Four horsemen of the ‘deficit’ apocalypse
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s face it, constitutional reform is not a bread-and-butter issue, and bread-and-butter issues are matters of real concern to voters in times of rising prices, and increased and increasing costs. Still, how our government addresses those issues is arguably a matter of concern — or should be — and by government, I mean government in the widest sense of the term, specifically our system of governance and whether that structure works as effectively as it should or could for the benefit of Bermudians.
Our democratic deficit is but one of a number of deficits that all governments are called upon to tackle at one time or the other — or all at once. Nothing new there.
There are three others. There is the financial deficit which is the one with which most voters are familiar: a national debt of $3 billion plus, which successive administrations have had little or no success paying down in any substantial way. On the contrary. That is largely because of what they have had to face on other fronts, which may be loosely grouped and described as the social deficit — whether it be in healthcare, unemployment, financial assistance. government services, economic stimuli and job creation, to name but a few. Of course, Covid and all it wrought only served to compound the problem; notwithstanding the welcome help we received by way of vaccines from Britain.
Finally, there is what has been described as the performance deficit. That’s the gap between what a government promises and what it actually delivers — and on that voters get to have the ultimate say come election time.
For the elected government, the perennial and constant challenge is to juggle and work through all four at once. There’s no sense complaining, either, once elected. But there is a lot sense to trying to improve our system of governance to make what we have work more effectively.
Bermuda has had responsible government since the adoption of the Bermuda Constitution Order in 1968. It was built on the Westminster model. But, and without assigning blame for the purposes of this discussion, we have not matured as we could have under this model of government and taken maximum advantage of what it can offer. In some respects, we failed to “Bermudianise” what we inherited to suit our needs as a small-island community of limited resources; instead, the record shows that successive governments, dating back to 1968, have found it far easier — and politically expedient — to concentrate and consolidate power with their legislative majorities.
What follows are a few examples to illustrate the point of what still can be done — and not all of what is suggested warrants constitutional reform:
• Enhanced committee system with strengthened rules and procedures designed to promote open, forthright and honest examination of the issues of the day, which would feature calling witnesses, and thorough examination by members; and the one committee that really does need to “up its game” here is the Public Accounts Committee — and be given the resources to perform its job
• The introduction of multimedia screens to let the public in on deliberations with questions and/or presentations
• Restructuring and redesigning the House Chamber — as has been tried in other jurisdictions — to make the seating circular, “mixing up” members of different parties in an attempt to minimise confrontation and to instead promote possible cross-pollination of positions and/or ideas
• The emergence of more “free” votes and less reliance on whips for every vote
Fat chance of that? Perhaps, perhaps not; no question but that the political will to change is required, either from inside the existing party system or from outside it. Some are even questioning whether smaller jurisdictions such as ours may be better served without the division that comes from political parties – a discussion that has not, as yet, caught fire.
Nevertheless, some final thoughts on the efficacy of constitutional and other reform:
• Doing politics differently in Bermuda means changing the way our legislature works — or is meant to work. What may follow is a change in culture that may be more representative of our community
• We should not overlook or discount the disparity that has developed over the years between the promise of our constitutional architecture and the way our governance institutions have developed
• We should not necessarily give up on the model that we began with, but reform it to our advantage
• Democratic government can be messy and difficult, and making it work will often require consultation, negotiation, concessions and compromise — and then some
Debate and disagreement should of course continue. We are better served when policies and decisions are subject to examination and challenge. That, too, is how democracy works — and works best.
A favourite Swahili proverb of mine sums it up best: whether the elephants make war or they make love, the grass always suffers. Think of the people as the grass — which is why a strong constitutional framework of checks and balances will be always desirable.