Sight adjustment required to remedy political divisions
In a recent assessment of the political scene, elder statesman Sir John Swan wondered out loud whether Bermuda might benefit from a political makeover. He may be on to something here. Whatever you may think of Sir John and his recent pronouncements, his voice is a voice of some experience: 20-plus years in the legislature, including notable stints as a Cabinet minister and as the Premier for 13 years.
He knows a thing or two, and not just because he has seen a thing or two, but because he was, in his time, very much at the centre of a thing or two.
Of course, he has the benefit of hindsight, which is pretty well always 20/20 vision.
Nevertheless, at this time, Sir John is also no longer constrained by party and party politics. As I used to joke when in the Opposition, Members tend to see things more clearly when voters move them from the government to opposition benches where the view is that much brighter. Out of the House completely, and freed of all party ties and obligations, the view opens yet again.
But vision alone isn’t sufficient. People are naturally looking for answers to their problems in the form of workable solutions.
So the question emerges: what lessons have we learnt from 50-plus years of responsible government under the 1968 Bermuda Constitution Order and the introduction of party politics?
Almost certainly the challenges we confront today did not happen overnight. What is happening today — or not — has its roots in yesterday, and there is plenty of blame to go around on that score. But sadly, the blame game, a convenient and seemingly popular political preoccupation, does not advance the cause of improved governance.
Instead, it may be worth it to take a hard look in the rear-view mirror and ask ourselves honestly, and openly: “Where did we go wrong? What could we have done differently and better — with the benefit of hindsight and experience?”
No apologies here for repeating that some heavy lifting, hard work will be required for this to happen; and here I am talking about “roll up the sleeves, shoulder to the wheel” type of work. Carefully crafted press statements, occasional opinion pieces and sharp sniping from behind anonymous posts won’t do it.
On the contrary.
We need less of that which reinforces the political divide and division.
We need more of that which makes collaboration and co-operation a more prominent feature of Bermuda’s parliamentary democracy, and to put in place those tools and mechanisms that not only make this possible but the first option in our governance architecture — both constitutional and legislative.
Exhibit 1 for the cause: the Public Accounts Committee.
Readers may be familiar with my views on the subject. The PAC is a prime example of where our legislature has not fully used or improved upon what we do have under the Westminster system we inherited. The Budget debate is by parliamentary tradition meant to be the Opposition’s debate in which Members are expected to question and probe how money has been spent and will be spent: yet for a good deal of the time it has, at best, made for the usual political theatre, point and counterpoint.
On the other hand, sharp, focused oversight is supposed to occur throughout the year through the work of the PAC — doesn’t happen, hasn’t happened. This is but one area where some assembly is required.
By this sort of means, we need to identify that which has worked — or has not — and make all the necessary adjustments and corrections, some of which I have highlighted in earlier columns.
My list, incidentally, is not meant to be exhaustive.
Meanwhile, one of the ironies to the Covid pandemic is that it has shown us how technology has presented new ways in which our legislature can operate and arguably become more efficient. Zoom meetings can open the process, eliminating the need for physical meetings. Distance is no longer an issue. This could be particularly useful for committee meetings, letting the voters in as viewers in the first instance and, latterly, as participants with questions.
More assembly, I know, and more heavy lifting.
But what I also know, as we look out on the horizon, and the challenges that may be coming our way, economic and otherwise, is that Bermuda’s problems are too big for us to continue to be small in our approach as to how we are governed — and how we govern ourselves.