Log In

Reset Password

A good time to dust off the SAGE report

United front: Crowds of union members and supporters as seen from the window of the Cabinet Building, as theyprotest against proposals to extend the furlough day for public sector workers — part of Government efforts to cut spending (Photo by Nicola Muirhead)

Hindsight, as they say Mr Editor, is 20/20 vision. It is easy to say that they should have done this or they should not have done that. Nonetheless, there are always lessons to be learned from looking back.

As I watched this week’s events unfold, I got to thinking about the SAGE Commission and the Commissioners’ recommendations. You remember them, don’t you?

Commissioned by the One Bermuda Alliance Government, the fulfillment of an election promise, to examine and come up with ways in which Government could effect savings, trim expenditure and achieve efficiencies, all with a view to tackling massive and mounting public debt.

Their recommendations were presented more than a year ago now, the product of six months of hard work and exhaustive analysis that included widespread consultation with people in and out of Government, both privately and publicly.

I remember particularly their words of caution on the need to have a glide path in place. Say what?

“A glide path is the path prescribed for an airplane to make a safe landing,” the Commissioners wrote in their report. “The SAGE Commission uses this analogy to describe a plan for eliminating the deficit of the Bermuda Government in a time frame that the economy can withstand.”

The Commissioners were acutely aware of the pain cuts would cause and the dislocation that would result. They even came up with a plan of their own for consideration and review.

Now may be a good time to dust off the report and look at the glide path SAGE put forward for the elimination of expenses over a four-year period.

The following summary appeared on pages 17 and 18 of their report:

• Elimination of all unnecessary activities and programmes; then

• Abolition of all budgeted but unfilled posts; then

• Reduction of general (non-wage) operating expenses, particularly non-Bermuda dollar expenses; then

• Reduction of grants and contributions; then

• Reduction of personnel costs in the following manner: termination of poor performers; then, requiring personnel who are past retirement age to retire; then, offering early retirement incentives to those eligible to retire; then, salary and wage reductions applied least to the lowest paid employees and more to the highest paid.

The Commissioners described their plan as “a phased process [that] represents the fairest way to approach expense reduction with the least risk to the Bermuda economy and its workforce”.

They estimated that their proposed annual reductions could total as much as $320 million.

There are those who could quarrel with their numbers and their proposals. But here is the key: they did come up with a four-year plan to which stakeholders could add, change, maybe even buy into, and which could be tracked by all going forward.

So what actually became of the SAGE Commission’s report and its recommendations?

As Bermudians, we owe it to ourselves to give a fair and open hearing to all of the findings and recommendations, no matter how challenging they may appear, and to see the many possibilities they present for economic empowerment.

Communication, consultation and collaboration is the way we will move this forward.

Now that sounds like the right approach. But those are not my words. They are those of then-Premier Craig Cannonier.

There was, as a result of his pronouncement, an expectation that Government would engage in widespread public consultation, and not just with stakeholders i.e. the unions, but with the general public as well, the voters and taxpayers, to share Government’s thinking and to hear people’s views. It never really happened.

The actual approach was probably best typified by debate on the report on the Hill: late in the day, as I recall, and without clear direction from the front benches on what Government thought.

The pity was, too, that examination was not extended to the revenue side of the equation. A golden opportunity may have been missed.

At the very least, a cross-party joint select committee could have been set up to canvas the recommendations and engage stakeholders, openly and honestly, through public hearings to bring people in on what alternatives their Government was facing.

There is no guarantee things would have turned out differently.

But the opportunity to engage, and to listen and to share openly, would not have hurt. Some might even have regarded it as a smart move, politically. The chances for consensus might also have increased.

It is never too late to start.