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The more things change, the more they don’t

Lessons from the past: Unrest in 1977 (above) prompted a Royal Commission report, better known as the Pitt Report, which raised concerns about bitter political party animosities and made recommendations applicable today, our columnist writes, such as the Premier and Opposition leader having regular conferences, similar meetings between Ministers and their Shadows, and the setting up of standing committees (File photo)

Some things never change, Mr Editor. Or so it seems. It was back to the future when I recently had occasion to pick up a copy of the Report of The Royal Commission into the 1977 Disturbances, better known as the Pitt Report, and thumbed through some of its recommendations.

One of the concerns back then, believe it or not, was the way in which Bermuda’s legislators conducted our public business.

“We also observe”, the Commissioners wrote, “that party animosities in Bermuda sometimes seem to be far too bitter considering the substantial agreement between them about what the national welfare demands.

“These animosities seem to be exacerbated rather than mollified by encounters in the House of Assembly.”

Okay, okay, I can hear you now. The more things change the more they don’t. What else is new, JB? But bite your tongues, if only for a moment, dear readers. It was their recommendations on what they thought could be done that got my attention. They were:

• The Premier should consider having regular conferences with the leader of the Opposition as well as consultations “on a confidential basis” about appointments on which the Premier makes recommendations;

• Similar regular conferences between Ministers and their Shadows;

• A review of procedures in the House of Assembly to allow for the immediate questioning of Ministers on Ministerial statements and “to take any other steps that are practicable to promote constructive debate and allow the Opposition to make as effective as possible contribution to the processes of Government”;

• A suggestion that the Deputy Speaker be chosen from the Opposition ranks “thus committing both parties to the Chair”; and

• “The setting up of standing committees to deal with such matters as finance, planning, education and social services.”

I know, I know, you have heard it all before. Me too.

But the pity is that nearly 40 years on we seem to have progressed very little (if at all) and we are still stuck on stuck.

There have been some changes, sure, but very few of the Commission’s recommended practices have become standard operating procedure, requirements, if you will, and a routine part of governance in Bermuda, regardless of which party is in power.

The institution of these practices, particularly calling for committees, would almost certainly make possible opportunities for collaboration, opportunities which we might well lead to real and actual collaboration.

For sure, some further change on the Hill is needed and on this point nothing beats a failure but a try.

The drawback to the way things are now is plain enough.

Even the SAGE Commission spotted the necessity for reform as well in its quest to find ways to make Government more efficient and cost-effective.

The SAGE Commissioners recommended joint select committees to keep a close and active eye on all the Ministries, calling Ministers and their civil servants to account on a regular basis.

“The structure would enhance transparency of ongoing Government activity”, they wrote, “far better than a once-yearly Budget debate filled with sound bites and the occasional parliamentary question with its nuanced answers”. Quite.

<p>City Hall saga has so many twists and turns</p>

If success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, Mr Editor, that quaint term “city fathers” just doesn’t seem to fit the bill anymore (pun intended) for those who have recently had charge of the Corporation of Hamilton.

Believe what you will and believe who you will but none of us can be impressed, except in a negative way, with all that has apparently gone down. Or not. I agree: it is getting hard to keep up with all the twists and turns that seem to emerge each day.

This has all the hallmarks of one of those classic cases with the classic questions: who knew what, and when did they know it, and what exactly is it that they knew?

Then there’s the money: the missing, the wasted and the thrown-away costs.

Sadly, the $18 million loan fiasco is just the latest in a string of events that boggle the mind and strain credulity.

I have two comments (and I won’t be long):

• Recent events in my books (pun intended, again) underscore the importance and need for an independent investigation into what has gone on, not just with the $18 million loan but the entire Par-la-Ville project, which might be well beyond the scope and resources of a parliamentary body, such as, say, the Public Accounts Committee. A commission of inquiry maybe? A clear airing is required and, any Police probe aside, the investigative net cast widely.

• Given all that has happened with the Corporation of Hamilton, voters must also now be seriously questioning whether there ought to continue to be a separate body, regardless of how it is elected, which can control important assets such as the docks and the waterfront, and to be able to do so in a way that may be contrary to our national interests as determined by the duly elected Legislature and Government for all of Bermuda.

I suspect any commission couldn’t help but opine on that one, too.