempt for the people who elected them to office.

The debate is not futile because the Budget is unimportant. On the contrary, it is inarguably one of the most important functions Bermuda’s elected leaders carry out in the course of the year.

Nor is this a suggestion that the Government holding 30 out of the 36 seats in the House of Assembly, meaning there is no suspense over whether the Budget will pass, makes it a pointless charade.

And this is not a bout of whining from journalists, who along with the MPs and officers of the House of Assembly, are the only people who have little option but to listen to the 40-plus hours of debate.

Instead, this is a call for a Budget Debate that is actually a “debate” and not a monologue. It is a call for ministers and MPs to do their jobs and to carry out a vigorous debate that will actually inform the public and help them to understand how their tax money is raised and spent.

Carried out properly, this should enable the Government to lay out a cogent argument for why it was elected and how it plans to improve the lives of the residents of Bermuda.

And if the Government believes in democracy, and there is little reason to believe it does not, then it should be willing to let the Opposition have its say and to pose alternatives, if only to knock down its arguments.

But this is not how the Budget Debate works.

After the economic debate, which kicks off the Debate, the House goes on to debate the different ministries that make up the Government. In theory, what gets debated is the Opposition’s choice, one of the few prerogatives it has in Parliament.

This enables the Opposition to pick and choose what ministries to debate and for how long. In theory, this allows it to focus on areas it perceives as its strengths while targeting the Government’s weaknesses.

From the beginning of modern democracy in Bermuda in 1968 until the 1990s, Budget Debates saw a Cabinet minister deliver a brief that was then responded to by the shadow minister. There was usually time for other MPs to make some comments, and the minister would then respond to at least some of the questions and criticisms.

While imperfect, this system did allow for some give-and-take and illumination of the issues confronting the island.

But during the 1990s, under the United Bermuda Party, this began to change, accelerated under the Progressive Labour Party and, with some rare and praiseworthy exceptions, has continued ever since.

Now what was once a break with tradition has become tradition. A minister will now take up almost all of the time allotted to read an earth-shatteringly dull brief, painstakingly written by a team of unfortunate civil servants. If there is time at the end of this exercise in tedium, and if the shadow minister has not become catatonic with boredom, they may get a few minutes to make a couple of trivial points at the end.

But often there is no time. In one notable example this year, the Attorney-General took up all of her allotted time, leaving the shadow minister for legal affairs no time to respond. The time allowed was five hours. The ministry accounts for less than 3 per cent of government expenditures and employs just 4.4 per cent of Government’s employees.

Sucking the air out of the room: Kathy Lynn Simmons’s Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Reform accounts for less than 3 per cent of government expenditure but she took up all five hours allotted to present her brief, leaving no time to the Opposition (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

It may seem unfair to single out Kathy Lynn Simmons, it is simply done to show there must be a better way. She is not alone in abusing the system, but is a good example what’s wrong with it.

Ms Simmons’s ministry does important work, overseeing the judicial branch of government and setting the Government’s policies into law. The House of Assembly is supposed to be where these issues are tested in the crucible of debate. At the very least, this is where the Government should be able to demonstrate the superiority of its work and plans in comparison with the Opposition’s. There should be nothing here to fear.

But instead, the public are condemned to a laundry list of minute and granular detail about the workings of bureaucracies. It should be no surprise that people are turned off politics.

And that, ultimately, is the point. In Ukraine right now, people are laying down their lives to defend their nation and their democratic aspirations. It is happening elsewhere around the world as well, albeit with less attention.

But democracies do not only die when they are invaded by authoritarian neighbours or through coups; they die when those elected to uphold democracy devalue it with foolish time-wasting such as the Bermuda Budget Debate.

The American academic Robert M. Hutchins once said: “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”

The Budget Debate, one of the most important events in the parliamentary calendar, now encourages apathy among MPs, undernourishes voters and causes indifference to politics generally.

Bermuda’s parliamentarians can and must do better.

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Published March 25, 2022 at 7:52 am (Updated March 25, 2022 at 7:50 am)

Killing democracy one Budget Debate at a time

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