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Dunkley: other ways to use DC office money

Michael Dunkley (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

An Opposition MP claimed yesterday that $175,000 spent by Government on an unused office in Washington DC could instead have funded schools or pensions.

Michael Dunkley, a former One Bermuda Alliance premier, started to “phase out” use of the office in March 2017 while still in office.

The Progressive Labour Party took power the following July and pledged to return staff to Washington.

The office remained closed and information published in the Official Gazette showed rent for the space at Liberty Place, on the United States capital’s 7th Street, cost the Government of Bermuda $175,327.21 from January to October 2018.

Mr Dunkley said yesterday: “We questioned the reopening of the office in the Budget last year and we’re very disappointed that the Premier, with all the challenges that we face, would spend $175,000 to air-condition an office, not to turn on the lights and not to unlock the door, when we have a government that’s operating at a yearly deficit, that’s in deep debt.

“There are 175,000 other ways we could find more appropriate to use the money. It could be used for school supplies, it could be used for pensions for our seniors.”

The Washington office was opened in September 2009 to strengthen links between Bermuda and the US, although it remained without staff until halfway through the next year when a managing director was appointed.

Craig Cannonier reviewed its operations as he considered cost-cutting measures after the OBA won the 2012 General Election.

But the office was kept on until Mr Dunkley told legislators in March 2017 it was being phased out.

A total of $206,000 was allocated for the premises in the 2017-18 Budget to cover rent, utilities and insurance until a sublet could be organised as several years remained on the lease.

The PLP returned to power in July 2017 and in its September Throne Speech that year the administration pledged: “This government will increase Bermuda’s outreach around the globe by staffing the empty Washington DC office and increasing engagement with the European Union in Brussels to ensure that Bermuda’s interests are represented as the United Kingdom leaves the EU.”

A government spokeswoman said last week: “The goal for this government is to reopen the office in the future.”

David Burt, the Premier, added later that efforts would be renewed to “staff up the DC office”.

Mr Dunkley said yesterday: “We made the decision to close it so, at this point in time, we still don’t support opening the office.

“The Premier needs to make a good justification on why that’s the case, if it was so important to open, why has it taken a year to even move on doing something about it?”

Mr Burt promised in February last year that Bermuda would open an office in Brussels on April 1, 2018 in a bid to limit spending on consultants in Europe — but that too has yet to open.

He said last week: “I am pleased to confirm that an office location has been identified. Before the end of this month, we will have established a presence in Brussels.”

Mr Burt added the Government’s management of its international relations, including an “invaluable” team in London, helped “to deliver on our promise to lift up people in need of help and to create opportunities for young people investing in education here and abroad”.

He said: “Our investment in these global activities is designed to promote our interests abroad while safeguarding our future here at home.”

In response to Mr Dunkley’s comments, a statement from a government spokeswoman said: “From October 2015 until the change of government in 2017 it should be reminded that in our major trading partner we essentially had no representation whatsoever when faced with a new administration and tax reform.”

The statement claimed the former OBA government “even cancelled our consulting arrangements”.

It added: “The office was shut down with no plan, and responsible governments don’t operate without representation in the capital.”