A vote of no confidence
The Progressive Labour Party won its landslide election victory in 2020 because the party had handled the first part of the pandemic well, had some valid ideas for reducing inequity and because the opposition One Bermuda Alliance was weak and unprepared.
Having secured a massive majority, the Government might have expected to have an easy time of it in the 18 months or so since the election. It has not worked out that way.
Big majorities carry their own burdens of arrogance and complacency, along with the problem of managing a large back bench, often with a number of unhappy former Cabinet ministers sitting on it.
David Burt, the Premier, is finding this out. But the Government is also making mistakes in both policy and execution.
Of the two, policy matters more in the long term, but the delivery of the message — and the perception of competence and good management — count for much.
In terms of policy, the handling of problems such as the Covid-19 pandemic has been less assured than it was before the election. Contradictions between how schools and other institutions have managed Covid have hurt. A lack of clarity over what the long-term management of the pandemic means is also causing uncertainty. “Learning to live with it” means vastly different things to different people.
The handling of gun crime and gangs has also been muddled, and has been compounded by the bungled dismissal of Renée Ming. It may be that Mr Burt was unhappy with Ms Ming’s management of a rapidly escalating crisis, but when a government does not feel it can actually say it is underperforming because it is more concerned about reputation than the truth, then it has a problem.
The result has been confusion, compounded by Michael Weeks’s obvious lack of preparedness to go before the media last week. If Mr Burt dismissed Ms Ming, and he confirms he did, it would have been sensible for the new minister to say more than that he planned to consult with stakeholders. Some semblance of a plan would have been welcome.
This is not just a matter of style. After Mr Weeks’s appointment, Bermuda suffered two shooting murders of young men in three days. Mr Burt’s government has overseen escalating crime rates for more than four years. It is a little late to be talking about talking to stakeholders. Mr Weeks should be executing a thought-out plan, not trying to make one up on the fly.
Mr Weeks may well have be the best man available for the job, with deeper insights into the problems facing young Bermuda than he let on at his swearing-in or press conference. But Mr Burt just gave him a hospital pass.
Vance Campbell was similarly unprepared to discuss tourism, which has a critical six months ahead. The need for him to hit the ground running was vital. By repute, a capable senior executive, Mr Campbell looked anything but at the same press conference.
Mr Weeks may rise to the occasion and Mr Campbell may, too, but if these problems of perception and execution are not addressed, they will damage the standing of the Government.
If Mr Burt was hoping for a reset after a torrid few weeks, last week’s omni-shambles was anything but that.
He is not being helped by, as British prime minister Harold Macmillan supposedly remarked, “events, dear boy, events” when asked what had been the greatest challenge of his administration.
Whether Mr Macmillan said it or not, the phrase captured the problem confronting every government — namely that the best-laid platform promises go awry when confronted by unpredictable events, many of which are out of the Government’s control.
The Burt government is no different.
The closure of the Fairmont Southampton was not supposed to last the best part of three years, and the winding-down of the Covid-19 pandemic was not expected to kick off the worst bout of inflation in 40 years. Nor could Bermuda do anything about Russia invading Ukraine, which has compounded the increase in inflation and further dislocated all markets, but especially oil and food production.
Like it or not, the Government has to change and adapt to these problems. It cannot simply throw its hands up in the air or blame it on others. The buck stops with the Government.
In this case, the buck mainly stops with Mr Burt, who has decided to retain the finance portfolio after Curtis Dickinson’s resignation.
This is a bad idea on every level. The finance portfolio alone requires 100 per cent focus from its holder in the middle of the present financial crisis. But Mr Burt has decided to divide his attention between it and the office of the Premier. It is near impossible to be the chief executive officer and the chief financial officer of a medium-size company, but Mr Burt is trying to do it for a small country.
Every time he has to say no — and he will have to say it a lot — will be pinned on him. Every time prices rise or economic growth falls, he will be held accountable. And if a project such as the Fairmont Southampton falters, it will now be on him.
There was some hope that Mr Burt would retain the finance portfolio long enough to steer the Budget through Parliament, and then pass it on to one of his colleagues.
But Mr Burt decided against that. He gave the impression that he thought that not only was he the best person other than Mr Dickinson to do the job, but that he was the only person other than Mr Dickinson who could do it.
Having failed to explain why Ms Ming was not the right person to be national security minister, Mr Burt has now thrown the competence of his entire government into question. This is not to say that every PLP MP is capable of being finance minister, but to suggest that not one of the remaining 28 MPs is capable is not exactly a confidence-builder.
And confidence is something that Bermuda badly needs now. It needs its residents to be confident that the island can weather the economic and health storms that engulf it. It needs confidence that the Government has plans to reduce crime and to complete major reforms of health and education.
But that confidence will not come when the Premier makes clear he does not have confidence in his own MPs.