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Island’s political model ‘requires major reset’

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Sir John Swan, a former premier, is considering standing as an independent candidate in the forthcoming Smith’s North by-election (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

The news that Sir John Swan is seriously considering running in the pending by-election in Smith’s North speaks volumes. It says much more about our so-called political leaders on both sides of the House than it says about Sir John himself.

The news shouts to all from Somerset to St George’s about the collective failures of the present and the recent bunch of political hacks who have been claiming to lead us. As a dear friend who is also a great friend of Bermuda recently remarked: “Rolfe, these Black politicians these days seem more concerned with the pursuit of status and prestige than building the strong, sustainable and equitable Bermuda we all deserve.”

Bermuda’s political model — commonly referred to as the House that Jack built — was created nearly six decades ago. However, that house is now derelict, mould-ridden and barely standing. It is clearly no longer fit for purpose.

There is justifiably an evident and growing disquiet occurring in Bermuda. The electorate is very unhappy about the existing political landscape. The world has changed considerably over the past decade. The old world will never return. But one gets a sense that our politicians are not paying enough attention to the profound transformation needed for all Bermudians to thrive. All Bermudians — those of us living now as well as our children and their children’s children.

I believe that there is also a growing sense — not well articulated, or even much discussed — that the near-six-decade-long constitutional and political model built by Sir Henry Tucker as cited, in tandem with Britain during the 1960s, is a model that does require a major reset. That era was also one that produced both parties that we have today. Sorry, One Bermuda Alliance, that includes you.

Sir John understands this need for fundamental change. None of today’s leaders gets it. Or, if they do, they are doing a remarkably clever job of hiding it.

Rolfe Commissiong (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

On this score, at the local level, we saw that at the last election in 2020, more than 10,000 voters that had voted in 2017 did not return to the polls. Arguably, the 2020 General Election saw the greatest drop in voter participation in the modern era.

Part of this disquiet is also tied to the more immediate issues such as the always high, and now ruinous, cost of living, tied to that the emigration of Bermudians, mostly to Britain, and the granting of PRC certificates. Bermuda is increasingly becoming a place for the very rich, mostly foreigners, with the services they require being provided by growing numbers of low-cost, low-skilled foreign labour.

All of the above, as any layman would understand, is eroding Bermuda’s middle class generally and especially our more vulnerable Black middle class, which took decades to build along with the swelling of the ranks of the Black working poor. Both are at risk of being displaced.

Another key question that has contributed to Sir John’s re-emergence is posed by the following question: has the man met the historical moment where he is once again deemed necessary in a country where great leaders are incredibly in short supply?

In light of the massive global changes that are occurring, the growing lack of evidence that the present Black political and financial elites are even up to the task is disturbing. Is Sir John up to the task? Even by default, I believe that most Bermudians and voters would answer “yes“.

Is Bermuda really ready for the massive challenges to the geopolitical order? What will be our place in the context of this new order?

The highly touted global minimum tax is not going to be our financial saviour for long, let alone permanently. The OECD said that bluntly some months ago. In the short term, Bermuda will likely win big time. That is simply not good enough for us to rely on for sustainable growth. We must develop another economic model to attract inward investment and provide us with a sustainable source of income. The 0 per cent corporate tax rate that was our chief comparative advantage globally is no more.

This is against the backdrop of a rapidly ageing population and a broken health insurance system. According to the former chief medical officer, roughly, 6,000 Black Bermudians are without health insurance. That figure represents societal failure by any measure in a country that in terms of its GDP per capita is ranked the fourth-richest in the world. The lack of diversity in this economy is also an increasingly acute issue contributing in our failure to retain younger Bermudians in our labour market and create an incentive for those overseas to return home.

Sir John gets that too. He is seeking to mobilise Bermudians to think about these issues and the implications for Bermuda. As I do and have been writing about in this forum. We may differ in terms of public policy priorities, but I believe that our views are complementary in that we have the best interests of Bermuda at heart.

Sir John has been nothing throughout his life if not a visionary.

I have been one of the foremost critics of Sir John since the 1990s politically — usually on public policy matters related to economic and racial justice for Bermudians. There were times when I took no prisoners when it came to Sir John in response to some of his public comments and policies. On the other hand, my mother and father were civil rights icons as founding members of the Progressive Group. She was also a Progressive Labour Party stalwart starting in the early 1970s — but one, strangely for me, whose eyes would light up every time Sir John’s name was mentioned or his face was seen on television. Much to my consternation, I might add.

However, Sir John was part of the same Marsh Folly, St Monica’s Mission Road, Government Gate community where not only he and my mother were born but also the legendary lion of labour, Ottiwell Simmons. They were also roughly the same age. It was like one big family. And let’s not leave out the Talbots as in Uncle Junior, the Jennings and so many others. It was a neighbourhood that produced strong Black leaders in business, law, the clergy and politics. Black leaders who were change agents and who changed the face of Bermuda for ever.

Perhaps the battle-hardened pond dog has returned to complete unfinished business at a time when the country needs his vision, his voice, his knowledge of the world and his wisdom.

These leaders and so many more of that generation were giants, unlike the small, mediocre figures who are only passing for leaders today. The country is the lesser for them. Bermuda’s interest and that of its people are at enormous risk. Their narrow vision can never rise to the challenge of the changes now occurring to the world order that are having an impact on our island home, where most of us would prefer to remain.

Can Sir John win? I believe he can, in a three-horse race that is likely to see only 700 to 800 voters at best come to the polls. His win in Smith’s North can open up a pathway for the constitutional and political reset that Bermuda so desperately needs now. It is the indispensable condition necessary for our belated renewal as a country. That would be a preview to the General Election in a way that was never anticipated only two weeks ago.

A Sir John victory as an independent would demonstrate that voters have an appetite for a new approach to addressing issues that threaten our very survival and our democracy as the new foreign oligarchs jockey for influence. A Sir John victory can and will begin an inclusive and collaborative process of building the strong, sustainable and equitable Bermuda we all deserve.

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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