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An act of political self-harm

Party leader Cole Simons has been given a vote of confidence by the One Bermuda Alliance, but he has to know he is skating on thin ice (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The idea that a parliamentary democracy works better when there is a strong Opposition is hardly a radical concept.

But observers of the One Bermuda Alliance’s recent and bewildering act of self-harm over the Reply to the Budget would be forgiven for despairing that the island will see it happen in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, Cole Simons’s lengthy Reply to the Budget had much to commend it. It identified some of the weaknesses in the Government’s plans, including the funding of the Morgan’s Point project.

But whatever positive aspects there were in the speech were to no avail because all anyone will remember about it was Mr Simons’s baffling decision to call for the embedding of the controversial Travel Authorisation Form fee in airline tickets.

Why Mr Simons thought the unpopular TAF should be brought back when it had already been abolished was not explained, perhaps because it was inexplicable.

It should be recalled that the very nature of being in opposition means it is difficult to point to concrete achievements, especially when outnumbered five to one in Parliament.

But the OBA had consistently pushed for the TAF’s abolition. On this at least, it could claim that its efforts and highlighting of the issue had paid off.

All of that work, which was not without risk, was thrown away in one line of the speech.

The other controversial proposal — to add a value added tax to health insurance costs — was in some ways less damaging in that it did not directly contradict a previously held party policy. But it was no surprise when the Progressive Labour Party leapt on it as an example of the OBA heaping costs on working Bermudians.

These are elementary political errors which might just be forgiven — although it would still be shocking — if committed by a political newcomer. But the OBA’s leaders are not, for the most part, neophytes.

Mr Simons has been in the House of Assembly for two decades, as has Michael Dunkley, who with Craig Cannonier, is also an ex-premier.

Now, according to Mr Simons, it was his error. Worse, he had not shared his Reply to the Budget with the rest of the Caucus, for which he apologised and rightly so.

This is difficult to understand and throws doubt on Mr Simons’s ability to lead.

The OBA is unquestionably a small team. But in any political party, set-piece presentations such as the Throne Speech, the Budget Statement and their replies are almost always group efforts. This is especially true when in opposition, when the speaker does not have the support of small armies of civil servants.

And when in opposition, it would be reasonable to expect all members to come together to brainstorm fresh and new policies, which would differentiate the Opposition from the Government and then form the foundation for the conduct of the rest of the economic debate.

One would expect the Opposition to come to the House of Assembly armed with several key messages that it would want to hammer home as part of a planned series of interventions.

But, apparently, none of this happened. Mr Simons had not shared the speech with his colleagues, let alone worked on it with them. And they apparently had no more idea of what it contained than the Government did.

This makes no sense. Had the speech been shared, it is reasonable to expect that someone would have flagged up the TAF idea and presumably killed it stone dead.

But this never happened.

When Mr Simons took on the leadership of the OBA in the wake of its crushing defeat in 2020, it was disorganised and demoralised with many of the usual party structures in desperate disrepair. Mr Simons first needed to steady the ship and then to begin to rebuild the party from the ground up.

The early indications were that he was doing just that, delegating certain organisational tasks, identifying candidates, rebuilding branches and the like.

But the shambles of the Budget Reply suggests that momentum, such as it was, has been lost.

Mr Simons is a genuinely good man who has given dedicated public service to his constituency and Bermuda for decades. He understands politics and was a good Cabinet minister, especially in environment. But for whatever reason, he seems to have failed to have drawn his team behind him to move forward towards the next election.

Whatever gains were made in the past 28 or so months, and there were some, were thrown away last Friday.

Mr Simons has taken responsibility for that blunder, and that is to his credit. Many politicians would try to bluster their way through, or find someone else to blame. Mr Simons did not and that says much about his character.

But if he wishes to continue as OBA leader, and yesterday two of his colleagues rallied around him, things clearly need to change.

If the OBA is ever to become the meaningful political force that its supporters want and that Bermuda needs, he needs to work with his members and weld them into a coherent team with a common goal.

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Published March 01, 2023 at 7:39 am (Updated March 01, 2023 at 7:39 am)

An act of political self-harm

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