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A need for change from the top down

The airport redevelopment could have been under the parliamentary microscope long before now, our columnist says (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Recent events have once again prompted me to dust off my copy of the Sage Report, Mr Editor.

One of the recommendations in particular came to mind; the one that focused on the need for change from the top down. You know, leadership by example. It has been almost two years since the report and its recommendations were made public and, while I hate to say it, but I will, it is looking like opportunities squandered are now lost.

The recommendation to which I am referring is that which suggested that Cabinet itself could be trimmed. This was a way in which those in charge could take the lead in tackling what the commissioners rightly described as a “bloated” government.

They thought eight portfolios could suffice: Premier/Cabinet Office; National Security; Justice; Education; Finance; Health; Environment; Economic Development. The reduction would not require constitutional change. A Cabinet that size is already permissible.

There would of course be a savings in money. But that wasn’t the point, entirely — at least not the point I am trying to make here. It is also about the signal such a move would send. There would also as a consequence be some necessary reorganisation of ministries and various departments. Here, the commissioners estimated that streamlining could mean some 20 fewer departments. It would have been a start.

The problem is — and it is a real political problem — is that we would have ended up with a back bench in the Government that far outnumbers the Cabinet, a kind of reverse variation on the theme of too many chiefs and not enough Indians; that is not enough chiefs and too many Indians who want to be chiefs.

For sure, there would always be the concern that the tail (back bench) would get to wag the dog (Cabinet). The job of party whip would be that much more challenging. Ministers would also have to work that much harder to bring and keep their colleagues on board with what they are planning.

But I am not sure that is altogether such a bad thing. A properly functioning Legislature is meant to feature a strong back bench, one that is both vocal and active.

The Sage commissioners also recognised the greater role backbenchers could play, and should play, in these circumstances. Their status as MPs could be elevated in the eyes of the public to more than just cheerleaders or critics and votes on the Hill — and here I mean to include both Opposition and Government members.

Their recommendation was the establishment of at least three parliamentary committees (joint select, in fact, thereby bringing in senators as well) whose job it would be to monitor the work of the eight ministries “on an ongoing basis, calling ministers and civil servants before them to answer for the activities of the ministries and departments in the same way as is found in other Commonwealth parliamentary systems.”

A very good idea, you might think.

This, in tandem with the work of the Public Accounts Committee, would likely bring about an entirely different approach to government in Bermuda. There is the prospect, too, not the promise, mind you, but the potential for change in our political culture — and that is a goal worth pursuing, you might also think.

Think of the airport project. This could have been (and should have been, in my view) under the parliamentary microscope long before now. There were obvious concerns right from the start: no tender (when there should be), those entrustment letters, those e-mails and the Deloitte Report.

It cannot be ignored that our Government is also planning to hand over to a foreign developer one of our critical links to the outside world, and one of our strongest revenue producers, for a period of 30 years; and for a new airport at a time when many wonder that prudence dictates renovation and repair instead.

These are all reasons why the airport project should be subject to close, continuing parliamentary scrutiny in hearings that are open to the press and public — and to any parties who wish to weigh in with representations.

Any 30-year proposal should warrant the participation of the Opposition, at the very least. Any problems could be theirs in the future. Doesn’t the Acute Care Wing ring any bells with anyone on the government benches?

There are other good reasons, too.

A transparent, inclusive approach does more than just help bring about accountability. It also helps to provide in a systemic way the opportunity for collaboration and possible compromise.

I have heard the approach best described as one of mutual accommodation — as a way of getting things done by making room for others; of developing a means of understanding of what each side wants; and of trying to strike common ground.

It may not always work, but a meaningful opportunity is presented.

The winner-take-all, ignore-the-loser approach to government overlooks that the members from both sides are our parliamentary representatives, and that all of them make up our Legislature, and that our Legislature must be seen to lead the way on how we tackle our community problems and issues.

By all means, lead, yes; dictate, no.

I am back to recent events, Mr Editor. We know only too well where our present style of governing takes us. Nowhere? Hardly. To the edge of a cliff is more like it. Again.