Collaboration? Maybe a lot more than you think
Here's a novel exercise to undertake, Mr. Editor, when assessing the Annual Budget Debate. Let's look for a change at the issues and approaches on which the Government and Opposition appear to agree and put to one side for a moment the differences, the real, the imagined and the manufactured. You might be surprised (pleasantly, I hope) at the number of items on the list. Heck, you might also start to think that there is sufficient common ground for the collaboration each party professes to want to see on the Hill.
• Civil service reform: the cure isn't firing civil servants, said the PLP in their Budget Reply. The OBA promised no job cuts in their election platform. Instead, the Opposition agrees that efforts must be made to improve the efficiency of the civil service. They mention a couple of ways: streamline the grievance procedure so managers can root out non-performers; introduce fixed term contracts and performance based pay for senior managers. Sounds like a start to me.
• Budgeting rules: it is agreed that strict parameters now promised by Government ought to be set and enforced, including the adoption of more disciplined procedures for “supplementaries”, i.e. late approval for unbudgeted expenditures and usually, sadly, tragically, well after the fact.
• Balanced Budget: agreed that should be the goal as soon as possible and that our national debt is the greatest risk to Bermuda's financial freedom.
I could stop there.
I won't. There's more.
• Tourism turnaround: a mammoth but necessary task and the Bermuda Tourism Authority enjoys both sides' full support. The only difference apparently is over whether the BTA should have more money.
• Banking: agreed reform required, specifically when it comes to lending practices.
• Tax reform: further agreement on the need for a thorough examination of Bermuda's tax structure and of the feasibility to broaden the base.
Whew. That's a fair bit and a good starting point for collaboration. But here's the question – and it is key: how do we make it happen?
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is one possible means. It is made up of seven backbench MPs, Government (4) and Opposition (3), who are empowered to examine, scrutinise and make recommendations when it comes to Government expenditures. Ministers and civil servants can be called to account.
They do not have to wait for a report of the Auditor General to act. Their work does not have to be entirely retrospective either.
There is much value in being current as well. So when the Opposition pledges their full support for the America's Cup, but expresses concern that contracts be tendered fairly and opportunities be spread across the community, PAC can weigh in and monitor what's being done. Government also gets another opportunity to showcase their work and successes.
PAC is also the vehicle by which the controversial can also be tackled. Like that which is proposed for the airport and why. Questions can be asked and answers given in the sunshine of public scrutiny. There is no need to shy away from examination. Both parties are fairly represented on the committee, and indeed Government has a majority of members.
PAC is a standing committee of the House on the Hill. There may be a need for more. Other committees can be appointed by agreement to tackle specific issues and they can be made up of members from up the Hill (select committees) or in combination with Senators down the Hill (joint select).
These are means by which legislators are afforded an opportunity to work together even where they hold different views.
This is the parliamentary apparatus by which collaboration can be made to happen; and to be clear here, collaboration has to mean more than just telephoning or emailing a Minister about an issue or problem instead of going public first.
It should come as no surprise that legislators, particularly those that are elected, not only want to represent their constituents on issues but be seen to doing so. The floor of the House is one way, committees are another.
It is a good way to also try and tackle some of the tougher issues, to ferret out facts and to find common ground. The public can also be given the chance to weigh in with submissions. For instance: Immigration practices and procedures are in need of an overhaul and the governing legislation, while amended numerous times over the years, dates back to 1956. The Opposition has thrown down a challenge here that the Government might do well to take up.