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We need fundamental change

“Spend more time remedying and you will spend less time regretting” Life's Little Instruction Calendar 2010.My wishes for the New Year, Mr. Editor, will come as no surprise to anyone. They are the unfulfilled wishes of 2010 and they centre, as always, on the need to change the way we do the country's business, on and off the Hill.

It is more than just a parliamentary makeover that we need. The kind of reform which I have in mind features some fundamental changes that could, over time, help bring about a dramatic shift in the way our legislators work; and all for the better, I contend. While we hear repeatedly about the need for a better way, which sounds awfully nice, words without a roadmap on how to get us there, remain just that, words, signifying nothing.

For those who have been following along, but not to bore (I hope), let me re-cap some of the steps that I think need to be taken to achieve a better way:

1. An independent audit of the Legislature by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), of which Bermuda is a member, and whose conferences we attend on an annual basis, and who gladly undertake such reviews for member states. They will help point out how we can improve and provide independent verification of what needs improvement for those who require outside independent verification. This exercise could take the form of the CPA-sponsored conference which Government promised in the 2009 Throne Speech, but on which it has yet to deliver, speaking, ahem, of unfulfilled wishes.

2. A Legislature website is a must. Technology has provided us with a quick and efficient way of keeping people informed. Bills, motions, minutes, questions, answers, reports, should all be posted and available for review. There should also be the capacity for on-line comment and discussion.

3. A cross-party Legislative committee, which like the Private Bills Committee, should meet regularly with those who draft legislation to review, and to question and to ultimately achieve a better understanding of what's proposed and why. Unlike the Public Bills Committee, its meetings should be public so all who are interested will have the opportunity not just to look in but to understand.

4. All committee hearings should be open to press and public alike.

5. The cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) should continue to lead the way. There should be no need to underscore the importance of this committee's work. Its job is to hold the Government accountable on spending, working hand in glove with the Auditor General. It shouldn't just have to wait for reports from the Auditor General, although clearly the findings of her office need to be investigated. Decision makers need to be held to account and this is the way it is meant to be done, by calling on them to explain their decisions. Publicly. This is transparency and accountability in practice. It's such a critical role PAC plays that we might reasonably expect to see hearings almost weekly as they try to get on top of not just the backlog of outstanding reports but current spending as well.

6. Committee hearings on major issues of the day should become commonplace. After a disappointing start on education, the joint parliamentary committee on crime has shown what can be done. There have been a number of public hearings already and more are planned in January as the committee works to getting a report and recommendations back to the House when it resumes in February. It won't be easy. It requires time and it requires resources which have not to date formed part of the usual parliamentary regimen. But the committee and its work may yet point the way on how the Legislature should proceed, not only by what it achieves, but for the way in which its members went about their work; that is, working together, around the table, no longer confined only to debate across the floor of the House which can often quickly degenerate into petty, partisan party politics and the showmanship this breeds. Once this committee is done and dusted, the issue of health care costs and health insurance is one that merits close and continued scrutiny, which could benefit from public examination by way of a similar cross-party parliamentary committee.

There is a limit of course to how many committees the Bermuda Legislature can realistically have. It's a question of numbers (Cabinet Ministers are ineligible) and a question of resources (money and staff). But that means we need only be selective. What we truly need is the political will to make it happen. That has been in shortest supply.

Lord knows that with the challenges Bermuda is facing going into the next decade, financial and social, we need to change our approach. We need to move towards consensus-building in our politics and away from the divide and conquer strategy we see at play too often on the major issues and, sadly, the minor ones as well. There need to be meaningful opportunities and mechanisms for this to happen. Open committees are one way.

There will still be disagreement and division, sure. There always will be where there are honestly held differences on solutions to our problems. It's the different solutions we want to get on the table for wider examination and public debate.

This isn't all pie in the sky. We have seen how a properly crafted, cross-party committee can work, and work well, with the Boundaries Commission. A similarly constituted Electoral Commission should be put in place under the Parliamentary Election Act to advise and guide the Parliamentary Registrar. It is simply not good enough to re-arrange constituencies to ensure equal numbers of voters in each of the 36, but then have a statutory system that allows people to remain registered, and ultimately vote, in districts where they no longer live. This should be a key feature of amendments to the Act which have been promised for some time now and are long overdue. There are some others I would like to see too, like: the introduction of the postal ballot; the right of recall; and fixed period elections.

I will stop there, for now, Mr. Editor. As a wise man once said, be careful what you wish for. I will be and here's wishing a happier New Year for everyone.

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Published December 31, 2010 at 1:00 am (Updated December 31, 2010 at 8:28 am)

We need fundamental change

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