Reminders, bedtime stories and reverence
The following is a revised speech given at the PLP Annual Delegates Conference
Never in the annals of our modern political history in this country has a political party swept all before it in the manner that occurred on July 18, 2017.
It was a victory that was duly earned by all gathered and the approximately 20,000 Bermudians around the country who placed their confidence in this great institution.
The Progressive Labour Party was formed more than a half-century ago in a little garage not too far from St Paul's Centennial Hall.
From that handful of men and women grew a set of powerful ideas that over time would evolve and transform Bermuda.
They would also set in motion with those ideas the eventual democratisation of this county, foster an expansion of our human and civil rights, and lead the fight for economic and racial justice in Bermuda.
That work continues.
There were a lot of unsung heroes when it came to that victory on July 18.
One of them was a 65-year-old African-Bermudian man from my constituency who walked up to me at the polling station and in front of my lovely wife shook my hand and said: “Rolfe, I just wanted to let you know that this will be the first time that I have ever voted in my life.”
After a brief, stunned silence, I said to him in a halting voice that I was honoured and humbled by his first vote in a General Election being cast for me and the PLP.
I then watched as he walked into that polling station to place that vote and meet his date with destiny.
Yes, this victory belongs to all those first-time voters. And it surely belongs to all those young black Bermudians who turned out in droves to vote on that day.
Moreover, it belongs to all the volunteers. People such as Linda Trott, Sandy Gilbert, Tarik Bean and so many others who worked so hard and devotedly for this cause at Alaska Hall and at the branch level.
Finally, it also belongs to the small yet growing number of white Bermudians who have rejected the politics of division and racial exclusion, and are now making the PLP their own, too.
White PLP supporters believe in social and racial justice. Just ask (social development and sport minister) Zane DeSilva. Just ask general secretary Lauren Hayward Bell and Graham Maule, who ran as a candidate in the General Election.
The election victory of the PLP, accompanied by justifiable euphoria and jubilation, does represent great opportunity for the country.
Yet it comes at a time when the country is faced with extraordinary risks and challenges, both on a local and geopolitical level that will require strong and, indeed, savvy leadership with a keen appreciation of what is going on in the world around us.
Things such as the growing impact of artificial intelligence and blockchain technology that will over the next five to ten years eliminate many professional-level jobs within the financial services industry, including in the banking and global insurance and reinsurance industries of which Bermuda depends.
Moreover, the quarter-century-long debate remains as to whether Bermuda will be able to successfully diversify our economy, for example, by attracting more fintech — or financial technology — start-ups to our shores.
What of the impact of our ageing population, which I predict will be announced soon via census data as averaging between 46 and 47?
The implications of that for our economy are profound across a broad range of sectors such as healthcare, education and pensions, to name a few.
In addition, if the United States does reduce its corporate tax rate to 20 per cent as recently proposed by the White House and imposes an additional “territorial tax” on imports, what will be the implications for Bermuda?
There is a body of opinion that if those reforms do occur to the US tax code that they will affect Bermuda's competitive position strategically as an international business domicile of choice.
And, of course, the stigma of being the premier global “tax haven” never seems to go away, and remains at this point a continuing, reputational risk.
Finally, income inequality in Bermuda is having a corrosive effect. It is causing the slow erosion of our middle class, along with the growth of real poverty throughout the country.
The upside is that David Burt, who is the youngest premier in our history, gets this — as does his very capable team.
This PLP team realises that our people voted for long-overdue change to Bermuda's status quo to meet these challenges and others, and that is exactly what we will deliver.
We intend to seize the future and not run from it.
Allow me to conclude with a Commissiong bedtime story. You see, my mother would read bedtime stories to my brothers and me after we had our cocoa on a cold February night. But the bedtime stories in my family were different, as I lived in a very militant and politically progressive household.
Our bedtime stories were usually also based upon real events.
Stories that would go something like this:
There once was a 26-year-old young woman with a young child. Her name was Ms M — that's not her real name, of course — but she does exist and lives only about six New York City blocks from here.
She comes from a Bermudian family whose roots go back more than three centuries, and over a recent two-week period, she worked at a restaurant as a waitress.
There she earned a basic wage of $7.50 per hour and worked during that period for a total of 96 hours — without overtime pay, divided into eight-hour shifts.
Her employer characterised the 24-year-old Ms M as a part-time employee, thus she had no health insurance for herself or for her four-year-old daughter.
Her net wage after deductions amounted to more than $620.90 for ninety-six hours, worth of work.
Her total in tips over that two-week period? Barely $227.
At that point, my mother would have looked at us and said: “Now you know that ain't right.”
But I ask you: what Bermudian would have been able to live off those earnings in a country with the one of the highest, if not the highest, cost of living in the world?
Or what of the attempt by one employer to bring in a foreign caregiver shortly after the election and pay them the princely sum of $11 per hour, or $440 per week before deductions.
Thank God that we have a Minister of Home Affairs now who is determined to “Put Bermudians first”. Walton Brown did the right thing and blocked that request.
It goes without saying that caregivers earn neither tips nor gratuities.
In fact, the need for caregivers and healthcare workers at every level will increase exponentially over the next decade, along with our ageing population.
This sector will be key in terms of job growth during that period, but will Bermudians flock to that sector if they are to earn no more than $11 or $13 or $15 per hour?
Is that a living wage?
If we did not get the result that we achieved on July 18, that application for the caregiver would have been approved.
These bedtime stories vividly demonstrate why Bermuda must implement a living wage.
In closing, I wish to talk about a very special man.
Historically, there have been three acronyms that have literally defined our movement for justice and equality in Bermuda: AME, BIU, PLP.
These were and remain the leading vanguard institutions today.
However, the AME Church, which has been tilling these fields for more than a century, and the sterling leaders that have led it in Bermuda deserve special mention.
Particularly, this man.
You see this man, during the darkest days of our struggle after we had experienced the greatest political loss in our history in 2012 did not run from the battle, when they sought to destroy our leaders and our institutions, he ran towards it.
When they sought to create a pathway to no way for our people, he was there as a living symbol of resistance.
And when they pepper-sprayed 70 and 80-year-old women, he locked arms with us and said they shall not pass.
When they said give up, he said: No. Give more. Have courage. Don't surrender.
In acknowledgement of the above, I want to simply say to the pastor, of this St Paul AME Church, on this the 25th day of October 2017, at this Bermuda Progressive Labour Party conference:
Reverend Nicholas Tweed, a grateful people thank you. God bless you. This victory belongs to you, too.
God bless Bermuda and the Bermuda Progressive Labour Party.
• Rolfe Commissiong is a government backbencher and the MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21)