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On lease, the system failed

“An old error is always more popular than a new truth.”

anonymous proverb.You need look no further, Mr Editor, than Monday's debate in the House for any better example of what's wrong with the way we do the country's business. I am as concerned as the next person about the construction of walls by Government, but the push to put through the 9 Beaches 240-year lease illustrated why our Legislature is in desperate need of reform.

I need only highlight the manner in which this proposed lease made its way up the Hill to make the case for change. It was first tabled on Friday, December 10 to be taken up for approval on Monday, December 13. That's three days to review and discuss prior to debate. Mind you, the Minister responsible, Deputy Premier Derrick Burgess of Works and Engineering, did get a draft to the Opposition a couple of days earlier. I'll give him a tick there for trying to reach out to the other side. But that wasn't the same draft that was tabled on the Friday. There were apparently some further changes. Come Monday, we were presented with yet another draft of the proposed lease, some more changes, we supposed.

Government was obviously determined to proceed before we broke for the Christmas recess and, incidentally, we are not back until February 4. What was the rush? Government said repeatedly they wanted to get something done. Something got done, all right, but maybe not the something we want for Bermuda. I mean why the last-minute scramble in the first place? It wasn't like we were super busy this term. On the contrary. But in the end there was no satisfactory answer to either question.

There was this defence. The rules (Standing Orders) permit it, although I'm not so sure that's true, save and except where the Government uses its majority to waive the relevant rule and proceed. But that's only supposed to be used for emergencies. We may be in desperate straits, in tourism and economically, but I am not sure this lease qualifies as that sort of emergency. Aside from which, there is the long-standing practice to give members at least two weeks to review and consider a matter before taking it up. So much then for the opportunity for a considered review of what was proposed. It was never going to be able to happen.

One Minister, Walter Roban, lauded his colleague for bringing the lease to the House. Look folks, his colleague

had to. It's a requirement under the Base Lands Development Act. That same Minister also congratulated his Government on their transparency and the scrutiny that was being brought to bear as a result. Well, I could agree on this: what they were doing was transparent enough, but the suggestion the proposed lease was receiving even adequate scrutiny was preposterous.

What the Minister put before us was incomplete. The third draft, like the second and the first that preceded it, was missing key components. For instance, there was explicit reference to a Memorandum of Understanding dated May 13, 2010, which formed part of further assurances under the lease, a copy of which was meant to be attached to the lease.

It wasn't; and well into the debate the Minister distributed a draft of something further entitled a “Licence to Alter”, but to alter what, when and why was not and could not have been immediately clear to us. It was a 12-page document. Yet this licence was described in the draft lease as part of the entire understanding of what has been agreed between the parties. Go figure and good luck to you.

There were concerns too, about provisions in the proposed lease which we did get to review over the weekend. It appeared some were incomplete or conflicting in part and in one case so widely drafted as to pose potential problems down the road. There were legitimate questions arising, but there we were confined to debate across the floor of the House which invariably encourages more heat than light in the form of partisan, political posturing.

Such debate is a blunt instrument for the scrutiny of documents like leases. They cry out for a more reasonable and rational review, around a table with those responsible for drafting, a function that could easily be filled by a legislative committee of representatives from the backbenches, sitting for a couple hours one morning at a meeting open to press and public alike.

I mean how difficult is that? As for the public, well they were pretty well shut out of debate on this occasion unless you happened to know from your MP what was coming? This is just one more reason why a Legislative website is imperative. People ought to know what's being done on the Hill in their name and for their benefit. Contrast what has happened with 9 Beaches with the way Morgan's Point is proceeding. The agreement there has been embodied into a Bill which has been tabled and will be open to review and comment before we return in February, not just by MPs but by the public as well. Copies of the Bill can be had from the Legislature or your MP if all else fails.

Now it was suggested during debate that any problems with the lease can be remedied before it is signed. I question on what authority this can be done, if it involves anything other than typos and minor corrections of language. I maintain that any change in terms would require Government to come back to the House for approval of the final agreement which is what they should do, frankly, in view of what was “approved” on Monday in the House. There again you might wonder what it was we did approve. I did, and I didn't approve.

This final comment, Mr Editor: For so long as we continue to permit the country's business to be managed in this way, we continue to feed into the worst aspects of the Westminster system and construct unnecessary walls and trenches at the public expense. It's a disservice to ourselves and the people we seek to serve.

Better late than never? Write with your comments to jbarritt[AT]ibl.bm

Public Works Minister Derrick Burgess

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Published December 17, 2010 at 1:00 am (Updated December 17, 2010 at 8:03 am)

On lease, the system failed

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