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The Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster

Columnist and former MP John Barritt concludes his series for submission to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons on the status of the Overseas Territories’ respective relationships with the United Kingdom. Submissions were 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

Dear committee members, I share with you the comments my five columns provoked on the matter of Bermuda’s relationship with His Majesty’s Government — and more specifically on what, if any, scope there may be for further constitutional reform.

They have not been overwhelming. No major surprise, that. While we pride ourselves on being “another world” — you may be familiar with the song? — we are really no different than people elsewhere, Britain included. The everyday focus is on the cost of living and the struggle in many cases to get by, if not get ahead. All very understandable. But beneath the daily grind, if not running through it, is what appears — to me and to others — a growing disenchantment with politics. Or more accurately, perhaps, the way in which politics is conducted these days.

How we conduct our politics in Bermuda is on us. Nevertheless, I maintain there are a number of changes that can and should be made to our governance architecture, which could well lead to improvement, some of which would require constitutional change — all of which I have highlighted in my previous columns.

There is one further suggestion that I should like to highlight, which arose from an online comment: a Citizen’s Assembly. While the concept is familiar, my first reaction was one of doubt. We already boast a legislature of 36 MPs and 11 senators. Do we really need an additional layer of government? However, and on second thought, there may be merit in having a platform for greater participation by residents on the issues of the day.

How so? Well, first off, meetings and discussions do not have to actually take place in a physical room. Technology makes possible virtual meets. More and more of us have become familiar and comfortable with engaging by Zoom. Some may say too familiar, but that’s another story.

One of the goals of a Citizen’s Assembly is to give participants the opportunity to debate and discuss matters of concern to them, issues which their government is having to tackle or ought to be tackling. Differences of opinion and the reasons for those differences are identified, and clarification obtained on what separates those who hold differing views.

My information is that this approach has proved useful in other jurisdictions, where it has been tried: Scotland, Ireland and the Canadian province of Ontario to name but a few. They have been especially useful in helping to build consensus on difficult and contentious issues; notably in Ireland, for instance, and resolution there of the very contentious issue of abortion. They can also assist any government in helping to shape public policy.

This is the way a Citizen’s Assembly is intended to work — in theory. Obviously, there would need to be a number of agreed ground rules. Chief among them would be: who will be entitled to participate? Voters only? What form will online participation take? Anonymously under pseudonyms? Perhaps even more importantly, who will decide on the rules, administer the site and moderate? Almost certainly, it should be as independent as possible, run by a third-party entity, that is, and is seen to be, completely free of any political connections and/or influence

Maybe a role here for our institution of higher learning: the Bermuda College?

That said, the last thing we need with a virtual Citizen’s Assembly is another platform for overzealous partisans to seek to score political points by posting anonymously, sometimes, if not a lot of the time, under multiple handles. It isn’t that this just isn’t helpful — and it isn’t — but the increasing intensity and outright bitterness of some of the bloggers does nothing to solve, let alone address, the bigger issues the Government of Bermuda faces, regardless of which party is in power.

More discourse, less division is what we need; and what we need is the adoption, where possible, of mechanisms that make discourse more probable than divisiveness.

As the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But where it ain’t working, or is not working as well as we think should, why not improve it? Some further constitutional change will be needed and there is a role here for His Majesty’s Government to play. The Bermuda Constitution Order is, after all, British legislation. Just tell us clearly where you stand on further possible constitutional change and then help us to make it happen.

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Published August 17, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated August 16, 2023 at 5:04 pm)

And now we wait ...

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