The One Bermuda Alliance has made quick progress on the political front, with polls in July suggesting that the party launched in May 2011 was only marginally behind the ruling Progressive Labour Party in terms of popularity.
The Bermudian magazine sat down with three party leaders: veteran parliamentarian Bob Richards (BR), the OBA’s shadow minister for finance, formerly of the United Bermuda Party; Senator Craig Cannonier (CC), OBA deputy leader and shadow minister for economy, trade and industry, and formerly leader of the Bermuda Democratic Alliance; and political newcomer Toni Spring (TS), a teacher who is a member of, and spokesperson for, the OBA’s Shadow Education Board, which brings people from outside the parliamentary group into policy development for the party.
The One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) has emerged out of the ashes of both the United Bermuda Party and the Bermuda Democratic Alliance. Why should voters treat the OBA as something new rather than something recycled?
BR: We recognised that politics as usual in Bermuda was not serving the Bermudian population well, and so we have started a party based on a set of principles that affect everyone in Bermuda, and that everyone in Bermuda can relate to. We have created a party that deals with, and concentrates on, the problems of today’s Bermuda and tomorrow’s Bermuda, and we will not waste time talking about yesteryear. We need to turn the page on this old useless rhetoric that has constantly come up in political discourse in Bermuda. We want to concentrate on today’s issues based on a set of principles including security, opportunity, responsibility, integrity, open communication and inclusiveness. We wanted to build our party on a set of values that stated clearly what we stand for, and that is what’s different. Now, these ideas have to be manifested in people, we need to make the transformation from theoretical ideas and convert those principles into action based on those principles.
CC: Our politics has been the same since the inception of party politics in the 1960s, but the people of this country have progressed and their thinking has changed, and politics has not kept up. That’s why there is a need for the OBA, and that’s why the party has come to fruition.
Toni, as a newcomer to politics, what is it about the OBA that has attracted you?
TS: The OBA is a more democratic party. You don’t see division within the ranks and you don’t see the people in the party dividing the country based on socioeconomic, religious, ethnic, racial or sexual orientation grounds. The party includes everyone, and I wanted to see a change to good governance that heretofore hasn’t existed.
The OBA has proposed to change the way “Bermuda does business.” What are some key areas of reform that you would like to see?
BR: For me, as shadow finance minister, the essence of our economic problems is that we have forgotten who our customers are. For reasons of politics and complacency, we have taken our eye off the ball in terms of who our customers are, and we treat them like interlopers. We see tourists and international business people as a necessary evil, but they’re not—they’re necessary. Because we have forgotten to treat our customers like customers, these customers are turning away from us. Blaming it all on the global recession is just an excuse. There is overwhelming evidence that Government has mismanaged and mishandled the public purse and has exacerbated any problems that we might have had because there was a world recession. At least half of our economic problems are locally generated. The notion that somehow we are going to get bailed out when the global economy comes back is a pipe dream, and we can’t be led by people who believe in pipe dreams.
CC: We have a community that is disoriented, and it’s as if Government has completely forgotten it is here to work for the people and not for themselves. I am 48, and I have never seen such pessimism, such a negative attitude, toward the governing of this country. We have forgotten that we are handling the people’s purse, and we are handling people’s lives. We have allowed ourselves, not just as a Government but as a country, to fall into the trap of forgetting that we must put Bermuda first. We must get back to listening to our people and engaging them on what their needs are and what is the best way to run this country.
Proposing a more co-operative approach in Parliament is easy to say when you are in opposition. What would it mean should the OBA win an election?
BR: We would revamp our political institutions to make them more transparent, more accountable. Our system works best when decision-making is subject to scrutiny. In Bermuda, we have the Westminster system of government as it was 100 years ago in the United Kingdom. We need to update our use of the Westminster system in Bermuda. Take the phone-hacking issue in the U.K. with Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers as an example. A bi-partisan parliamentary committee is handling most of that investigation. So one example of what we would do is using more parliamentary committees to investigate matters and develop policies and solutions that have the benefit of bipartisan consideration. The current model puts all that power in Cabinet, which can be myopic or misled—it is only 13 people. When you use parliamentary committees, you get broader input, and parliamentary committees generally meet in public, providing greater transparency.
What measures would the OBA take in the area of fiscal responsibility?
BR: We need to control government spending. Of the last four finance ministers, three—David Saul, Grant Gibbons and the late Eugene Cox—spent very much within the bounds of their budgets, and in many years they even spent less than was budgeted. Everything changed with Finance Minister Paula Cox. Under her administration, spending went out of control. This has been going on since 2004—long before the recession—and that is one of the reasons that Bermuda has a $1.2 billion debt, for which we now pay $70 million a year in interest. We need to get that spending under control. I don’t mean just lip service, trite phrases like “we need to do more with less.” We really need to have a tight budgetary process that controls spending. You can’t deliver the kind of services that the public really needs if the money has been spent on inconsequential things like travel, cars and consultants, lavish things like music festivals that don’t attract tourists. One of the OBA’s founding principles is responsibility, and we take that very seriously.
The OBA has talked about creating a “more open society.” What does that mean?
CC: It means a more inclusive society. We continue to create division amongst ourselves, and certain communities feel that they are being left out. That includes senior citizens, who to this day we can technically discriminate against. I cannot understand why we have not corrected that. Issues of human rights have put this country in an archaic state when you look at the rest of the world. We must become a society that is more inclusive, that is more open to listening to one other. That is the only way forward. We have been through the bickering and the fighting over race and economic division. We must embrace everyone for the betterment of this country and all who live here.
