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Enlightenment the buzzword on pathway to a fairer society

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Standing strong at all cost: David Burt, now the Premier, left, and Walton Brown were true to one of the PLP’s recent mottos when in Opposition in refusing to dance to the beat of the Foreign Affairs Committee in London last year. Michael Fahy is in agreement with the Premier in steadfastly resisting all attempts to provide voting rights in Bermuda and positions in office to British citizens resident on the island (File photograph)

“Everyone has the right to a nationality, no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”Article 15 — Declaration of Human Rights

The conversation has started about the British Parliament back bench Foreign Affairs Committee report entitled Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories: Resetting the Relationship, which was released on February 21, 2019. The FAC is appointed by the UK House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and its associated public bodies.

A number of recommendations were made in the report after receipt of oral and written evidence from the Overseas Territories by the FAC, which ranged from provision of healthcare on the National Health Service for Overseas Territories citizens, same-sex marriage, beneficial ownership and immigration-related matters. Of particular note, the Bermuda Government, which represents the largest OT by population and therefore arguably wields the greatest influence, did not bother to give oral testimony to the committee.

In December 2018, Walton Brown reportedly said: “We do not feel that we have to answer to the FCO, and so we did not appear before them” with a spokesman later confirming that Bermuda “declined to give evidence because the Government does not report to the British Parliament”. While I agree with the sentiment about not reporting to the “motherland”, we should never pass up the opportunity to make our case about who we are as a people.

The Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, Falkland Islands, Pitcairn, St Helena, Ascension Islands and Tristan da Cunha all saw fit to send a representative to give oral witness evidence. It should also be noted that the committee merely makes recommendations to the British Government; it does not instruct.

Sadly, rather than taking an official opportunity to appear before a body that gives recommendations to the Foreign Office, the committee had to rely on a letter from the Premier, David Burt, which concentrated on beneficial ownership issues, and, ironically, testimony from a former governor in the form of George Fergusson to educate the committee about Bermuda, its laws, customs and way of life. While a number of Bermudians wrote to the committee, including Bob Richards, the former Deputy Premier, the Government’s representations were woefully inadequate.

There are a number of serious flaws in the FAC report, but the one that all the OTs quite correctly have a serious problem with suggested that all British citizens resident in Overseas Territories should vote in their elections.

The Premier accordingly said: “The right to vote is perhaps the most highly valued right in a democracy. To suggest that non-Bermudians should have the right to determine the direction of our country via the ballot box ignores the history of voting rights in Bermuda and is a tone-deaf recommendation which we will strenuously resist.”

I strongly agree with Mr Burt’s sentiment. It would be completely illogical to allow those without Bermuda status to vote in Bermuda’s elections. Giving non-Bermudians such a right would indeed be a retrograde step as the Premier has stated. I suspect, however, that had a government representative actually bothered to appear before the FAC, this ridiculous recommendation, along with others, might very well have been different.

The Premier has subsequently promised to give us all a history lesson of voting rights in this country as a result of the proposals in the report. By way of reminder, albeit brief — and directly from Electoral Reform in Bermuda (Johnson and Payne).

“Until 1968, Bermuda had a property-based franchise in which land ownership carried with it the right to vote. When the numbers of non-white landowners began to increase, a minimum value was established for the properties which entitled their owners to vote. In 1960, this was £60. A man could vote in each parish in which he owned sufficiently valuable land — giving the richest whites as many as nine votes each if they so desired.

“There were 18 two-member constituencies, two each for each of the island’s nine long-established parishes — several of which were named after major landowners, such as Devonshire and Somerset: the original Parliament was convened in 1620 and, as in England, involved the landowners in each parish sending two representatives. Until 1963 there were no political parties and all MPs were independents. For the 1963 election, however, the Progressive Labour Party contested nine seats, winning six; the remaining 30 seats were won by independents, 24 of whom subsequently formed a second party, the United Bermuda Party.

“Bermuda’s first election held on the basis of universal adult suffrage and equal voting took place on May 22, 1968. The main changes were: universal suffrage — electors had to be British subjects aged over 21 with either Bermudian status or over three years’ residence in Bermuda — and a 40-member Parliament elected from 22 member constituencies. The parish of Pembroke, by far the largest, including the capital Hamilton, was allocated an additional two constituencies, with the other parishes retaining two constituencies each. The first elections using the new system were held in 1968. In 1979 the residency vote was abolished for all non-Bermudians who were not registered for the General Election in May 1976; and the voting age was lowered to 18 before the 1989 election.

“A further Constitutional Conference was held in 1979, but the parties were unable to reach agreement on any changes: the PLP wanted a shift to single-member constituencies using the plurality system, whereas the UBP favoured a form of PR. All that was agreed was that the parties should include their choice of electoral system in their election manifestos. The UBP, which won the subsequent election in 1980, and again at each of the four following elections did not take the opportunity to introduce its favoured system. The PLP retained its commitment to single-member constituencies, however, and its 1998 manifesto stated this, along with an indication that it wished to reduce the number of MPs.

“A unanimous vote in its House of Assembly on October 11, 2002 agreed to forward to the UK Foreign Secretary a Boundary Commission report recommending a 36-seat House elected by first-past-the-post.”

This was approved.

