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Government must do a better job of communicating with us

Public anger: protesters at last week’s information meeting about pathways to status. The group prevented others from listening to the proposals and asking questions, our columnist writes. (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

With $2.4 billion in debt, a $220 million annual deficit, a struggling tourism industry, international business under threat and no natural resources to export, Bermuda needs to grow up really fast.

Unfortunately, most of us resist change and few issues can illustrate this quite like immigration reform. Sure, I would expect immigration reform to be painful, even in the very best of economic times. But does it have to be as painful as we’ve seen thus far? I don’t think so.

First, let’s consider the group of 20 to 30 Bermudians, several known to be staunch Progressive Labour Party supporters, who heeded that party’s call for civil disobedience:

Asked if she saw any logic in the immigration proposal, she said: “Yes and no. I understand what they’re trying, but they are overlooking the obvious. Invest in your own people and let them put this country back where it needs to be. We are stuck being dictated to instead of being listened to. I will protest till I die.” Unknown protester

Yes, we live in a democracy and protesting should be a part of it. Nevertheless, this group prevented the rest of us from listening to the proposals, analysing any data that might have been presented, asking any questions and considering any answers.

By shutting the meeting down, this group effectively dictated immigration reform to the rest of us, and this is completely unacceptable.

Also, the protester quoted earlier doesn’t appear to understand that we have insufficient funds to invest in our people because we are so deeply in debt. Furthermore, we can’t pay down our debt until we resuscitate international business and tourism. And most importantly, if we want to breathe new life into those industries, we must adopt a more welcoming approach to non-Bermudians.

Like it or not, these are fundamental facts of this highly competitive global economy. It doesn’t mean giving out status like Bermuda Customs landing cards. But it does mean that our declining population and struggling economy require us to introduce a sensible pathway to status.

Next, let’s consider the PLP’s inability to cease talking out of both sides of its mouth. Out of one side, it calls for the One Bermuda Alliance to listen to the voice of reason. Out of the other, it calls the OBA demonic, brands OBA women as whores and characterises the party as a slavery plantation.

One moment it denies accusations of xenophobia; the next moment it is trying to convince voters that Michael Fahy isn’t “a real Bermudian” — despite him having lived here since he was 3.

Today the PLP calls for collaboration and bipartisanship. Yesterday it was disseminating distorted statistics and asking Britain to dissolve a democratically elected government.

Think about it just for one moment. If the PLP genuinely desired comprehensive immigration reform, wouldn’t it have done it during its 14-year term? Having failed that, surely it would’ve published its own vision in a discussion paper soon after the PRC Supreme Court ruling? So, why has it not done so?

Finally, let’s consider the OBA’s disastrous introduction of immigration reform. I can totally appreciate that some decisions have been thrust upon us by the courts.

Nevertheless, the onus is upon the OBA to communicate a justifiable case for making critical, irreversible reforms to our immigration policies. Thus far, it has failed spectacularly.

For starters, it couldn’t have chosen a better day to raise suspicions and resurrect ghosts of gerrymandering through immigration controls.

Further, the poor timing gave the impression that the OBA withheld the proposal until after the Constituency 13 by-election. Or worse, it has decided to introduce it as a kneejerk reaction to the defeat. The bigger problem, though, is that it has failed completely to effectively communicate why they want to make such significant changes. Especially given the prior civil disobedience demonstrated at the Senate last March, it was entirely predictable that there would be some kind of protest. But even if there wasn’t, the OBA should have released an abundance of supporting documentation to the public.

The Government portal has long been an utter embarrassment. Not only was it difficult to find the immigration section, I also couldn’t find anything that showed that the OBA has crunched any data about the long-term impact of the proposed changes. For example, the public should be made aware of how many persons are estimated to qualify for both status and permanent residency — not just at inception, but every year for the next ten years. I also couldn’t find any information about pressures from international law or the latest legal challenges to our existing laws.

I’m not sure if this is an OBA communications problem, a Civil Service communications problem or both. All I know is that if the Government wants people to support its proposals, it must do an exponentially better job of communicating with us.

Back in 2014, finance minister Bob Richards declared: “The status quo is not an option.”

I’d say he’s absolutely right. But to change the status quo, we’re going to have to be far more reasonable, honest and communicative than we’ve ever been before.

• To reach out to Bryant Trew, e-mail bryanttrew@mac.com