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Throne Speech needs to tackle immigration reform

Courage required: David Burt, the Premier, here leaving Veritas Place with Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House, after the 2021 Throne Speech, could win back some hearts with the right words of immigration (Photograph by Mark Tatem/Department of Communications)

When the Throne Speech is delivered tomorrow, the Government is likely to strike a balance between laying out its policy and legislative plans for the year and the philosophy underpinning them.

Some past speeches have been longer on philosophy than policy, which feels flimsy, while others have been laundry lists of things to do, which feels purposeless.

The best speeches do both; they offer a firm assertion of values and intentions, backed up by actions that adhere closely to the vision.

That’s the theory, but events often intrude. Perhaps more than usual, this is one of those years. The Government’s desire to achieve its long-term goals will be invariably interrupted by soaring inflation and economic problems.

Indeed, the Government will need in the speech to detail how it intends to tackle the rising cost of living while also revitalising the economy. As policymakers around the world are finding, these two goals can conflict. Liz Truss’s short tenure as British prime minister, in which she tried to accelerate growth without a sound fiscal plan, is only the most extreme example of what not to do.

Bermuda’s cost-of-living problem is exacerbated because, as a near 100 per cent importer of goods, it has very little control over core inflation. But the actions the Government takes can exacerbate this.

David Burt, the Premier and finance minister, has focused mainly on containing rising costs by capping the price of fuel at the pump to the February level, essentially by rebating tax revenue. This is likely to be necessary for many more months, so the Government will see a long-term revenue loss from this.

So far, other measures have been temporary, apart from customs duty reduction on a basket of essential goods. They have fallen short owing to failures in their roll-out, giving the impression of inept planning. Thus, many parents of school-age children did not get back-to-school help until schools had reopened, and the biggest part of the relief package — $5 million in payroll tax — has still not materialised. Nor has the LED lightbulb giveaway.

All of this adds weight to the idea that this is a government that is more focused on soundbites than substance. The speech needs to redress this.

Mr Burt did indicate in an interview with The Royal Gazette last month that the Government was focused on housing and tax reform.

The Government is right to be focused on housing. Rental prices, in particular, have soared, even if this is not reflected in the Consumer Price Index.

It should be clear that one way of slowing rent increases is to expand housing supply, and to that end, the announcement by Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the minister responsible for housing, that the Bermuda Housing Corporation will renovate 137 homes is welcome news, although it raises questions of its own.

That 60 of the homes are occupied means that the improvements, regardless of how necessary they are, will not reduce demand. The renovation of the other 77 homes will have an effect, but begs the question of how why so many are empty.

Indeed, the Government’s failure to maintain its own enormous stock of buildings is a national disgrace; the number of derelict government buildings is mind-boggling. From a budgetary point of view, it would make more sense for the Government to sell some of these properties into the private sector on the condition that they be renovated for affordable housing.

Mr Burt may not touch the question of tax reform in the speech. He said in his interview with the Gazette that more would be revealed in the pre-Budget report, which is due out in mid-November.

But he made his own position clear: “When you look at the amount of money that working people pay in taxes versus those persons who are far more wealthy, and the percentage of their income that they pay in taxes, I believe that there is a space for shift.”

Bermuda has been moving for some time from a flat-tax environment to one in which the wealthier pay a greater proportion of their income, and there are sound arguments for this.

It is also fair that support for people who through no fault of their own find themselves in trouble has to be paid for, and it falls to those more able to step up.

But care needs to be taken. As a low-tax jurisdiction, which is one of the reasons international companies establish themselves here, there is a genuine risk that changes in policy, especially ones that are not well flagged, will result in those companies leaving or moving their staff away.

Mr Burt should know this very well. He was a junior finance minister when payroll tax was hiked on top earners without warning. As a result, many reinsurance companies relocated their C-suites to other jurisdictions at huge and irredeemable cost to Bermuda. That was a costly mistake and should not be repeated.

To date, Mr Burt has been able to take projected improvements in the Budget to provide assistance, based on a rule where half of any improvement can be used to reduce the cost of living.

But the better solution remains an improved economy, and tomorrow’s speech must also incorporate this.

The reopening of the Fairmont Southampton resort is perhaps the single most important element of any tourism recovery and the speech will be scrutinised for any news on the hotel, along with other new hotel developments.

More broadly, it is surely obvious that economic growth also depends on increasing the working population, which in turn generates more economic activity for everyone. So far, the Government has been too timid on solving a problem that even it finally acknowledges.

It would be a welcome act of courage by a government that has shown little of it if tomorrow’s speech opened the way to genuine immigration reform.

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Published November 03, 2022 at 7:55 am (Updated November 03, 2022 at 7:55 am)

Throne Speech needs to tackle immigration reform

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