Unity vital to tackling crippling debt
I'm beginning to think that it may be useful to have a general election sooner rather than later. Crazy, some might say, but here's why.
Bermuda has immense economic challenges that must be solved if Bermuda is to continue to be a domicile of choice, not only for international visitors and businesses, but also for those of us who live here. No one wants to work, visit or live in an environment that is full of stress and tension, not knowing when an outbreak of some form of negativity will take place.
We have no choice in the matter — the solutions to our economic challenges must be found or we will indeed sink into oblivion. We cannot continue to run annual government budget deficits and continue to increase the size of the government debt. Just like the proverbial house built on sand, sooner or later, the weight of that will cause us to come tumbling down. Making the challenge even more difficult is the social reality that the solutions must not unduly affect how we live, nor can they affect one group more than another. The concept of shared sacrifice is important.
Of course, nothing new here so far, and nothing said that having a general election would help to solve our problems. Indeed, the PLP, should it win the next general election, whenever it might be held, would not have any better luck than the OBA has had in solving these challenges. The problems are simply too big and too serious for any political party to solve.
The problems we face are bigger than politics; much, much bigger. The bickering that goes on now between the PLP and the OBA stifles progress and serves only to make certain that Bermuda will indeed face hardship, as the OBA attempts to implement ideas that the PLP is steadfast against. The Westminster system mandates such conflict and disagreement, although I do think that the Westminster system took for granted that the Government and the Opposition would be populated with sensible people who would come together in extreme circumstances. Not so in Bermuda, I guess.
The coming together by the Government and Opposition to solve our economic woes has not only not happened, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it will not happen, and coming together is essential if we are going to solve our problems. The annual Government Budget process will soon begin for fiscal 2016-17 and, as Larry Burchall pointed out last year, the pain suffered last year will likely seem mild in comparison with the pain that may be coming in the next Government Budget, and the one after that, and so on.
So, the question is really this: how do we get the two parties, and the country, to come together to reach bipartisan solutions that all of us will accept? If the OBA will not hold out an olive branch today that the PLP would accept; maybe it is time we hold a general election, with the following conditions:
• The OBA and PLP make very clear to the voters what their plans for Bermuda would be, how they would balance the Budget, the time frame in which balance would be achieved (the glide path), with very clear arithmetic to support these plans. Balancing a Budget is simple arithmetic — we cannot spend more than we earn. At present, we spend about $200 million more than we earn. The arithmetic to demonstrate achieving a balanced Budget is not the difficult bit; it is the implementation that is difficult because it affects people.
• The OBA and PLP make very clear to the voters what their plans would be for managing the debt burden, both the annual debt service cost (the interest) as well as how they would begin reducing the debt. Today, the Government debt stands at about $2.4 billion (this ignores the deficits in pension funds and other shortfalls) which will increase each year by the amount of the annual Budget deficit. As the glide path to a balanced Budget is likely to be a few years, it is foreseeable that the Government debt will be about $3 billion before balance is achieved. Once we achieve a balanced Budget, we then need to pay back the $3 billion we will have borrowed — another mammoth task in solving.
• Whatever the outcome of the general election, the OBA and PLP commit to becoming bipartisan in all areas in their efforts to solve Bermuda's economic (and other) challenges. Bermuda can solve its problems only by tackling them together, and by forming solutions that both sides of the political divide can sell in good faith to their supporters.
• Whatever the outcome of the general election, the people of Bermuda undertake to support the new government, whoever that may be, and to unite together to work with the new government in the tackling of these problems. A continuation of the negative rhetoric, whether PLP on OBA, or OBA on PLP, will do nothing to stimulate progress, and will only continue to polarise the community.
If we are to solve our problems, it is way past time in recognising that our problems can be solved only if we all work together in the common cause to solving them. We are too small and too divided to make progress under the Westminster system, if it is applied in its purest sense. Bipartisan committees are essential in Bermuda to developing ideas that can then be rolled out by the two parties, standing side-by-side, to their supporters as being worthy of support; without that, half of Bermuda will not be on board and that spells failure.
If we are to solve our problems, we cannot continue to argue, we cannot continue to divide and we cannot continue to polarise ourselves. Whether we are black or white, rich or poor, Bermudian or non-Bermudian, we have a common enemy, and that common enemy is an annual Budget deficit and the associated accumulated debt.
Unless we come together now, at all levels, to attack this enemy, we are not likely to defeat it. If we wait much longer to tackle this together, we are likely to wake up one day to find that it is too late to fix it.
Like the adage says, unless we come together to tackle our problems, we may truly risk being a day late and a dollar short. And I do not think any of us want that.
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