‘It’s about all of us working together’
Financial relief for struggling families and a pledge to get more Bermudians back to work through economic growth are to be cornerstones of Government policies for the coming year.
But as well as presenting “practical, responsible” initiatives to tackle unemployment, financial hardship and the national debt, Government also announced a raft of radical proposals to bring about social reform yesterday.
Presenting the Throne Speech during the convening of Parliament, Governor George Fergusson announced an initiative to cut the cost of food items, and hinted that similar reductions in fuel bills could be in the pipeline.
There is also a slew of initiatives put forward by a number of Ministries “designed to bring business, economic growth and jobs to Bermuda”.
Two of the Island's most contentious topics — gambling and marijuana use — will take centre stage in the coming weeks as Government engages public opinion on each.
Conscription could be abolished through amendments to the Defence Act, while one of Bermuda's oldest traditions — the ban on sales of alcohol on Sundays — could also be coming to an end.
And more electoral reform is on the cards. Those overseas at election time, such as travellers and students, will benefit from plans for absentee balloting.
But the Opposition Progressive Labour Party criticised Government's agenda, saying it lacked substance and that there was “nothing new in this speech to address the ongoing jobs crisis”.
Reading the Speech on the Cabinet grounds, on behalf of the OBA, Mr Fergusson revealed that three prominent grocery stores have agreed to offer deals to help customers struggling to feed themselves during the economic crisis.
MarketPlace, Supermart and Lindo's will introduce ten percent discounted shopping on Wednesdays, for one year from December 1, following negotiations between Government and the Bermuda Trade Union Congress.
“The challenge for Government will be to spread the spirit of shared sacrifice to all stakeholder groups, particularly those who can help relieve people's hardships,” stated Mr Fergusson.
“To that end, and in keeping with a promise made in negotiations with the BTUC, the Government initiated discussions on the cost of food and electricity.”
The policy was greeted with applause from politicians, dignitaries and members of the public attending the ceremony.
Premier Craig Cannonier later revealed that supermarket bosses had agreed to the price cuts following negotiations with Government Ministers Michael Fahy and Michael Dunkley.
The Premier pointed out the initiative was an example of Government's request for shared sacrifice and collaboration.
And he stressed it was not a quid pro quo deal in which Government or the tax payer would have to give something back in return.
When asked if the supermarkets would receive concessions for agreeing to the discount, the Premier replied: “This is about shared sacrifice. What are we giving back to them? 'Thank you — it's much needed for Bermudians.'”
The OBA pledged that the Ministry of Economic Development will move the regulation of Energy to the independent Regulatory Authority, which was launched in January this year.
The Energy Act and Regulatory Act will both be revised as part of this move, with Mr Fergusson stating: “One of the aims of this initiative is to help lower the cost of energy for consumers.”
Hinting at a disruption of Belco's monopoly, he said the Bermuda Energy Working Group is tasked with developing “equitable interconnection agreements” for independent power producers to contribute to the production of electricity and encourage price competition.
On gambling, the OBA said its Gaming Committee is currently reviewing information, with Mr Fergusson stating: “The Government is committed to having a referendum on gaming in the first quarter of 2014. The referendum will be preceded by a substantive public information campaign.”
Reiterating the OBA's plans to tackle the cannabis issue, Mr Fergusson stated: “The time has come for leadership in the public debate on marijuana.
“Therefore, in this session, the Government will produce a public consultation paper on the decriminalisation of marijuana and an examination of its wider uses.
“This will inform the community of the competing research on this drug, its uses and the potential impact any shift in policy might have on the Island.
“The people's representatives must lead a sensible, mature public discussion on this issue.”
Regarding conscription, the OBA pledged: “During this legislative session, the Government will introduce amendments to the Defence Act 1965 to eliminate conscription.”
It also promised to provide for a revised legal and disciplinary system for the Regiment in accordance with European standards for the modern military.
Meanwhile the Sunday alcohol ban is ending as part of the modernisation of licensing laws.
“The prohibition of alcohol sales by retail outlets on Sundays has been a feature of Bermudian society for a long time,” said Mr Fergusson.
“However, times have changed. Locals and tourists alike wish to be able to purchase beer, wines and spirits on a Sunday.
“Accordingly, Government will amend the Liquor Licence Act 1974 to allow for the purchase of wine and spirits on Sundays from retail outlets that are permitted to operate in accordance with the Public Holidays Act 1947.”
More good news for retailers came in the form of proposed flexibility for opening times, following consultation with the Chamber of Commerce and the Registrar of Companies.
Among the economic-related news is a plan for a $50 million bond issue this month, which will complete the Finance Ministry's strategic borrowing requirements.
Legislation will be toughened up to improve debt collection as Government chases $70 million in unpaid taxes, while those who donate food to the needy will be protected through a Good Samaritan Act.
Action on violent crime will include amendments to allow judges to set the minimum amount of time that must be served before murderers or other serious offenders become eligible for parole.
Mr Fergusson explained: “The recent Privy Council decision that reduced the sentences of two convicted murderers has caused disquiet in the community and has given rise to concern about the efficacy of the criminal justice system in relation to serious offences.”
Other highlights from the 25-page Speech include a break for St Georgians, with a promised temporary jobs programme to bring the parish's golf course back up to standard.
Bermuda status will be more easily obtainable for people born in Bermuda or adopted by Bermudian parents, following proposed legislative changes.
Parents who don't pay their child maintenance will be subject to “more creative solutions” than prison, while greater efforts will be made on mediation in child custody and access disputes.
And S3 students will be required to sit the Employability Certification Programme to make them more attractive to potential employers.
At a press conference following the presentation, Premier Craig Cannonier said Government was tasked with “making sure things work better for people, helping them live their lives”.
“This means good-paying jobs, good schooling, safe neighbourhoods and an affordable Bermuda,” he said.
“This is not a Bermuda we can simply wish into existence. It is going to take time, hard work and patience.
“Recovery and renewal will take many steps and many hands. This Government will continue moving forward to rebuild the economy so that new jobs and opportunities spread across the community.
“But we also need all of us doing what we can to pitch in to help the many who are struggling every day. Tough times test people and we need everyone who can, to lend a hand. It's about making real the principles of being our brother's keeper and shared sacrifice. It's about all of us, in this boat together, working together, moving forward to make us strong again, leaving no one behind.
“My deepest hope is that the changes we are bringing forward in this Throne Speech and beyond will take hold quickly — because people need help now. I see the pain and suffering every day.”
* Read the Throne Speech in full, as well as our list of highlights, on The Royal Gazette's website.