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A difficult choice for the PLP

Former finance minister Curtis Dickinson, left, with David Burt, the Premier (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Political parties bring together people who share similar political views with the goal of forming a government to implement those views through laws and policies.

In order to do that, the party must win an election and must find leaders who can both succeed at the ballot box and go on to effectively govern and execute the policies.

When Progressive Labour Party delegates and MPs vote on the leadership today, this is what they will be deciding — whether David Burt, the incumbent leader and Premier, or Curtis Dickinson, the former finance minister, is better suited to that role.

That the choice of the leader will also likely decide who will lead the country gives the delegates and MPs added responsibility, and the recent experiences of larger countries in choosing national leaders has been demonstrably imperfect, as the present psychodrama in Britain has shown.

Nonetheless, this is the system Bermuda has right now, so the PLP voters have a weighty decision and should keep in mind that this is not in fact an “internal matter”.

To that end, the decision of both candidates to belatedly give interviews to the media is welcome. Both candidates should be ashamed that they did not insist their sole debate be held publicly. That public-spirited attendees made the debate available is to their credit, not the party’s.

The choice before delegates is effectively between continuity and change.

Mr Burt has now been premier for more than five years, which is the longest tenure of any leader — after Sir John Swan.

In that time, he helped to steer Bermuda through the Covid-19 pandemic. He deserved credit for leading the Government through this difficult time when hard decisions had to be made.

Mr Burt was rewarded for this at the polls in 2020, and it is fair to say that whatever his government accomplished before the pandemic was invariably affected by the ensuing lockdowns and economic dislocation.

Since the pandemic eased, the major challenge before the island is rebuilding the economy in its wake, including tackling the challenges posed by the spike in inflation.

Here, the Government’s record is less good. Mr Burt’s drive to make Bermuda a global centre for financial technology has been uneven, slow to build and marred by various embarrassing scandals.

Less trumpeted has been the growth in the life reinsurance sector in the past five years, which has been done with much less fanfare. It is a good example of how when a government sets out a framework for business growth and then gets out of the way, economic growth and jobs follow.

Where Mr Burt’s government has fallen short over the past five years is in its failure to address the demographic deficit in which Bermuda’s working-age population is shrinking while its population of retirees is growing.

The Government has known what it must do to solve this — to increase the population through immigration and other means — but has been slow to move on it.

One key difference that came up in the debates between Mr Burt and Mr Dickinson was over tax reform. Mr Burt made an impassioned case for reducing the tax burden on those who earn least, and there are economic and social arguments in favour of this.

But, as Mr Dickinson rightly pointed out, if taxes are reduced in one area they must be raised elsewhere if the Government is to have the revenue it needs to provide the services it has promised to deliver.

Care needs to be taken with this. Like it or not, one of the cornerstones of Bermuda’s economy is that it is low-tax. Raising taxes on international business or the wealthiest could backfire since both are highly mobile and can take their money and businesses elsewhere. So while Mr Burt would like to reduce taxes in some areas, he needs to explain where he would make up the shortfall.

There is no doubt that Mr Burt is an effective leader, communicator and political campaigner. He has also had the experience that only being premier can bring. He understands the loneliness of being in charge; and this is no small thing. PLP voters are obliged to keep all of this in mind as they cast their ballots.

Against that, they need to also consider that Bermuda faces economic challenges that are as difficult as any the island has experienced in recent years and the economic stagnation we have suffered from in the past decade and a half must be reversed.

To that end, the loss of Mr Dickinson from the Cabinet is a big one — because few of his former colleagues have his knowledge or expertise. He has also demonstrated that he is a man of deep personal integrity and honesty.

The suggestion he is less familiar with Court Street than Wall Street is bizarre. In fact, Mr Dickinson’s life story is truly inspiring — as much or more so than most of his colleagues. It is disappointing that others in his party appear to have reverted to dirty tricks to try to stop him.

The PLP’s voters today have a weighty task before them, and a difficult choice. They need to remember they are making a choice not just for their party but for their country, so they should exercise their privilege with care and wisdom.

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Published October 20, 2022 at 6:25 am (Updated October 20, 2022 at 6:25 am)

A difficult choice for the PLP

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