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Privileged attacks should draw more ire

Controversial comments: Minister of Public Works Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

This past Friday, Bermuda’s House of Assembly, the debating chamber of the nation, sank to a new low as the Government rounded heavily on the outgoing Chief Justice of Bermuda, Ian Kawaley, and then took potshots at his successor, Narinder Hargun.

Here is a selection of remarks as recorded, which came on the heels of the Chief Justice’s shots at the Government’s treatment of the court system, which were levelled at successive governments of the Progressive Labour Party and One Bermuda Alliance.

Minister of National Security Wayne Caines, in reference to the Chief Justice’s lambasting: “... like a thief that comes in the night, while he is on vacation”.

As if his point is not made, he goes on and says “that ... is not how a leader ... conducts business” and then, theatrically, says “ ... in a move that can only be described as cowardice”.

Minister of Public Works Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch: “... will the real Chief Justice please stand up, it’s like having a bipolar person in the post”.

He goes further and says: “You have people in this court who are over the age of retirement, who on an annual contract come into this country and disrespect our people from the bench. Send them into retirement.”

These comments are totally absurd and should have no place in Bermuda, and certainly not in the House of Assembly. However, it seems to now be acceptable to bash governors, police commissioners and the judiciary.

Let’s be very clear. Both the PLP and OBA failed to properly fund the court system in Bermuda, for any number of varying reasons — I shall expand on that another day. The courts are undermanned. Judges are underpaid and the staff are not receiving the training they deserve. The Supreme Courts are still woefully inadequate and not fit for purpose, and even the newer Commercial Court is poorly designed.

The Chief Justice made his feelings very well known to the OBA on many occasions both — publicly and privately — even using the opening session of the Court to chastise Trevor Moniz, Attorney-General at the time.

Justice Kawaley is a highly respected academic, lawyer and a chief justice who does not mince his words in court or in the public domain. He is far from being a coward. In fact, to speak up in Bermuda in the environment in which we live today is brave, since all too often the messenger is shot because of bruised egos.

Is it not in fact cowardly to use parliamentary privilege to assassinate the character and motivations of a man who has dedicated a sizeable amount of his professional career serving to the best of his abilities the Bermuda public?

He could have earned a heck of a lot more in private practice, but chose service — hardly the mark of a coward. Caines’s minor back-pedalling this week after an outcry online is simply not enough and seems to be a statement to give justification for his commentary rather than an apology.

Just when you thought the Government could not stoop any lower, the Minister of Public Works stated in relation to the outgoing Chief Justice’s alleged failure to train others into his post “ ... you must produce somebody to take your place other than an Indian”.

This racially charged comment clearly aimed at Narinder Hargun — a man who came to Bermuda in 1978-79 and who has made significant contributions to Bermuda’s jurisprudence — is as shocking as it is sad. In other first-class jurisdictions, such comments would have likely led to the minister responsible being forced to resign. However, that is clearly not happening.

While the Premier has, four days after Burch’s considered commentary, said “This is not unique to one political party and I have discussed with the minister and my colleagues generally the need to elevate debates and communicate effectively on the good work we are doing on behalf of the people of Bermuda”, it clearly has happened only because the Premier is enjoying photo ops with Suresh Nichani, of RootCorp, a firm that describes itself as a “leading Indo-Western investment manager”.

How incredibly cynical.

Burch’s comments are not surprising, especially when you recall that it was the Premier of Bermuda leading the charge against the next chief justice when his appointment was announced. Taking the form of barely hidden disgust for a man that does not look like him, he described Hargun’s selection as an “affront” and stated that the process involving his selection “cannot be moulded to reflect their [the electorate’s] will through the existing consultative process”.

All this despite Hargun being Bermudian. Whether you are born in Bermuda or not makes not a difference if you have status. It appears to be an issue only when you don’t look like those criticising you.

So what does the Government have against people of Indian descent? In the absence of a rebuke by the Premier, the entire government is tarnished with this racist comment.

People of Indian descent make huge contributions to Bermuda every day. They work in our restaurant industry, in our hotels, in international business and in government and the police service. Bermudians marry and have children with people of Indian descent. In one fell swoop, the Minister of Public Works has treated all people of Indian descent with utter contempt.

All of this is so ironic, especially when the Premier said when announcing a public holiday to support the arrival of Portuguese immigrants to Bermuda just hours before, “this government is a government for everyone, and we are determined to forge a society where our differences are celebrated. We must have meaningful inclusion if we are to chart a future of success for our children and future generations”.

Such a statement seems so utterly hollow now and in the words of his minister “bipolar”.

So where is Curb? Where is the People’s Campaign? Where are all the other groups that are fighting for full equality in Bermuda? Where was the uprising in the House of Assembly?

Disappointingly, there was very little show of disgust and there was nothing but agreement from the government benches. Just whistling tree frogs.

It seems to me we are entering into a very dangerous time in Bermuda. A place where if you have a different view from that of the Government, you will be lambasted by the government members under the guise of parliamentary privilege. A place where racially insensitive and inflammatory statements are permitted without real consequence. A place where being “pro-Bermudian” means one thing to a sitting government minister versus what is the law.

I’ve been told not to be concerned. To let it go. But I can’t.

So is the inescapable conclusion that the Government does not want Hargun in the post or anyone else unless they look a certain way? It should not matter what the descent of Hargun is — whether he is of Indian descent or, in the eyes of the Deputy Speaker, of South African descent. It should not matter.

A person’s heritage or the colour of their skin cannot and never should be the measure of intelligence or ability. Bermuda really is another world.

Michael Fahy is a former Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, and Junior Minister of Finance under the One Bermuda Alliance government