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Corporations should be allowed to evolve, not go backwards

If it ain’t broke: the Corporation of Hamilton performs functions such as trash collection efficiently (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The recent Court of Appeal judgment upholding the Government’s plan to turn the corporations of Hamilton and St George into local authorities with appointed leadership was notable for two reasons.

First, the appeal court judges asserted the supremacy of Parliament in Bermuda’s governance. Like it or not, the court rightly said that the Government, duly elected with a majority of seats in the House of the Assembly, has the right to make laws and govern as it sees fit, provided its stays within the bounds of the Constitution.

In broad terms, this is of course correct. Where problems arise is when the Government makes decisions or passes laws that impinge on the Constitution or human rights, or where it makes decisions that are manifestly bad for the community.

Wise politicians will try to make sure they do not do this too often, or do it long enough before the next General Election that the policies had had a chance to be successful or that voters have forgotten about events that occurred two or three years earlier.

It is up to Opposition parties to make sure the voters have not forgotten or are persuaded that the problems they are facing in the present have their roots in those past bad decisions.

The voters, if sufficiently dissatisfied, will then turf the incumbent out.

This is how democracy works, no matter how imperfectly it appears to function or how much some may dislike some of the policies and laws being implemented. It is the best of a bad lot. Of course, there is room for improvement in Bermuda’s form of governance; one of the strengths of liberal democracy is its ability to recognise its own flaws and peacefully fix them. This sets democracy apart from revolutionary governments and dictatorships.

The corporation may yet appeal the decision of the Court of Appeal. Although the appeal court judges were unanimous in their decision, this does not mean the Privy Council will view it the same way.

In practical terms, that means it is unlikely that the Progressive Labour Party government will try to push through its reform Bill, which was rejected by the Senate a year ago, until a decision is made by the Privy Council, assuming the corporation takes it there.

As with the Cannabis Licensing Act, the Government has the votes in the House of Assembly to drive the legislation through unchanged and there seems to be no move to drop the plan or to amend it.

So if the corporation does appeal to the Privy Council and if it is unsuccessful, the Government could bring the Bill back to the House of Assembly in six months or so.

If it did so, the corporations could be dramatically altered sometime shortly after that.

That would be much more than a shame. The hybrid nature of the corporations, at least as their electorates are now constituted, is unusual, but it works. Both organisations represent the residents of their municipalities and the businesses that inhabit them in a way that the needs of both can be met and balanced.

And while the lack of a tax base means the Corporation of St George faces perennial financial problems, it is at least close to its electors and can set priorities that meet their needs.

Royal Gazette columnist Khalid Wasi has rightly pointed out that the corporation was formed by a group of businessmen and property owners who wanted to found a town in the central parishes. The government of the day allowed them to form the corporation to manage and fund the town, and later the city.

The city was therefore never government property, although only the Government could grant it tax-raising and ordinance-making abilities — and what it can give, it can take away.

It is also vital to acknowledge that that group of businessmen were indeed men and White. Through a property vote in which only ratepayers could vote, many residents were disenfranchised and, until about 20 years ago, the city was largely run by White businessmen. Invariably, they often ran it in a way that benefited them. It is undeniable that North East Hamilton, which was largely Black and residential, was neglected compared with the showcase areas around Front Street.

However, as has been noted above, the wonder of democracy is its ability to modify its own structures. In its first reform, the then Progressive Labour Party government abolished the property owners’ vote entirely and limited the franchise to residents only. The result was the election of a disastrous set of councillors, whose performance was so poor, the Government had to step in.

The One Bermuda Alliance then established a new, hybrid franchise, which has worked successfully.

It is therefore a mystery as to why the Government is so keen to change this structure, which would inevitably reduce democracy in the community and make the corporations less responsive to the needs of those for whom they are supposed to care.

This is not a call for elected parish councils, but these appointed bodies are not encouraging examples of the success of appointed panels. The largely faceless boards of the West End Development Corporation and Bermuda Land Development Company do not give comfort, either, compared to a board or council that can be held accountable to the voters it serves.

It can be argued that there are efficiencies to be achieved for functions such as sanitation, sewers, transport and rate collection. But the record of the Government in these areas is not so stellar that it can make the case that their delivery will be better in the future, even if some money is saved around the fringes. It is a fair bet to say that the services will be worse.

It can also be argued that in a population of 65,000 or fewer, there is no real need for three rival governments. But this would make more sense if the corporations were run poorly or inefficiently. In many ways, they are run better than the central government.

So the second reason the Court of Appeal judgment was notable was because it laid bare this government’s lack of enthusiasm for representative government.

This is reflected in the recent departures of two senior Cabinet ministers in six weeks over policy matters, the decision to ignore the objections of the Senate over this Bill and the Cannabis Licensing Act, and, when out of office, in its tacit encouragement of mob rule.

All governments at one point or another pass unpopular legislation. They do so because they feel they must or because they believe that when people see the benefits that flow from it, they will recognise the validity of the decision. And they do so in the knowledge that they risk being voted out of office and having the decision reversed.

But these basics of democracy are undermined if a party believes that opposing views should not be heard, and that municipal governments do not enrich democracy but erode it.

When governments have to consistently drive through unpopular policies through sheer force of numbers, then they have lost touch with their public.

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Published April 06, 2022 at 7:27 am (Updated April 06, 2022 at 7:27 am)

Corporations should be allowed to evolve, not go backwards

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