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Pandemic delays parliamentary party

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The Covid-19 pandemic has forced a delay to celebrations of today's 400th anniversary of Parliament.

But Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, and Joan Dillas-Wright, the President of the Senate, have organised a full celebration for the convening of Parliament on November 6.

A steering committee axed plans to begin commemoration of the August 1, 1620 foundation over Heritage Month and the Bermuda Day holiday in May because of the start of the lockdown in March.

But the plans were salvaged and modified and a celebration of Bermuda's democratic tradition will be held next week in St George's, including at St Peter's Church and on Town Square.

Mr Lister said: “It would have been very nice to have met the planned 400th anniversary schedule, certainly.

“We were pushing very hard, with the parade and other events.”

Mr Lister said renovations to Sessions House, the seat of Parliament since 1824, would see the legislature serve Bermuda and its people with modern services and “the best tools” — including the ability to televise sittings of the House of Assembly.

He added: “That has been a goal and objective through the years. We're pleased to see that there is a change and that the building is being renovated.

“Bermuda has the oldest continuing parliament in the Westminster system — outside of Britain. We have such an enviable history and a stability that began 400 years ago.”

Mr Lister, the Speaker since 2017 and an MP since 1989, said that Commonwealth parliamentarians from around the world had expressed admiration for Bermuda's legislature and its history.

He added: “We just celebrated 50 years of the 1968 Constitutional Order — it was an important milestone that needed to be recognised.

Mr Lister said the Constitution was modelled on similar documents from countries that planned to move towards full self-government.

He added: “Other communities were able to take it to the next phase. Fifty years later, we're still in a sort of no man's land. It was not designed to be in place permanently.”

Mr Lister traced the development of the franchise in Bermuda, which was limited to white male landowners until emancipation from chattel slavery on August 1, 1834, when it was extended to black men — if they could meet a property ownership threshold.

The right to vote was extended to women in 1944 and limited adult franchise first exercised in the 1963 election. The 1968 vote was the first with full adult voting.

The right to vote was extended to 18-year-olds in 1989.

The size of the House of Assembly was reduced to 36 seats in 2003, with a more regularised constituency count, which is reviewed by a joint committee.

A constituency could have as many as 2,500 voters and another as few as 800 before 2003, which created an imbalance in voting power.

Mr Lister said: “That was key to the creation of a one-man, one-vote electoral system, one that is fair.”

He added: “When I first came in to Parliament, the sessions were not being broadcast.

“Hopefully, when the building renovations are complete, we can be televised.

“Very recently, we have gone to a paperless Parliament, with Parliament-issued tablets, which have been a blessing to us during this pandemic.”

Mrs Dillas-Wright, an 11-year veteran of the Upper House, who took her seat as president in 2017, said: “Certainly you'll find that in the Senate, we have been able to stay current. We have been able to see what other parliaments and speakers have been able to do.”

She said the Covid-19 pandemic had “put a wrench” in the Parliament's activities, but through the internet, Bermuda and other countries had been able to adopt best practices and social-distancing.

Mr Lister said: “The goal is to be able to say that the majority of benchmarks have been met.”

He added that a new code of conduct for parliamentarians would be produced “shortly” and to further the issue of separation of powers of the Government, “we're looking at” a Parliamentary Reform Bill.

Mr Lister added: “It would have been nice to do it during the 400th anniversary celebrations, certainly.”

“A code of conduct will go a long way in how we should be conducting, giving the Speaker and the Senate president stronger teeth to address issues that may arise.”

Mrs Dillas-Wright explained that she had had “many interesting exchanges” with parliamentarians abroad and noted they had “very strong” powers of censure.

But she highlighted that the small size of the Senate meant “we don't necessarily have the issues that you might see in the Lower House”.

Mrs Dillas-Wright added that video broadcasts could be good because cameras tended “to have an impact on behaviour”.

The consolidation of Parliament at Veritas Place in Hamilton two years ago had been “very beneficial” for the health of the legislature, particularly now that the Senate has access to a Hansard record.

Mr Lister said: “The Parliament is an entity that should always be a living and evolving structure in Bermuda. We should be evolving from where we are now.

“We have to be constantly improving our system. One day we may have to consider whether 36 constituency seats could change to something smaller.

“It has made a difference in the behaviour and tone and people come to parliamentary sessions prepared. When they know they are being videotaped, it makes an impact on their behaviour. Perhaps Bermuda could get to that point.”

Mr Lister said that a further innovation found in Westminster-style governments that could be good for Bermuda was the presence, during Budget debates and other financial debates, of government officials — senior civil servants responsible for government departments — who would take their place on the floor beside a minister to answer questions in the chamber.

He added: “I keep close contact with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and regional parliaments. In our ongoing relationship, they're always encouraging us.”

Mr Lister said it was clear the legislature would have to “go virtual” after David Burt, the Premier, announced the Covid-19 shelter-in-place lockdown.

He added: “We had no choice. I expressed my view with the Premier that we were going to have to set an example about social-distancing, masking and other measures to curtail the virus. Going virtual was the only option.

The first session of the House of Assembly in the wake of the announcement, saw a meeting with barely enough members to form a quorum — 14 — with the Speaker, when emergency matters were debated and passed.

The pair admitted there had been “a couple of hiccups”, but said the people's business was being attended to on a virtual basis.

Mrs Dillas-Wright said her time in the Senate has been a highlight of her career of service to Bermuda.

She was pleased at the growth of the numbers of women in politics, with five sitting in the 11-member upper chamber.

She also praised younger women who had become involved in the process at constituency level.

Mrs Dillas-Wright said: “It's been a great honour to serve in Parliament in general, but particularly to have been able to sit and talk with personalities who were here in the wake of the 1968 Constitutional Order.

“It's been an honour to have been among the last of the generation that was able to sit with them and share what they know.”

Mr Lister said a highlight of his career was being a beneficiary of their knowledge and learning the protocols of the Parliament, and be able to pass them on to younger members.

And he said Bermuda's Youth Parliament was a hopeful sign for the future health of the legislature.

Mr Lister said that the Commonwealth parliamentarians and administrators he had met were impressed with Bermuda's youth representatives, who tended to be younger than their counterparts elsewhere, but still “hold their own” at events around the world.

He added: “They represent themselves and Bermuda very well. They're very committed to research issues that they select, and run the functions under the parliamentary rules on their own.

“I encourage the public to sit in when they are sitting, You will be impressed.”

But Mr Lister emphasised there was always room for improvement.

He said: “Obviously, we haven't been perfect, but we are trying our best to get it done. We value the legislature's staff and resources.

A special ceremony marking the anniversary will be held on the steps of St Peter's Church on Thursday and a special issue of stamps and first-day covers will be revealed at 10.30am.

Dennis Lister, Speaker of the House (File photograph by Akil Simmons)
Joan Dillas-Wright, the President of the Senate

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Published August 01, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 03, 2020 at 7:54 pm)

Pandemic delays parliamentary party

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