Shift in political landscape?
A funny thing happened when the House of Assembly resumed this past Friday ... peace broke out. Well, not completely. There was still the usual political snipery. This is politics, after all.
But the twin threats that Covid-19 poses to life and liberty brought a real sense of solidarity to the House. The meeting of Parliament was a virtual one. MPs attended via the internet, muting and un-muting microphones — sometimes with comic effect. Yet it was the spirit of bipartisanship that seems to have “gone viral”.
Is this a good thing? Most people would instinctively say that it is.
When I entered Parliament less than two years ago, my core belief was that we Bermudians have more in common than that which divides us.
Yes, Bermuda is a small island. And, yes, we have some big problems. But if we can find a way to come together, if we can find common ground to build upon, then maybe — just maybe — we may find solutions for all. And yet common ground is far easier to find when the problem is singular — when a collective problem is faced by everyone.
When we all agree upon the problem that needs solving, it is far easier to identify and implement a solution.
The measuring stick of leadership in the face of a singular threat is primarily one of competence. Has there been sensible and adequate planning and, ultimately, is a good plan being delivered?
Basic human compassion goes a long way, too. And charisma also features. But when there is consensus about what needs to be done, then implementation becomes the real test of leadership.
It is much harder, though, to make progress when people disagree about the problem. Or when people disagree about which problem to tackle first. It is harder still when the potential solutions are many, or are rooted in differing political philosophies.
It has been observed before that Bermuda politics has never really operated on the traditional left-right spectrum. Our political faultlines are predominantly racial and socioeconomic, which themselves are historically intertwined.
Another factor that may impact on political thinking is working life. If you run a business — small, medium or large — you may well have differing views on politics than when your labour drives someone else's business.
If, like many, you have experienced both — worked for others and also managed workers — then this exposure may also shape your thinking on what needs to be done. So, Bermuda politics has tended to divide in that way, too.
Will these historic divisions continue into tomorrow's world? Take the example of management and labour — will these distinctions blur as we transition to an increasingly online, entrepreneurial economy?
May the bipartisanship caused by Covid-19 trigger a seismic shift in our political landscape?
It was with some cautious hope that I witnessed common ground break out in Parliament.
There were two matters for debate on Friday's order paper: pensions and the Covid-19 regulations.
The pension amendment allows those with private pensions, who have yet to retire, to make a one-time withdrawal of up to $12,000 until June 30, 2021. The motion on the Covid-19 regulations saw the Government comply with the Opposition's request to table various regulations in the House, as required by law, to ensure parliamentary scrutiny. If you wish information on either, please post a question on the One Bermuda Alliance's WhatsApp page, joined via www.oba.bm.
Both debates were important. The first because it provided potential relief to those in need, albeit at the expense of their retirement income. The second because constitutional safeguards were enforced by Parliament. Yet it was interesting to witness the blurring of traditional party politics. Progressive Labour Party MP Christopher Famous was keen to emphasise that MPs must put the interests of Bermuda above those of political party. He said: “We are Bermudians first before we are PLP — or OBA”. Interesting comment (as he may say).
The pension debate revealed a different political divide. Not PLP versus OBA. Both parties supported the amendment, with bipartisan consensus to make available some pension monies to address present hardship. Yet clear separations of political philosophy emerged during the debate.
Some MPs felt individuals can do with pension monies what they wish — after all, a pension is your money, tucked away for future use.
Some MPs saw pension monies as a future safety net. Bermudians were urged to think carefully before withdrawing “rainy day” savings. Yes, it is raining now, and raining hard, but it will also rain again.
Some MPs viewed the spending of pension monies as a potential economic stimulus for Bermuda — others thought this a dangerous risk to carefully saved retirement funds.
One MP quipped that the differences of opinion showed which MPs were nearing retirement age. But these opinions were underpinned by fundamental principles — on both sides of the debate — not by loyalty to one political “team” or another.
Neville Tyrrell, of the PLP, observed that, while he did not often agree with Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, of the OBA, on this debate he could “stand for the first time in public” and support her views. Both MPs urged caution, recommending that Bermudians should be slow to deplete retirement monies unless necessity demanded it.
It was refreshing, to me at least, to see political debate based on principle. For it is right that our allegiance must be to Bermuda before any political party.
So perhaps the political landscape is changing? Perhaps voters will demand politicians who seek to build bridges, rather than divide.
Or, perhaps, our new-found bipartisanship will not last beyond the existing crisis?
Doubtless common ground will be harder to find when the singular, common threat of Covid-19 fades, yet the economic aftershock still remains.
But it would be better for Bermuda, and for all Bermudians, if decisions on the serious issues of the day were based on fundamental principles, not mere party politics.
The big problems we have to solve are difficult enough.
• Scott Pearman is the Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs and the Opposition MP for Paget East (Constituency 22)