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MPs debate ways to raise standards

Bermuda has done much to meet international benchmarks for legislatures, but there is still room for improvement, according to Kim Swan of the former United Bermuda Party.

In the House of Assembly on Friday, Mr Swan led the House in a debate on Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Benchmarks for Modernising Parliament.

Mr Swan noted several areas in which Parliament had moved forward, including establishing a register of member’s interests, updating the standing orders of the House and opening up committee meetings, but said more improvements could be made, such as the establishment of fixed term elections.

“We feel fixed terms would allow Bermuda to concentrate more on the issues,” Mr Swan said. “For example, the first Tuesday of November every four years would ensure two general elections per decade and permit greater ability to forward plan.”

He also suggested using the electronic recording system in the House to make copies of sessions available to the public, saying he is sometimes disappointed by the amount of information that is made available.

“It could be a resource not only to the public, but to the media both here and externally for those looking at our jurisdiction,” he said.

“It would also encourage us to raise the bar as we would be more open to scrutiny from any one and every one.”

He further called for clearer rules on the process of a motion of no confidence, saying that legislation should be written in language that an average person would understand, and for a revised code of conduct for Parliamentarians.

Continuing the debate, Government Whip Lovitta Foggo suggested a more regular and consistent schedule, saying it would increase members’ performance by allowing them to better schedule.

“I do believe that if we are to have a steady calendar, it will allow this body, both the Legislature and the Parliament, it will allow us to work more efficiently,” she said.

She also praised the success of committees such as the Public Accounts Committee, saying the group’s small size has allowed it to put partisan politics behind and make steady progress.

“Members are human, and we are operating in a party system, but when we can establish a tightly knit community, the members on this committee serve as each other’s stewards to make sure they don’t become partisan,” she said.

She also praised the Joint Select Committees for both being open, and allowing public stakeholders to step forward and have their voices heard.

“By having open committee meetings, we are also educating our public on how the legislature does work,” she said.

Shadow Justice Minister Trevor Moniz said that whatever decisions were made, the focus point had to be on how the people of Bermuda were affected.

“To me, we always have to look at the larger picture and what we have to look at with respect to these benchmarks is not institutions, but what effect it has on people,” he said.

The Opposition, he said, would “like to see action” on the benchmarks. However, he suggested, the suggestions may have come too late.

“It’s like adjusting deckchairs on the Titanic,” he said.

“I had no idea this motion was so caught up in dire consequences,” Walter Roban (PLP) said, adding Mr Moniz had been “talking like it’s already sunk”.

Government had created more transparency in recent years, he said, but the “the honourable member before me sounds like we’re going to hell in a handbasket and these benchmarks are not going to make a difference”.

Mr Roban called for a total renovation of the Parliament building even if it meant “moving out the courts so we can use the fullness of this structure”. Staff required more resources, he said.

“It makes no sense having a vast system of committees if we can’t service them right here in this legislature. We should have committee rooms.” And the Upper House and Lower House should be together in the same building, he said.

Education Minister Dame Jennifer Smith next said failing to adequately fund Parliament “goes to a much deeper place to each of us, that’s really a lack of appreciation of what this House stands for”.

At one point, she said, “for many people, this was not the seat of democracy. But it is.”

She went on: “Whenever we talked about doing something to improve the works of this House, it was painted as doing something for ourselves. I believe there were some who did not want us to be more effective representatives.”

Noting that the terra cotta columns outside were crumbling, Dame Jennifer said: “Let’s not do it for us, let’s do it for those people who are here every day.”

She said the House’s profoundly beneficial impact on Bermudians ranged from the argument for the freedom of the slaves aboard the ship Enterprise, that segregation ended in 1968 with universal adult suffrage and that the age of majority was lowered to 18.

Rising next, Shadow Estates Minister Cole Simons said: “Parliament is about putting the people’s business first, and Bermuda first.”

The OBA MP echoed calls on Parliamentarians to “raise the bar”, saying: “We have the worst reputation of any profession. We lost trust because we do not keep our eye on Bermuda first.”

Parliament needed to provide best practices, he said, and to ensure that the best people came to the House.

Turning to the recommended benchmarks, Mr Simons said he agreed that the eligibility of candidates should not be restricted based on religion, gender, ethnicity, race or disability. “But what other restrictions are they talking about?” he asked. “If you have a criminal record? If you’re a sexual deviant?”

More clarity was needed, he said.

On the issue of remuneration and benefit, Mr Simons said: “Almost every everyone in this House has had a challenge balancing their career and Parliament.”

He said: “At the end of the day, we need to somehow review Parliament and its remuneration, so that more people can make the decision to spend their time in Parliament, and know that their families are taken care of.”

On the issue of infrastructure, he noted that the library was in a “state of disrepair”, and independents and backbenchers should also have resources available to help them craft legislation.

Mr Simons supported the suggestion of a parliamentary corporate board. “I think it would be a good thing to have an independent body to oversee the legislature,” he said. He also called for “counselling resources for MPs, in the privacy of a private organisation” - as in the Employee Assistance Programme.

“I know that we have a training programme,” he went on, “but we need to have it more formalised.”

Saying there had been a number of recent cases where Government orders had not been adhered to, Mr Simons suggested appropriate manuals and a code of conduct.

“You would be very surprised to see and hear what the young people say about their Parliamentarians,” he concluded. “They think we are self-serving because they do not see us putting Bermuda first.”

Charlie Swan said: “A member took it upon himself to resign his post because of something that was considered unethical. That’s the type of behaviour that one looks for.”

He said to Speaker of the House Stanley Lowe: “Here’s a suggestion. If you believe, and a large number in this House believe, that a member here is guilty of unethical behaviour, perhaps you could sentence them to six weeks of courses. How about that?”

He added: “I would like to see those that have the power and the mandate take up some of the recommendations in these benchmarks and bring them forward.”

Premier Paula Cox spoke next. “This debate is too important not to speak on,” she said. “This motion by Kim Swan is about getting things right.”

Part of representing democracy, she said, was making sure that “people who want to serve in this place don’t need a silver spoon in their mouth”.

“Some people think that MPs are a noblesse oblige. Far from it. They are men and women who serve.”

Benchmarks should be reached in an orderly, phased manner, she said.

“I note the gibes, and the comments that try to find a smooth way to talk about things that should go through due process,” she added. “Let’s set the record straight.”

Government passed phase one of its good governance legislation last year, she said. A second phase would include issues such as conflicts of interest in the tendering process, and extending whistleblower protection.

Some comments in the House implied “untrammelled abuse of power with no checks and balances”, Ms Cox said.

“As we do the people’s business, it’s important that we make sure we keep in mind when speaking who we represent. Young people don’t want to hear this bickering and palaver. They want to know, What are you doing to do?”

Kim Swan: Benchmarks

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Published February 13, 2012 at 7:00 am (Updated February 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm)

MPs debate ways to raise standards

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