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It is time to work together

When it comes to working together, Mr Acting Editor, you have to believe that if there is a will there is a way. Certainly it would seem that the stars are aligned for a change in the way our political parties do the country’s business. We have a new Premier, a new Opposition Leader, a new Speaker (will have: no matter who is chosen), and some new blood up and down the Hill, at least a third of the MPs qualify as first-timers and half the Senate.

But this isn’t just about optics. A new broom actually does have to do some sweeping and I am thinking that the absence of baggage will make it easier.

It will fall to Government to take the lead, at least initially. It has the numbers. It has the power to make it happen. It won’t just necessitate a different approach than we have seen in the past, although there will need to be some of that. What will also be required is the adoption of a system of governance that makes working together in the Legislature a working reality, i.e. in the sunshine of public scrutiny — and, not be too cute here, few among us will ever forget that elegant turn of phrase and the promise it held back in 1998, another significant date in our political history.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. There are lots of ideas to choose from. A number of them were featured in the OBA election platform. Others have been around for donkey’s years, a feature of more progressive parliamentary democracies than ours.

There needs to be a more manageable and functional committee system which puts MPs to work in a more meaningful and constructive way than has been the case to date. This will give members of the backbenches, Opposition and Government, the opportunity to be more than just cheerleaders for the team or mere votes to be counted, but the opportunity as well to roll up their sleeves, to cut their teeth and show us what they can produce on the issues of the day.

There is of course a limit on the number of committees than can be struck, given our numbers, but there can still be one or two of these working bodies on important matters like health, rising costs and insurance, and the economy, our best options and where to from here. Yes, I deliberately overlooked education and crime as they were each the subject of joint committees of the last House, although they still qualify.

This time around what we need are such standing committees whose job it will be to keep under review what the Government is doing (or not) with welcome input from those in the general public who wish to also make submissions. The purpose is to be more than therapeutic, it becomes a demonstrable means whereby our representatives, and the public, participate by helping to influence decision-making at the Cabinet as well as by keeping a check and balance on the Executive.

Needless to say, all hearings of all committees will have to be public and the rules changed to make that mandatory. Nothing beats visibility when it comes to transparency.

This is what is also known as open government, the centrepiece of which should be the Public Accounts Committee, a standing committee required under the rules of the House.

This is the one committee which should receive immediate and full attention — and for obvious reason when you take into account the state of Government finances generally and in particular the mounting debt. This committee is meant to be the public watchdog on finances led by the Opposition spokesman for Finance and is to include members of both the Government and Opposition backbenches. Its chief task is to carefully examine, consider and report on public expenditure. They are to be assisted in this by the Auditor General and to pay close attention to the reports her office produces. In short, their job is to follow the money and to make sure we the taxpayers are getting full and proper value.

Again for obvious reason, its work is crucial. It is equally crucial that the committee be current and up to date in its work, and to achieve this it not only needs an Opposition which is committed to the task but the necessary resources to keep abreast, if not stay on top of Government spending. It did not escape my notice this week, as I hope it did not that of the Opposition PLP, that the OBA re-committed itself to beefing up the committee in a recent public statement.

The work here won’t be easy. The harder challenges never are. But the election is behind us, and as bruising as it may have been, now is the time to rise above rabidly partisan politicking. The churlishness should end. Spitefulness and meanness are default settings in the political arena that we now need to jettison, for the sake of the future of Bermuda, Mr Acting Editor, and for the sake of much-needed and much-overdue change. If it’s broke — and it is — let’s fix it, and not just with words.

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Your views, comments and suggestions are welcome. Write jbarritt@ibl.bm.

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Published January 18, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated January 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm)

It is time to work together

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