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Cart before the horse

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David Burt, right, and Walter Roban launched a double-barrelled assault on Sir John Swan after the former premier criticised moves to seek full membership in Caricom (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

On November 3, the Government pronounced in the Speech from the Throne that, “in this anniversary year, the Government will renew the vision of Dame Jennifer [Smith], initiating a consultation process leading to full membership in Caricom”.

My first article on the topic was November 7, where in a nutshell, I advised that Caricom is “committed” to “free movement of all categories of people to live and work”. I also said that, “a full consultation process — not pseudo-consultation — promised by the Government is absolutely essential” and that “a matter of such importance should be decided by way of referendum”. I also suggested that full Caricom membership could be the “hidden key” to “comprehensive immigration reform.” In other words, I have not criticised the initiative at all.

Sir John Swan took things a step further on November 21 when he held a press conference and suggested that free movement of people within Caricom would deprive Bermudian businesses of selecting their staff, that he saw no benefit to joining, that there were more pressing matters closer to home, and that membership would threaten US Customs pre-clearance. Bermuda’s longest-serving premier also called for a referendum.

Within hours, Walter Roban, the Deputy Premier, branded the remarks “a regrettable stance to be taken by a supposed National Hero” and that Sir John has engaged in “overt discrimination against West Indians and their Bermudian families” during his tenure as premier and home affairs minister under the United Bermuda Party. He went further and said: “This is an old playbook from his UBP days — denigrate the Caribbean while making loads of money by investing and having business interests there. In that sense, he is not different to the colonisers.”

It took David Burt, the Premier, two days to reply more fully to Sir John’s commentary. He attacked Sir John by saying his comments were “plainly irresponsible” and said, “Perhaps what is most disappointing about Sir John’s comments are the echoes of a time when Bermudians were deliberately made to look down on their own ancestry in spite of our closeness to it”. He also accused Sir John of a “deliberate attempt to poison the consultative process”. I am not sure how that is possible when the consultation process has not officially begun since, per the Deputy Premier, the “public will hear early in the new year about the public consultation process”.

My concerns with the process of consultation is that we do not actually know what the process looks like! On the back of questions and opinions offered by numerous people in the community, we learnt from Mr Roban on November 24 in the House of Assembly that:

• Discussions between the Premier and the Governor had already taken place on “Bermuda’s intention to make an application for full membership”

• The Premier has already met with Britain’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Americas and Caribbean, and that the said under-secretary “expressed support for Bermuda making an application”

• “Official discussions have begun with the UK” as to whether an entrustment is required or merely an amendment to the existing entrustment (to allow Bermuda to join Caricom)

• The Government is already reaching out to the Caricom Secretariat to obtain all the required information for the application

• The Government is already “consulting with other full members of Caricom about our future application to get feedback and guidance”

• The Government is unable to “make any submissions…on part of the question [of a referendum]” and “that public consultation will be a part of this process”

So what does “consultation” mean? The British Government’s Code of Practice on Consultation says:

1, Formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcome

2, Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible

3, Consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits of the proposals

4, Exercises should be designed to be accessible to, and clearly targeted at, those people the exercise is intended to reach

5, Keeping the burden of consultation to a minimum is essential if consultations are to be effective and if consultees’ buy-in to the process is to be obtained

6, Consultation responses should be analysed carefully and clear feedback should be provided to participants following the consultation

7, Officials running consultations should seek guidance in how to run an effective consultation exercise and share what they have learnt from the experience

So taking the above, I query whether there is in fact scope to influence the policy outcome when high-level meetings have already been held with London, contact has been made with the Caricom Secretariat and consultation with other Caricom members has begun about “our future application”. Even the Throne Speech itself was clear when it said the Government would initiate “a consultation process leading to full membership in Caricom”.

The 2017 Speech from the Throne (page 16) said: “The Government will implement an interactive Citizens Forum to engage in constructive discussion on issues and to broaden the base of consultation on matters that affect Bermudians.” It said: “Our goal is to publish proposed legislation and policies, and allow Bermudians to discuss and comment on these proposals and share your ideas online.”

On the back of that, the Government’s online consultation hub, the Bermuda Citizens Forum, was created where we can apparently stay informed about new and amended legislation, policies and share our opinions to help shape future changes. Hardly full consultation.

I hope the Caricom consultation process goes much further than that, keeping in mind the British consultation principles above. I hope there is a very clear document published that outlines the pros and cons of Caricom membership. I hope there is a true debate without the personal attacks we have already seen. I hope there is truly an opportunity for the public to influence what appears to be a predetermined outcome. I hope all responses are properly analysed and that sufficient time is given.

Let me be clear: I have not made up my mind on Caricom. What I desire is a proper process whereby there are facts presented and there is uninhibited debate and freedom to express an opposing view by those who may oppose full Caricom membership without government-sanctioned personal attacks. Ultimately, followed by a referendum. It really is not that big an ask!

Michael Fahy was the Government Senate Leader and Cabinet minister in the One Bermuda Alliance government from 2012 to 2017

• Michael Fahy was the Government Senate Leader and Cabinet minister in the One Bermuda Alliance government from 2012 to 2017. Thoughts or comments to opedfahy@gmail.com

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Published December 08, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated December 08, 2023 at 7:15 am)

Cart before the horse

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