Less of the same old, same old
This is the final part in a four-part series.
"To know the road ahead, ask those coming back." – Chinese proverbA change in circumstances, Mr. Editor, often leads to a change in approach. There's no question that circumstances around here have changed and are changing. Dramatically – and daily. An anxious public waits for the other shoe to drop, but I'm not sure that waiting is the answer. I'm also fairly certain that a divided Opposition isn't the answer either. Arithmetic may not have been my best subject in school but I learned pretty quickly the difference between subtraction and addition. Division, by the way, doesn't add up to much either. Nor do I think that crossing the floor is any answer to the country's challenges, at least not as far as I can tell. It all looks like the more things change (and they haven't, really) the more they stay the same.
We need less, not more, of the same old, same old.
New approaches typically draw out new ideas, and new approaches and new ideas are what we need to see more of on and off the Hill. So far in this series of columns I have drawn attention to some of the mechanisms we need to put in place to make it happen.
But it isn't just up to the politicians to decide. Ultimately it is up to the voters. Look what happened in the UK at the last election. The people spoke and politicians had to listen. It helped bring about some dramatic and arguably welcome change: A coalition government. Two parties and two leaders who fought each other in the general election, sometimes bitterly, have been forced to put their differences aside, both the manufactured and the real, and to work together for the good of the country, yes, but also because it is in their best interests as well – if they want to stick around, that is.
They have had to cut through a lot of the political claptrap (c-rap for short), drop the spin and roll up their sleeves and do some very heavy lifting i.e. hard work. Labour left them a Government mired in debt. Their economy is not too sharp either. Sound familiar? It ought to. It's early days yet but what has begun to emerge is a new direction in governance in the UK. This having-to-work-together has helped spark a new approach to tackling some of the country's toughest and seemingly intractable problems. There is a growing interest in the pursuit of something known as social innovation. It is shorthand for public-private partnerships but not the sort of partnerships we are pursuing here for a new hospital. That's a traditional approach which has its challenges too, not the least of which is that no matter how long the contract, how spread out the cost, the Government and the country is ultimately on the hook.
The social innovation which is now being pursued is that by which Government recognises that it doesn't have all the answers and that it isn't always best suited to tackle the problems. The idea, I am told, is to transform the way public services are provided, by funding those who are already in the trenches, tapping into their experience and expertise. They call these people social entrepreneurs. In the case of say, helping the less fortunate, we know them as the Salvation Army.
Of course, politicians' interest in social innovation has been heightened by the steady but dramatic deterioration of governments' finances. We face the very same issue here as the PLP Government has tied a big one around our necks and those of our children – close to a billion dollars of debt, incurred when things were going pretty well around here, leaving us with less room to manoeuvre now that the economy is in poorer shape. Once again, this isn't just Opposition MP John Barritt speaking. It's also the message of one of the three candidates currently vying for leadership of the PLP. While he was at the Cabinet table when a lot of the free-wheeling spending went on, he is today expressing clear concern about the debt that has piled up, and he's a numbers man who should know i.e. a chartered accountant. He isn't alone either. I do the second challenger a disservice. The Butler of the House came out early on the issue with promised cuts in key areas.
They are definitely on to something. I recall what the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office had to say recently about government debt in the Turks and Caicos Islands. He said that his Government, the former Labour Government, felt compelled to intervene in Turks and Caicos not just because of corruption, but because their finances were in "dire straits".
I am not making this up. He was writing in the CPA magazine, The Parliamentarian, when he explained:
"The previous government's policy of unrestricted spending and substantial tax concessions was unsustainable. It had run up significant debt. By August 2009, when the parts of the Constitution were suspended, TCIG's debt was $135 million for a population of less than 40,000. If the country's expenditure had continued unchecked, bankruptcy would have resulted.
"Despite a decade of high growth (20 percent in one year) reserves were zero (under applicable UK Government guidelines they should be $20 million). The main borrowing constraints set by the UK Government (the ratio between borrowing and reserves and the overdraft limit) had been breached significantly. Failure to control the management of cash was compounded by poor or non-existent departmental controls, the absence of internal audit controls, delays in auditing TCIG accounts and poor revenue collection."
Put aside for now the potential implications for Bermuda (we are a BDTC too: although it would be interesting to know the FCO position on us), but you get the picture. Government debt is a very serious matter. Standard & Poor's recent review ratings of Bermuda also sounded a note of caution. They made it clear they are expecting to see definite deficit reductions from here on in.
Yet there's no question serious funding will continue to be needed to tackle Bermuda's biggest problems. I listed some of them when I started this series: crime, poverty, health care, education and, of course, the debt itself.
But we cannot continue to tax and spend like the Progressive Labour Party has done to date. That has to change. We need to also change parliamentary oversight of how contracts are awarded and money is spent. We need to be ensuring that value for money becomes the over-riding value around here. But that, Mr Editor, will require a profound turnaround in the way we do business on the Hill which takes me back to where I started this series.
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