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Will for reform is needed

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Bob Dylan wrote it. Jimi Hendrix aced it. From All Along The Watchtower:

“There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief.

“There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.”

Maybe so, Mr. Editor, maybe so.

First, it should come as no surprise that I believe in a strong and independent Legislature. It is key to good governance. The role the Legislature is required to play is set out carefully in the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968, like those of the Executive and the Judiciary, our three pillars of governance if you will. Its role, in brief: “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution the Legislature may make laws for the peace, order and good government of Bermuda.”

Secondly, motions are not laws but they carry the same weight. They are each decisions of the Legislature and the reasonable expectation is that they will be acted upon and implemented.

End of story? Not quite – as we now all know. The motion for a commission of inquiry called on the Governor to establish the commission. His Excellency (HE for short, for those who were wondering) has the power to appoint (or not) , as I pointed out last week, pursuant to a piece of legislation dated 1935 (that's right, 1935) entitled the Commissions of Inquiry Act.

The Act does not state that HE must appoint one. Instead: “The Governor may, whenever he considers it advisable … to inquire … into any matter in which an inquiry would in the opinion of the Governor be for the public welfare”

The Governor has a discretion and he exercised it, although not in a way some of us liked. I think too, that the speed with which he acted also heightened concerns. The motion passed on a Friday and on Thursday, less than a week later, he announced his decision, the day on which he left on holiday. This, after HE said that he had “had discussions with supporters and opponents of the Motion and with others.” HE did not tell us who all of these people were, although we do know they included representatives of the Government and Opposition. Who else became a matter of speculation and this too, heightened concerns.

Still, the Governor was at pains to point out that he hasn't closed the door completely, making the point, again, when he learned of the Opposition's boycott of the House of Assembly. While HE conceded that the debate raised “serious concerns of public interest”, he said that he wanted “clearer references to the kinds of alleged abuses” as well clarification of how the work of the commission is to be funded. London isn't going to pay.

In effect, the ball was kicked back from one Hill to the other to resolve – which doesn't sound that unreasonable, at least on the face of it. However, there are some very real challenges which cannot be overlooked. For example, there are rules of the House, in the form of Standing Orders, that constrain what members can or cannot do in the House:

* One rule simply forbids members from reflecting, i.e. speaking, on a matter on which the House has already made a decision;

* Another states that members may re-visit a decision but only on substantive motion;

* But a new motion can only be made in the next session i.e. November, and then only after six months has elapsed; and

* When it comes to funding, and monies being paid out of the Consolidated Fund, any motions to this effect can only be made by a Government Minister, and funding was always going to be an issue if Government was opposed.

I know, I know: it sounds like an elaborate plot to ensure that we remain at square one. But there are ways to get around this. First, the House can always waive the rules where members think it necessary and the Speaker concurs. Secondly, you might think, as the Governor apparently does, that reasonable men and women of goodwill, seated around the table, acting reasonably, can work this out. On that, I shall say no more. Readers can judge for themselves.

Shut out and denied, the Opposition doubled, tripled down even: from boycott and recall of the Governor to dissolution of the House.

All politics aside (fat chance, I accept) there was an opportunity here to address and put to rest some long standing issues and concerns.

Meanwhile, the ball is also very much in Government's court; whether it accepts what it subsequently described as a free vote and whether it will act on the Governor's referral, working with the Opposition on both funding and terms of reference? Hmmmn.

A final word: I ran up against much the same sort of thing when I served in Opposition, frustrated, stymied even by the Government of the day, which ultimately got to call all of the shots. I have not forgotten. Change is what we need around here, not a repetition. These were the sorts of experiences that prompted a wholesale revaluation of what we have by way of a system of governance. There are procedures and practices that we can improve on. A 1935 Act is a starting point. But what is really required is the will to undertake reform across the parliamentary board and by those who have the power to effect change.

* Got a comment? Share on The Royal Gazette website or write jbarritt@ibl.bm.

Opposition leader, Marc Bean, and Shadow Immigration Minister, Walton Brown, stand side by side as 2,000 Bermudians prepare to march on Government House. (Photo by Nicola Muirhead)
Governor, George Fergusson

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Published July 18, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated July 17, 2014 at 11:55 pm)

Will for reform is needed

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