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Tail wagging the dog

The Senate is part of a Westminster system that helps to keep the ruling party in check ... if only for a year

It is an issue that comes up from time to time, and that is the question of whether Bermuda is overrepresented with 36 MPs and 11 senators. It came up again recently, but you may have missed it. It was buried in the Opposition’s Budget Reply.

It was hard to tell if, in all sincerity, it was just another throwaway line or whether the One Bermuda Alliance was serious.

The suggestion was that the number of MPs could be reduced to 30 and members of Cabinet, inclusive of the Premier, trimmed down to eight.

This is not a new suggestion. It was first made by the Sage Commission some seven years ago. The OBA was in power and I don’t recall it pushing then for such a reduction and, as was pointed out in the Budget Reply, no constitutional change is required for the government in power to reduce the number in Cabinet ministers at any time.

And it didn’t.

But, heck, we all know the deal. Backbench MPs aspire to be Cabinet ministers — the pay is better, too — and the more plums at a Premier’s disposal, the easier it is to keep ambitious members of the caucus content; contentment being a relative term.

Admittedly, a challenging job is made easier were the Bermuda Constitution Order amended to fix the maximum number.

A reduction in Cabinet ministers makes more palatable, too, politically and otherwise, any reduction in elected members of the House. Theory has it that the Westminster parliamentary system works best when the back bench, coupled with the Opposition, can outvote a runaway executive. If not outvote, at least stand as a threat to help keep a Cabinet in check.

It has happened in the past, too, proving that there are times when it is useful to have a tail that can, if necessary, wag the dog. Additionally, a sizeable back bench is also needed to populate parliamentary committees, public accounts being the most critical.

What isn’t often mentioned is whether there ought to be changes to the Senate — it wasn’t touched upon in the Budget Reply — although no question that that recent controversial vote in the Upper Chamber has brought the issue into sharp focus. It has to be rare to have an unelected body able to frustrate the will of a democratically elected government, even if for only a year.

But it happens. In fact, it happened to me be in the 1990s when I was the minister responsible for telecommunications. The Senate turned back legislation that would have ushered in competition. There was this concern that the Bermuda market wasn’t big enough to sustain more competitors and the introduction of mobile phones. LOL

But this recent rejection may yet prove the impetus for a fresh look at the composition of the Bermuda legislature. But so far, to date in any event, this particular issue of constitutional reform does not appear to have caught afire. Sticking with the canine analogy, as Bill Clinton used to love to say, “it could be that this old dog doesn’t hunt no more”.

There again, maybe not. Review and reform of our constitutional and parliamentary apparatus is very much overdue .But for now, I suspect, people are more rightly preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic and what the Government must do to manage our way through this crisis; that coupled with the compelling need to reinvigorate a flagging economy and steps to make that happen.

Best, not worst

Speaking of the pandemic, one year on and the Minister of Health Kim Wilson was quoted in a recent interview as saying that it was the worst year of her professional and political life. That may well be so. Who are we to disagree? But allow me this Dickensian turn of phrase when I say that while it may have been the worst for her, it appeared to have brought out the best in her and her government.

The minister may not have been perfect — who among us is? — but she stuck to “the science” and her presentations week in and week out, along with those of the Premier, were nothing short of outstanding. As the saying goes, cometh the hour, came the woman — and the man.

Three of the best

Finally, speaking of outstanding, civil servants often come in for their fair share of criticism and then some, but this past week Bermuda lost three of the best: Joseph Christopher, Kenneth Richardson and Heather Jacobs Matthews.

I am pleased to say that I knew all three, professionally and personally, and they stand in my book as exemplars for all who follow after them. They set the standard by which all of us can be measured and their achievements are all the more impressive when you take into account what each of them had to overcome in their lifetimes to make their mark.

Condolences to their families, friends and colleagues. All of us mourn their loss, but are able to celebrate their contributions to better governance in Bermuda.

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Published March 25, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 25, 2021 at 12:33 pm)

Tail wagging the dog

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