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Move to eliminate conscription sparks a political skirmish

The days of conscription appear numbered after the One Bermuda Alliance made a Throne Speech pledge to eliminate it during this legislative session.

But the OBA was accused of delaying the issue by blocking the Progressive Labour Party's ‘Abolition of Conscription Act', tabled shortly after Governor George Fergusson finished reading the Speech yesterday.

In an exchange of statements, Public Safety Minister Michael Dunkley and PLP Leader Marc Bean took issue with what they viewed as a lack of a collaborative approach on the matter.

In the House of Assembly, the PLP's Bill was defeated by 19 votes to 14, with all OBA members voting against it.

Mr Marc Bean said in a statement: “In an effort to do things differently, embrace the spirit of collaboration and change the toxic environment in Parliament, we attempted to bring forward legislation that would move Bermuda forward.

“Without even reading or considering the text of the legislation, the OBA blocked the PLP's Bill to end conscription.

“We believe that conscription must end. The OBA says that they believe in ending conscription and that they also believe in collaboration.

“Together we could have collaborated on something we agree on, ending conscription without delay and moving Bermuda forward. Unfortunately it was not to be.

“The OBA should have worked with us but instead they stifled debate and conscription will be with us for the foreseeable future.”

Mr Dunkely responded: “Tabling legislation is end of the process not the first step.”

“Collaboration means working together to achieve common ends. If the Opposition was serious about working together to end conscription they would have shared this Bill in advance of today's session of the House. They didn't and this Government will not go along with whatever is tabled without fully considering the effects on the public and the Regiment.

“Timelines pulled out of the air and without regard to the operational responsibilities of the Regiment could be damaging to the organisation and disadvantage the very people we're all supposed to be representing.

“The promise to eliminate conscription is contained in today's Speech from Throne as well as an undertaking to table amendments to the Defence Act 1965 to address disciplinary practices within the regiment.”

The Minister added: “This Government is serious about collaboration but working together is not a game or subject to political stunts. Working together means having the courage to step away from the adversarial system under which we operate and engage each other in meaningful dialogue to produce work that reflects well on us as representatives of the people.”

Anti-conscription campaigner Larry Marshall condemned the OBA for voting down the Bill, saying he was sceptical of the ruling party's Throne Speech promise.

In the Speech, the OBA stated: “During this legislative session, the Government will introduce amendments to the Defence Act 1965 to eliminate conscription.

“Additionally, further amendments to the Act will provide for a revised legal and disciplinary system for the Bermuda Regiment in accordance with EU standards for the modern military.”

Mr Marshall, spokesman for campaign group Bermudians Against the Draft, said: “I was appalled at Minister Dunkley objecting to a Bill he had not even seen.

“You have a situation where the Opposition is trying to do the right thing and the ruling Government is blocking them.”

He said that in November 2011, when Mr Dunkley was the Shadow Minister, he had complained conscription was past its sell-by date.

“If conscription is past its sell-by date two years ago, then what is it now?” he asked.

Mr Marshall said of the OBA's Throne Speech pledge: “That should have been done months ago to ensure the 2014 Boot Camp consisted entirely of volunteers.

“By the time it comes around, they will have had 13 months to make the transition from conscription to a voluntary organisation.”

And while Mr Marshall noted the PLP failed to end conscription in its 14 years in power, he said: “I would prefer not to dwell on the past, but they have a new leader who has come out in the past and stated publicly conscription is wrong, the 21st Century slavery, and needs to be abolished.”

Regiment Commanding Officer Lt Col Michael Foster-Brown said that the Regiment was a modern employer.

“It's a matter of the legislation keeping up with the Regiment's own desire to keep pace with international best practice,” he said.

“The Regiment works hard to ensure a fair, safe and rewarding working environment for our soldiers. Many such measures are already in place or underway — we just need the appropriate legislation to reflect these changes.”

Col Foster-Brown said: “The decision to end conscription is a political one, which we will work hard to implement.

“It's not, however, something that can happen overnight without undermining the Regiment's capability as Bermuda's Insurance policy.”

He added that detailed discussion has been underway with Government about the need for “an orderly transition” with a gradual phasing out of conscription, with the last conscripts potentially balloted in 2015 and those serving being obliged to complete their mandated service.

But he said this plan was reliant on achieving a year-on-year doubling of the number of volunteers to reach the required annual intake of 100 new troops.

Col Foster-Brown added: “Volunteers cost more to attract and Bermuda has some unique demographic challenges, with the Regiment requiring a relatively high proportion of our eligible youth.

“We have made a comprehensive recommendation to Government for the extra funding that will be required for recruiting initiatives, retention bonuses and increased spending on advertising.”

And Col Foster-Brown pointed out that the US National Guard — a part-time volunteer force — pays bonuses of up to $20,000 to recruit personnel.

He said: “The Regiment will never be able to match anything like that, but it gives an indication of the scale of effort required in other developed countries to maintain all volunteer reserve forces.”

But he added that nearly half the Regiment's current strength was made up by volunteers — despite the bulk of them having originally been conscripted.

Col Foster-Brown said: “Those that try it, like it. The challenge, however, will be to transmit their enthusiasm for soldiering and service to those who have not been obliged to try it first through conscription.”

Ending conscription causes conflict: The Bermuda Regiment march past the grounds of the Cabinet Building.

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Published November 09, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated November 08, 2013 at 11:30 pm)

Move to eliminate conscription sparks a political skirmish

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