When the rest of the world sees us beating each other up, then they know they’re not welcome. The business community sees it, and tourists who want to take a vacation see it. If we can’t come together on basic issues of human rights, then why visit the place? Why invest in the pl
What is the OBA’s plan for our economy?
BR: We have to grow jobs in this country. Historically, that has never been a problem, but it is now. PLP policies have been job killers, and we have to reverse those policies. The way we get the Government finances back in shape, Bermuda back in shape, is to bring jobs back. The way you do that in Bermuda is to generate money coming in from outside. Bermuda is an island, and we can’t generate our own economy. We have to trade with the outside world, and that means foreign-exchange-earning sectors, such as international business and tourism.
A central problem to our economic crisis, particularly for international business, has been the Department of Immigration. A central problem to the construction downturn, aside from the overall economic malaise, is that you can’t get plans through the Department of Planning so they can become real projects that create jobs. Government is at the eye of both these hurricanes, and we have to change that. With respect to immigration, I am talking about the term-limit issue and the hassle factor, which is huge. Remember, our business is people. International business is not abstract, it’s people, and if you hassle the living daylights out of these people, they have choices. They can go somewhere else, and they are going. I’m not saying ditch immigration regulations entirely. Of course, we have to make sure that positions that can be filled by Bermudians are filled by Bermudians, but we also have to understand that international business people are our business. We must reduce red tape, and term limits must go for those occupational levels that are rolled over 90 percent of the time anyway.
We also need to get rid of the discriminatory practice where non-Bermudian spouses of Bermudians need a license to buy property. It takes a year and you have to spend $1,200 to $1,500 to do it. It’s wrong from a moral standpoint, but it also slows down houses being built. I know some young people who had to wait for a year to start their house because of this nonsense. That is a year when construction workers aren’t working and money isn’t flowing through the economy. These are job-killing policies, put in place by the PLP Government, and the OBA must get rid of them.
What is the OBA’s plan for education?
TS: There are a number of things we must do to fix public education in Bermuda. These include significantly improving the quality of teaching, introducing a technical curriculum starting at the middle-school level and going straight through to Bermuda College and strengthening our preschool opportunities.
To improve teaching and leadership, we have to be committed to the re-professionalization of our education system. We have lost our professionalism in education, and the public-education system is no longer the system of choice. We need to support and invest in the development of our teachers, and not just the administration. I am talking about parents supporting teachers as well. By “re-professionalize,” I mean that a teacher can have as many degrees as you like, but if you can’t teach well, it may look good on paper but in the classroom it doesn’t translate. Currently, teachers are dictated to and principals are talked down to, so there is a lack of respect from the parents up and from the administration down.
Also, the administration is too top-heavy with people who have been promoted; we have many more administrators than we need. When middle schools were restructured, the best of Berkeley was extracted and moved into administration, and they no longer teach. Not all good teachers make good administrators, so not only were good teachers taken out of the classroom but they were also put in administrative roles they may not have been suited to. The OBA will focus more attention on schools and less on the Department of Education.
BR: In the war against ignorance, we are taking the best warriors off the battlefield, and putting them in headquarters.
TS: We need to support the parents who do not have the skills to support their children with their education. Their education was limited or interrupted, and they do not know how to assist their children with homework or prepare for a parent-teacher conference if there is an issue. They feel intimidated in most cases. We need to stop blaming everybody. Parents are blaming the teachers, teachers are blaming parents and administrators are blaming teachers and parents, but no one is taking any responsibility for what is going on.
What is the OBA’s plan to reduce violent crime?
CC: Our first priority is to stop the shooting, stop the killings. It is why we have recommended bringing Operation Ceasefire to Bermuda. This is an approach to violent gang crime that has worked well in U.S. inner cities. It is not a cure-all, but it is a vital first step that we feel Bermuda needs to take. Our police department is doing a relatively good job, but that is only after a crime has been committed. The OBA will also develop programmes that improve the conditions that give rise to crime. We have to get our education system right. We will introduce a technical school that incorporates the business community to provide role models where there might not be one at home. The comprehensive technical curriculum will show kids that there are real opportunities in the trades.
BR: Other issues feed into this problem. We live in a society where children are having children, and it causes some of the dysfunctional families that we have in Bermuda. A father is somebody who looks after his children, provides for them, nurtures them, educates them—and is part of their lives for their entire lives. Not doing those things causes a chain reaction of dysfunction for generations, and we have had way too much of that on this island.
Polls suggest that the OBA has quickly become a political contender. Has the rate of the party’s progress surprised you at all?
BR: It doesn’t surprise me. We understood that there was a hunger in Bermuda for something different from the old race-and-class paradigm that Bermuda had been trapped in since the 1960s. Bermudians wanted something different. To some extent, we have captured lightning in a bottle. We sensed, collectively, that Bermuda was crying out for something different, something credible, something that people could identify with.
CC: I think the polls have shown that creating the party was the right decision, and Bermuda is responding. Some people questioned it, but the results are showing that we made the right choice for Bermuda. The OBA has a great mix of experienced people and people who bring new ideas to the table, and they all want to work together for the people of this country and put Bermuda first.
TS: I was always more or less an independent. I am a person who likes to serve the community, and now this is an opportunity where I can do that. I have been embraced by a party that accepts me and is willing to nurture me in order to lead our country in the right direction.
The OBA has 10 members of parliament. There are 36 constituencies in Bermuda. Should an election be called for November, as has been rumoured, would the OBA be ready with a full slate of candidates?
BR: Yes, we will be fielding a complete slate of 36 candidates who are committed to putting Bermuda first above party and above self.
CC: We are in this to make it happen. We are not in this to go part of the way. We are here to deal a blow. This is about effective governing.
BR: We are here to change the Government.