A cautionary tale
“Even the graves on Cemetery Road are considerably stained and desecrated with the brown soot from those emissions … the dead can’t even rest in peace” — area resident Wayne Eversley
The Belco debacle represents a cautionary tale. It is not only emblematic of what the Progressive Labour Party has become but also Bermuda’s Black community and, in particular, the financial and political elites from whom it has garnered more than 95 per cent of its electoral support over the past three decades. It simply is something far more troubling in terms of the culture that has emerged at both levels.
Let’s start here. After following in the footsteps of David Burt, the master of kicking the can down the road, Jason Hayward has insulted the Black working poor with his publicly declared pledge — now reneged on — to finally deliver the living-wage proposal in 2022. It’s not for nothing that his final days as president of the Bermuda Public Services Union were marked by his lack of support for the living wage — one of a number of issues that stuck in the craws of his detractors. A fraction more than $16 an hour does not a living wage make; nor does it create the right incentives to attract largely Black Bermudians back to their homeland. In fact, it is a poverty-level wage in the Bermuda we all know.
But he would not stop there. Even more damage was to follow. A few weeks ago in a fit of political desperation, he threw his fellow caucus member — backbencher Wayne Caines, president of Belco — to the political wolves, and deservedly so. But he did so in terms of his offer to his constituents and residents of Pembroke Central that was highly insulting to their intelligence.
The core of the insult was contained in his faux proposal that Belco should write off the bills of affected residents in compensation for the living hell it has subjected those very same residents to over the past few years. This ignored that students and employees of the significant number of businesses within a two-mile radius of the North Power Station have also been affected.
Blessed are the children
Yes, students, too. It has not been in the spotlight, but if you have children attending The Berkeley Institute, Northlands Primary School, Bermuda High School, Saltus Grammar School or Mount Saint Agnes Academy, they in all likelihood are being affected along with those residents. Everyone who is a Bermudian knows that our prevailing winds emanate from the west. Need I say more?
But contrast those prospective savings for residents: on average, $3,000 to $4,000 per year. Far higher for institutions and businesses, with the ongoing, potentially life-altering risks, which are as follows:
• The health threat posed to the residents and others by living in proximity to a plant responsible for these daily emissions
• The decline in property values, which are effectively at zero right now. No one can sell their properties because there are no buyers. Who in their right mind would buy them?
A Hobson’s choice
Did Jason Hayward think of the above? It was an empty gesture, a Hobson’s choice which laughed in the face of those residents, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black Bermudians who own property on Mount Hill, St John’s Road and beyond that in some cases goes back generations in their families. Properties obtained over the course of the past century through blood, sweat and tears.
The organised group of residents to their credit, now known as the Bermuda Clean Air Coalition, are determined to stand up to Belco by any legal means necessary. As I write, the number of prospective lawsuits is mounting.
Hayward’s vain gesture was designed to bolster his declining political fortunes rather than anything that should be taken seriously.
As for Wayne Caines, his chairman, Barclay Simmons, and the rest of the Liberty board, they are now the face or poster child of the worst industrial polluter in Bermuda’s history. I cannot impress enough the significant social harm this is causing by threatening the health outcomes of hundreds and visiting incalculable economic damage upon those who can least afford it.
They schemed over the past few years to get their hands on the monopoly goose formerly called Ascendant that laid the golden eggs at Belco. But that goose is now rapidly turning into a carcass. My guess is that Caines has to be earning somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 in salary annually, not including stock options and performance-related bonuses. If not, he is a poor negotiator.
I don’t know what is worse, though: Hayward’s non-offer or Caines traipsing around with food hampers to some of the affected households. Sad.
Mr Caines, what we need is systemic change at Belco, not food hampers and prayer vigils. It is clear that the systemic change necessary is one that would fix the problem associated with the acrid emissions, which are likely a direct by-product of the cheap heavy fuel oil that is being used. And I will also bet you that the fix will cost Belco tens of millions to put into effect, leading to a significant rise in Belco bills across the country. If I and others — including a growing body of global scientific opinion — are right, HFOs such as what is being used by Belco have been outlawed in some countries because of pronounced health risk.
And remember all of them, including Caines, Hayward, David Burt and Walter Roban — yes, him, too — have known about this problem for more than three years and sit in the same caucus. Yet they and their colleagues have done absolutely nothing of substance that comes close to demonstrating leadership with a moral compass on this issue.
Algonquin Power & Utilities Corporation, the foreign owner, has provided us with a savvy example of political risk management at play here. What better way to protect its investment than to have a president of the group who is inextricably tied to the Government — Digicel, anyone? — and a board that in the main consists of PLP government supporters. The ultimate insurance policy; until it wasn’t.
A cautionary tale
Our Black forefathers and mothers did not fight and sacrifice in Bermuda simply to have our people behind that desk in that grand corner office. Don’t get me wrong, we do want to see people who look like us achieve great things, and not just on the “political reservation” that is the Civil Service — traditionally the reservation set aside in the late 1960s and 1970s for educated Black Bermudians by Sir Henry Tucker and Co. This was facilitated to take the heat off a regime that was determined to keep the private sector, at least during much of that period, as White as possible except for those Blacks who supported the regime and were showered as a result with financial patronage and career advancement in businesses they owned. How else could they provide jobs to mostly immigrant White Anglo-Saxons, whom they were fast-tracking to Bermuda status and thus the right to vote?
But those who fought for change also wanted to see our people thrive in Bermuda’s private sector. In both cases they, and we today, wanted systemic change to go along with those achievements in order to create a more racially equitable Bermuda.
It is in this area where we have failed, in the political domain and worse so in the private sector. In other words, we did not seek to have our people in place simply to have a Black face behind that desk while doing nothing to transform a status quo that continues disproportionately to harm people who look like us.
The PLP has failed in this regard and so, too, have many Blacks behind desks in that metaphorical corner office. The Belco debacle is but another example.
• Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage
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