Not all good ideas have to die in committees
As the clever old saw goes: if you want to kill an idea, even a good one, send it to a committee for study and recommendation.
The tactic came to mind when the question surfaced very recently at one of those televised Covid press conferences as to whether the Government would consider appointing a commission to review how we had managed the pandemic.
While possibly premature, at this time, it’s not a bad idea. The Premier arguably agrees. He said that he thought a parliamentary committee comprising members of the legislature may be just the vehicle and he would bring it up in meetings with the Speaker.
You may be forgiven for wondering how effective this will be. Parliamentary committees do not have a particularly strong track record in Bermuda. There have been a few notable ones over the years, but they have been the exception not the rule. They ought to be the rule.
Some important work is there to be carried out in the form of oversight of the executive, ie, Cabinet. This is the role backbenchers on both sides of the House should be playing. There are enough of them in a House of 35 members — Speaker excluded. Senators would be a bonus.
There is one standing committee that is supposed to light the way, but does not: the Public Accounts Committee. It is meant to keep under constant review government expenditure and to inquire about matters of concern raised in annual and special reports by the Auditor-General.
Trouble is we don’t hear much. Meetings could be public hearings but they appear to be few and far between. Like the number of meetings themselves. The legislature’s website tells us that there have been only four this year — all of them in camera, meaning private — and the last reported meeting was in May.
That alone tells a story; not a promising one.
Remember, too, that the PAC is headed by the Opposition spokesman for finance, who presumably has the added political interest, and motivation, of keeping the Government’s feet to the fire when it comes to how our money is spent, or wasted, as the case may be. You would think?
How much more effective, though, if the PAC and all parliamentary committees were to carry out their work contemporaneously, ie, in real time, thereby providing more timely oversight — and thereby engendering accountability for decisions as they are implemented.
The Sage Commission — remember that one? — was on to this. My recollection was that they thought three committees could do the job, dividing the various government ministries and departments into three groupings. Ambitious backbenchers from both sides could cut their teeth, too, questioning and probing.
But so far, nada on that front.
The will just does not appear to be there, regardless of who is in power. I will concede that there may also be a question of resources. Committees will at the least need secretarial support, in the form of transcription services. But, for my money, it has to be worth the small investment.
In fact, it is past time we changed the parliamentary culture on the Hill — and working by bipartisan committee would be a welcome start.
Aristotle was reputed to have said that we are what we repeatedly do and that therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit. I am certain Flora Duffy would agree with that. She is living proof in fact — and, as fellow Bermudians, we are all justifiably proud.
Is the opposite equally true? We are what we repeatedly do not do, which is something that falls short of achievable excellence.
BTW, I do think a study of how the Government managed the Covid crisis would be in order. It ought to be more clinical than political, too — which in my books means it should be conducted by professionals who are outside the political process. A small team of three would be ideal — and with opportunities for public presentations as well.
The importance of having a review and a plan for future reference was underscored for me in a very good read, The Premonition by Michael Lewis, the bestselling author of The Big Short and Moneyball fame. If only the plan that was there in the United States had been followed when Covid first reared its ugly head.
The book also provides a very good explanation of why protocols, quarantines and vaccinations are together the most effective response. Think of each one of them as layers of Swiss cheese and that, layer upon layer, they hold the prospect of covering the holes through which the virulent disease can and does slip. Food for thought?