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Throne Speech fails to tackle existential issues facing island

David Burt, the Premier, and Joan Dillas-Wright, President of the Senate (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Anyone expecting an overarching plan to dramatically improve Bermuda’s moribund economy while containing the rise in the cost of living will have been disappointed in the Throne Speech yesterday.

The Government’s lack of ambition may actually be right: this era is so uncertain and unpredictable that making any major plans may cause more disruptions and problems, not fewer.

There are recent examples of this. United States president Joe Biden’s economic stimulus plan, an example of big government in action, was a contributor to surging US inflation. Liz Truss’s attempt to kick-start growth in Britain through tax cuts, arguably an attempt to shrink government, was defeated by the investment markets and cost her her job.

So David Burt, the Premier, may be right in trying to apply incremental change. But there is risk in this, too. Some of the challenges facing Bermuda are so massive that doing too little will lead to continued emigration, joblessness and growing dependence on the Government for help. This is an unsavoury prospect.

To be fair, there are some substantive plans and these should not be ignored. The intention to introduced a phased elimination of sales of fossil fuel-powered vehicles within 13 years is ambitious.

The introduction of the Education Authority in this calendar year is part of a very far-reaching education reform. The already canvassed proposal to apply a sliding scale based on income to social insurance payments is a substantive policy change that deserves serious debate.

Other initiatives such as the first 1,000 days initiative for small children and the long-overdue move to put Project Ride learners on the road may have long-term value.

But much of the rest of the speech consists of items that have been promised previously or are adjustments rather than fresh initiatives. This includes amendments to the tourism incentives policies, the creation of a Morgan’s Point company and the formation of a labour department.

What was missing was any substantial plan to control inflation and the cost of living, to energise Bermuda’s economy and to create desperately needed new jobs, or to increase the working population, including immigration reform.

Certainly, measures to adjust financial aid benefits and include emergency funds are welcome, as is the plan to improve daycare allowance.

But beyond relief there is no real approach to containing inflation to the extent Bermuda can.

Bermuda and the world face a connected problem, which is the prospect of stagflation — that inflation will remain a constant but there will be a global recession as well. This will have an immediate effect on a still struggling tourism sector, but can also affect international business and investment in new business.

Perhaps Mr Burt will tackle these issues when he puts on his other hat and releases the midyear Budget report in a few weeks. But it is disturbing that there is no discussion of it in what is supposed to the Government’s plan for the next 12 months.

Other issues get scant attention. Bermuda has seen violent crime skyrocket this year and continues to face serious problems with substance abuse, yet these issues might as well not exist. Nor do the multiple challenges facing an ageing and unhealthy population.

For those who worked their way to the end of the speech, there was an important section that will mean different things to different people.

Having noted that some Commonwealth countries are now looking to become republics in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it adds: “Discussions on self-determination do not provoke the same well-trod arguments in London as they do here in Bermuda. The UK Government approaches the issue maturely and encourages Territories to do likewise.

“Accordingly, in keeping with that mature approach the Government commissioned and has now received a report entitled Assessment of Self-Governance Sufficiency in conformity with internationally recognised standards prepared by Dr Carlyle G. Corbin, International Adviser on Governance.

“This assessment explores the minimum standards and the full range of self-government options for Bermuda. This is a first step and will be the basis of the necessary wide-ranging community discussion and education that must accompany any future action in this area.”

It is extraordinary that the Government would have commissioned a report on self-governance without making it known publicly.

It is difficult to determine exactly what the Government means by this passage. Presumably, “the full range of self-government options” includes independence. But this is not explicit.

The speech assumes that this secret report “will be the basis of the necessary wide-ranging community discussion and education that must accompany any future action in this area”.

But this assumes that the report’s findings are valid. They may well be so, but there is no way of knowing.

Does the Government intend to have a full-blown debate on sovereignty or not? What future action does it contemplate? Has it determined that this is a good time to have this discussion or not, and if so why? If not, why start down this path?

The Government has deliberately tried to pick a fight with the British Government over cannabis licensing, and it has taken a different path from Britain on same-sex marriage, both of which were designed at least in part to establish grounds for independence.

But what is of concern is that the Government does indeed face a number of other serious and difficult issues, including the economy, crime, health and education. And yet there is a suggestion that Bermuda should take on a debate on sovereignty at the same time.

At the very least, Mr Burt, who is quite capable of being completely clear when he wants to be, should say exactly what he means — and release this mystery report at the same time.

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Published November 05, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated November 04, 2022 at 5:21 pm)

Throne Speech fails to tackle existential issues facing island

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