All of the above changes were the right thing to do. It is absurd to think that only landowners could vote, or only whites or only men. Thankfully we, like most of the world, became enlightened. Who can sensibly argue against what the PLP premier termed in 2002 the achievement of “a long-cherished dream of many Bermudians ... of establishing a modernised and reformed electoral system predicated on the democratic ideal of one person, one vote, each of equal value”?

It is a fact that for centuries there was massive disenfranchisement of black Bermudians and indeed anyone who was not a landowner! With that in mind, simply giving a vote to any British resident or anyone else regardless of length of tenure in Bermuda would be absolutely insane! That would take us back to 1968 at least! In fact, I daresay I would join in a march in London against such a thing if it were to be imposed on Bermuda — although there are many legal hurdles to overcome here in any event if such recommendations were to be put into law.

Per the words of a former member of the Falklands Legislative Assembly in response to the FAC’s proposals: “My answer is a very firm no. The right to vote should remain available only to those who have chosen to join the community on a permanent basis by seeking status.”

So what did the report actually recommend? “The UK Government should initiate a consultation with the elected governments of the OTs and agree a plan to ensure that there is a pathway for all resident UK and British Overseas Territory citizens to be able to vote and hold elected office. In its response to this report, the FCO should lay out a timetable for this consultation process and set a deadline for phasing out discriminatory elements of belongership, or its territory-specific equivalents.”

What this indicates to me is that there are opportunities to make our case that it would be totally wrong for all British citizens resident in Bermuda to vote in Bermuda elections. However, the key is the phrase “ ... ensure that there is a pathway for all resident UK and British Overseas Territory citizens to be able to vote and hold elected office”.

The missing word is long-term residents.

Right now, there are people from all over the world in Bermuda who know no country other than Bermuda. There are people who were born here and have spent their entire childhood in Bermuda. There are individuals who have been in Bermuda for more than 20 years and have no right to obtain permanent residency or status. They have no rights in the country they love. They have no right to contribute completely to the fabric of Bermudian society. They have no pathway to do so. They are our neighbours and friends, and many of us believe that such long-term residents probably already are Bermudian.

As Bermudians, we are generally free to travel the world and should we fall in love with and commit to invest in another community, we have to right to acquire citizenship in that country. Shouldn’t this liberating act of human kindness be reciprocated for those individuals who are sincerely desirous of joining our community on a permanent basis by seeking status? Shouldn’t we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves?

Our long-term residents need to be regularised and, yes, upon status grant they would have the right to vote in Bermuda elections. That would be the case whether the person was originally from St Kitts and Nevis, Britain, Azores, Philippines, Jamaica or any other place and has been in Bermuda for the long term. So it seems to me that we would be able to compromise on the recommendations of the FAC if we provided a pathway for voting through status grant for long-term residents.

Bermuda is one of the only places in the world that does not allow for status for long-term residents and therefore there are no voting rights for long-term residents or persons born here and who subsequently remained here that have no immediate Bermuda connection. This arguably breaches the European Convention on Human Rights and also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Pathways to Status initiative would have solved this problem.

With anything there is room for compromise; otherwise, we fall into the realm of places such as North Korea that don’t allow for any outsiders to get citizenship. Surely we don’t want to be in such a category?

Bermuda is another world and we are literally shooting ourselves in the head by failing to address basic human rights — economically and socially. The arguments in favour of regularising long-term residents are mounting and the excuses for failing to correct this absurd situation are running short.

We need not capitulate to ridiculous recommendations from the British Parliament, and the British Government should not try to impose itself on Bermuda or, for that matter, any OT. However, as Bermudians that have the right to self-govern, we do need to look at what is right for long-term residents without allowing prejudices to get in the way.

Since we enjoy a cultural kaleidoscope of people, let us not be afraid to discuss real change and negotiate. Let us be humble enough to compete and to collaborate, and be brave enough to explore our options. As Bermudians, we can be enlightened as our voting history has proven, albeit we were rather slow off the mark in most instances.

Enlightenment lies at the end of the tunnel, and is a privilege to be enjoyed by all if we allow it in our lives. Enlightenment is good. We must embrace it if we are to survive. Enlightenment shall set us alight with prosperity, and guide us to a space where we participate, celebrate, create. We must be enlightened enough to allow those who have lived as our neighbours for a lifetime as separate and unequal to join us as one on equal footing. Let’s align our community with our historical pattern of righting wrongs, and live in the memory of the world as a country that always did the right thing.

Kneejerk, grandiose pronouncements that sound good for the media and the general public should be tempered with seeking real solutions. Sadly, I suspect the FAC report will be used as yet another manufactured reason to fuel the flames of independence rather than as an opportunity for compromise (see previous opinions on independence).

In Bermuda’s best interest, let’s steer the debate away from backward, bygone, colonial era-evoking propaganda. This serves only to freeze us in time and deepen the trenches of animosity. Instead, we have a real opportunity to arrive at a favourable, forward-thinking, refreshing resolution that stands a fair chance to advance us all and give us the right to belong to a global community of caring countries.

The torch has passed to the next generation of Bermudians. We hold in our mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of discrimination through co-operative, meaningful ventures to assure the survival and success of Bermuda. It is high time we addressed the recognition of long-term Bermuda residents. Let us light our country so progression can glow brilliantly and we can all enjoy a real escape from existing dark realities. Bermuda’s economic survival is dependent on it.

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

A message to Westminster: the right to vote should remain available only to those who have chosen to join the community on a permanent basis by seeking status
Michael Fahy