Roban: Historic opportunity to reshape Bermuda
The Government and Opposition sparred into last night over the Budget for the coming fiscal year and the island’s way to economic recovery out of the pandemic.
It came after Cole Simons, the Opposition leader, gave the Reply to the Budget in the House of Assembly.
One Bermuda Alliance MPs stuck to the refrain that the Budget, delivered on February 26 by finance minister Curtis Dickinson, fell short on ideas.
Progressive Labour Party MPs defended the Government’s handling of a pandemic that began just under a year ago, with a budget surplus projected for 2023.
MPs also debated Government’s yet-to-be-released but much-touted economic recovery plan.
Walter Roban, the Deputy Premier, said the island was at a “historic, monumental opportunity in our history to reshape, to reshape Bermuda” with decisions that would seen as the right steps decades to come.
Opposition MP Michael Dunkley said the Budget “provided very little hope” for Bermudians out of work, and called the economic recovery plan “weak”.
He added: “We need to see more meat on those bones.”
Mr Dunkley said gaming was not mentioned, with little given on healthcare reform, which its immigration proposals were “a carbon copy of what the OBA tried to put forward”.
He said the fact that public administration stood as the island’s top job category “does not bode well for a healthy economy”.
Diallo Rabain, the education minister, accused the Opposition of engaging in “political theatre” with its criticism, when the island had been doing well economically before Covid-19 hit.
Wayne Furbert, the Cabinet minister, presented economic statistics showing the island’s strong economic performance until the advent of the pandemic.
He defended the economic recovery plan and told the Opposition: “Just because we don’t put everything in the Budget statement doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
Craig Cannonier of the OBA said the Opposition had broadly supported the governing party’s handling of the pandemic and disputed they had been “picking bones and picking a fight”.
He said that there was consensus on the need for Bermuda to increase its population, saying that this was central to boosting the economy.
He said: “People continue to leave the island – not just expats but Bermudians.
“We are under threat. We have an inverted demographic. The largest population within Bermuda is seniors, and smallest population is newborns. With the birthrate we have today we are in trouble as a nation and the only fix is ensuring we get more people here.
“This has been on the table for Lord knows how long. We have to move with some swiftness because the livelihoods of our people are at stake.
“The cost of living will spread out if we have more people sharing that cost.”
The Opposition’s Susan Jackson asked if Government had set aside funds to cover possible unemployment benefits in the future.
She called for “a national conversation” on job creation, and asked: “Where are the jobs going to come from?”
She asked for more details on developing an environmental pillar of the economy.
PLP backbencher Lovitta Foggo said the Budget was “fiscally prudent” and that Government was “getting the job done”.
Jarion Richardson, the Shadow Minister for Economic Development, offered an olive branch to Government expressing “admiration and sympathy” to the Minister of Finance and his team.
He said: “Their efforts are to be commended, even when I disagree with them.
“We don’t attack one another for having alternative points of view. There is no monopoly on being absolutely right.”
He described the Opposition’s Budget Reply as “objective and thorough”, while Government had failed to show the “drastic change” in thinking necessary to drive down costs and increase revenue.
He called the international business sector “a great and valuable jewel” that was under threat from competitor jurisdictions.
Scott Pearman of the OBA commended the guiding principles of the economic recovery plan but said Bermuda was “already over the cliff”.
He added: “Our economy was diseased before Covid. Covid was the proverbial coffin.”
David Burt, the Premier, wrapped up the debate by claiming that the Budget was a “recovery” Budget that was delivered by a Finance Minister who always remained “cool, calm and collected”.
He said Government had “delivered” for Bermudians and shown strong leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic and that the Budget would receive “accolades from both Pitts Bay Road and Union Street”.
He accused the Opposition of re-writing history.
He said: “We cannot rebuild the economy of the past and we will not rebuild the economy of the past.
“The Budget Reply would make it would seem as if [the OBA] want to get back to the past they once owned.”