Opposition anger over conscription move
Steps to modernise the Royal Bermuda Regiment have been supported by the Opposition in Parliament, but the retention of conscription has come under strong criticism.
While Michael Dunkley said that conscription would be eliminated, the Progressive Labour Party branded his comments “duplicitous and deceitful”.
The Premier told the House of Assembly yesterday that conscription would end, but “not at the expense of the proper functioning of the Regiment”.
He said compulsory enlistment would be a last resort under the Defence Act amendments.
With January's recruit camp to be the first composed entirely of volunteers, Mr Dunkley said the amendments were “a sensible, orderly and structured elimination of conscription”.
“It is only after consulting with the Defence Board and the minister responsible for the Regiment that the Governor can turn to the process of compulsory enlistment, and only then to make up the shortfall in any given year,” the Premier added.
“Even in the face of our trending low birth rates in Bermuda, we will continue the effort to find the required number of volunteers. Additionally, with the sustained length of stay beyond the time of compulsory service, the numbers of volunteers required is not expected to be an unduly large number.”
But David Burt, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, said: “The Premier has continued to maintain that this Bill will end conscription. It is clear that it does not. How does he reconcile the difference between those two positions?”
Noting that the PLP had themselves tabled a Bill to end conscription, he said: “You should keep your word and do what you said you were going to do.”
The Defence Amendment Act 2015 will also open up volunteering from Commonwealth citizens to Bermuda residents of any nationality, as well as updating the Regiment's military justice procedure.
PLP MP Derrick Burgess said this part of the Act raised serious concerns and cited the potential for terrorists to make their way through our borders.
“This comes at a time when countries are very sensitive about who they can let in their country, let alone who will serve in their army,” he said. “We are saying it's OK, we will take terrorists and everybody else.”
The Premier replied: “We have very stringent immigration-control policies in Bermuda.”
Walter Roban, the PLP spokesman for national security, said the party's stance was to have conscription ended “immediately, in totality — as exemplified in our abolition Act brought to Parliament in 2013”.
“The ability of the Regiment to meet its objectives with volunteers, as announced this month, is proof it can be done without use of conscription,” he added.
Mr Roban requested details from the Premier about whether persons with work permits would be able to volunteer, and what the status was for “our young men who are under the shadow of the law because of their unwillingness to serve”.
PLP MP Wayne Furbert, who told the House he had once volunteered for the Regiment, questioned the consequences for those who failed to serve when conscripted, while Jamahl Simmons, the Shadow Minister of Tourism and Economic Development, said he opposed conscription and would not rest until it was “taken off the books forever”.
“We would be intellectually dishonest to promote this as keeping the promise to end conscription — it does not,” he added.
The Sandys South MP also queried whether foreign nationals volunteering to serve could ultimately find their way to Bermuda status through unintended consequences of Bermuda law.
PLP MP Walton Brown, a conscientious objector in 1989 because he could not tolerate swearing allegiance to “a foreign power”, called it “a sad day for our country” to have the “Royal” added to the Regiment's title in recognition of its 50th anniversary.
“There are those who will think, ‘There he is on his anti-colonial rant once again', but at least half the country does not embrace it. It's divisive.”
Marc Bean, the Leader of the Opposition, said Mr Dunkley had “manipulated and fooled” his constituents for short-term political gain, adding that if the Government truly intended to fill the Regiment with only volunteers, the legislation would have included incentives.
“There are no incentives in this Bill,” he said. “That tells me that that is not their end goal.”
Bob Richards, the Minister of Finance, labelled the Opposition's comments as rhetoric.
“What we have here is a desire by the Premier to fulfil his pledge in the constraints of the financial reality that's facing our Government,” he said.
Mr Dunkley closed the debate, questioning why the PLP had not moved to end conscription while in power, noting that just before the 2012 General Election the party had tabled legislation to modernise the Regiment, which extended the number of Bermudians eligible for conscription.
• To read the Premier's statement in full, click on the PDF under “Related Media”.