Runaway trains and constitutional watchdogs
Do the initials SDO mean anything to you? If they don’t, they should.
SDO stands for Special Development Order. SDOs permit major land development in Bermuda. And today the Progressive Labour Party asked Parliament to changes these rules — arguably for the worse.
For those watching closely, there has been a detectable theme in the PLP’s approach to governing Bermuda. The Government has been consolidating power in the hands of the Cabinet, shifting it away from previously independent decision-makers and diluting oversight functions, including those of Parliament. A clear pattern is emerging. Examples include changes to the Casino Commission, the Bermuda Tourism Authority, and, most recently, the insertion of emergency powers into non-constitutional legislation relating to health and quarantines.
All of these changes have seen power flowing one way — towards the centre. External oversight diminished. Ultimately, we end up less aware of the decisions affecting us — and less involved in them. This is bad for democracy.
Brakes on the train
One of the things that has struck me since becoming an MP is how little attention we give to the role of our parliament. Most people would say that parliament makes our laws. This is true only in a procedural sense. The Government actually drives the legislative agenda. It brings its proposed Bills to the House and Senate. Parliament exists to review. Its function is to amend and hopefully improve the Government’s agenda. Parliament is the brakes on the train; a constitutional watchdog to bark loudly when things seem strange.
The eminent British constitutional scholar Lord Norton once observed: “Parliament has always been a reactive body.”
The relationship between government and parliament is one of cause and consequence. He says it involves government making demands for taxation and legislation, and parliament responding to those demands.
So when the existing government changes our law — to strip away parliamentary oversight — this weakens our system. There is then an increased risk of “backroom deals”. The watchdog is not there to bark.
Special Development Orders are crucial decisions. They impact upon our Bermudian landscape; often irreversibly. The OBA believes SDOs must be voted upon by Parliament before taking effect; not presented afterwards as a deal already done. You should, too.
An island of debt
Let me offer a recent example of the importance of parliamentary scrutiny.
At the last sitting of the House, the Opposition questioned the minister (Walter Roban) about his new Debt Collection Bill. This Bill proposes to “exempt” certain debt collection entities from providing their accounts for 2020. Why?
This lack of transparency is wholly contrary to good governance. The Government wants to enable certain debt collectors to duck due-diligence requirements. These are requirements that the very same minister implemented only in 2018. Again, why?
This is the sort of concern that can be tackled when Parliament brings proper scrutiny to the Government’s agenda. Brakes applied to the runaway train.
• Scott Pearman is the Shadow Minister for Legal Affairs and Transport, and the MP for Paget East (Constituency 22). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org