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Seeking greater protections from political interference

Cole Simons, leader of the One Bermuda Alliance, is the opposition spokesman for finance and head of the Public Accounts Committee, which John Barritt posits could do with being given even greater significance (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons has invited members of the public in Overseas Territories to tell the committee what they think of the status of their respective relationships with the United Kingdom. Submissions have been invited so that the committee can assess whether those relationships are satisfactory and appropriate in today’s modern world — and, presumably, to entertain what steps may be taken to improve those relationships. Former MP and columnist John Barritt has penned a series of columns that will form the basis of submissions he intends to share with the British parliamentary committee. Readers are invited to share their views on the matters that he raises and on any other matters you think should be taken into account. Your comments and suggestions will be forwarded to the committee, along with those of the author. You may submit them in the online comment sections at the end of each column or e-mail jbarritt@ibl.bm.

One of the more significant and important provisions of the Bermuda Constitution Order is this: in the exercise of functions and jurisdiction or powers conferred, the post-holder “shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority”.

Post-holders include the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman. The reasons for this constitutional protection are obvious: to secure their independence and to ward off any attempts at political interference.

It is also interesting to note that the same proviso is there for the Boundaries Commission and its work in reviewing constituency boundaries every three to seven years, and establishing — where appropriate — new boundaries. Mind you, there is of course the opportunity for political influence, as the commission consists of two representatives each from the Government and Opposition, along with the two independents appointed by the Governor.

It may be that the time has come for the Public Accounts Committee to be elevated to equal status in the Constitution Order and afforded the same protection. We are all aware, painfully so, of the poor track record this committee has had dating back to 1968, regardless of who has been in power or which party formed the Opposition — the committee being headed by the opposition spokesman for finance under the existing House of Assembly rules.

The work of this body is essential to good governance in Bermuda because it is expected to provide crucial economic oversight on the expenditure of money by the Government. Its make-up could be changed to consist of equal numbers of representatives from Government and Opposition, boosted by the inclusion of two independent senators — assuming we are minded to keep a Senate. Equally, the PAC’s mandate would be prescribed by law, minimising if not eliminating the opportunity to “filibuster” and/or delay its work by non-attendance — which has been an issue in the past.

There is one other post-holder that deserves elevation into the 1968 Constitution Order: the Information Commissioner. The Public Access to Information Act came after the last rounds of amendments to the order. While a similar provision against interference is in the enabling legislation, the post and the work under Pati is no less deserving than that of the Ombudsman.

A constitutional framework that strengthens and enhances governance is very much in line with modern-day thinking. Such moves can be reasonably regarded as preparatory steps on the road to independence if and when Bermuda elects to go that route.

In some instances, it is very much up to Britain and what His Majesty’s Government is prepared to relinquish in matters that remain under its remit. The questions need to be asked and answered: is there now scope to formalise, by amendment to the 1968 Constitution Order, some of the mechanisms and independently constituted bodies, with whom the Governor consults before making key appointments? The list here would include the Chief Justice, Director of Public Prosecutions and the Commissioner of Police. The adopted models, and our experience with it, would serve as a precursor to what might well feature in the Constitution of an independent Bermuda.

It is assumed — safely, I think — that we will remain a constitutional democracy where the exercise of power is limited and constrained by the rule of law. Key here is the protection afforded Fundamental Rights and Freedoms under the Bermuda Constitution Order and here the time is also ripe for review and, most likely, an overhaul.

Some of those rights that have been raised in recent years, and pursued in some jurisdictions, include:

• Rights to an education and/or to healthcare and/or to affordable housing and/or social security along with access to employment

• Protection of the rights of children

• Protection of the environment

• Promotion of justifiable and sustainable economic and social development

• Protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation

• The right to marry

• Further advances on the right to privacy

The list is not exhaustive but illustrative. There are undoubtedly others that some organisations and individuals would bring to the table — if invited to do so, as they should be, if there is to be meaningful public engagement on a revised and “Bermudianised” constitution.

NEXT: Tackling our deficits

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Published July 26, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated July 25, 2023 at 10:38 pm)

Seeking greater protections from political interference

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