Bermuda Election 2017: The Platforms
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Bermuda Election 2017: The Platforms

Votes should be cast based on policies

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Bermuda Election 2017: The Platforms
Wikimedia Commons

This election, by all accounts, will be very close. The OBA, while only having been in office for five years, have some significant transparency problems, and the PLP have a legacy of serious financial mismanagement from their previous 14 year tenure. Bermuda faces serious issues: our education and immigration systems need an overhaul, gang violence is still a serious problem while the Bermuda Police Service is critically understaffed, Bermudians struggle under the highest cost of living in the world with no living wage, and we are ruinously in debt. We do not have the time to indulge in constant, heated rhetoric: in this election, votes must be cast based on policy. Let’s get into those, shall we?

Bermuda’s education system is behind the curve. It’s part of the reason that Bermudians have such a hard time in the jobs market: expatriate workers have more access to better qualifications in their home countries and therefore when the international business community looks for people to hire, they go for the candidates with the longer, more illustrious resumes. Poorer Bermudians who cannot afford to leave the island to attend university elsewhere simply do not have the same access.

There are several areas of the education system that must be changed in order to remedy this: first, we have to improve our curriculum, teacher training, and student support in both primary and secondary schools. Children with learning disabilities must be accommodated far more than they are now, and children with difficult home situations need to be given more assistance than they are currently getting. The PLP’s platform mentions these issues: they wish to “ensure that there is sufficient psychological support for students” and “provide exposure to STEAM education at the primary school level.” These are excellent ideas, and absolutely should be implemented, but the issue here is that their platform doesn’t mention how they plan to do these things. The PLP's platform also suggests cutting funding to special needs programmes. One would assume that includes things like Dame Marjorie Bean Hope Academy, which frankly goes against their pledge to ensure psychological support for students. The OBA’s platform is a little more descriptive: they name the curriculum that they wish to continue to implement (the Creative Curriculum) and state specifically that they plan to increase the number of school counselors and social workers. They also outline a program called 'Reach Out and Read', which would involve not just teachers but people like family physicians in the effort to promote literacy among children.

Second, Bermuda College needs an upgrade in terms of the services it provides. While yes, it is a perfectly acceptable community college, those who attend because they were unable to leave the island cannot graduate with even a Bachelor's Degree, which in this day and age is essentially mandatory when it comes to finding a job in a STEM or other academic field. Both parties suggest expanding the technical side of tertiary education, both within Bermuda College and without, and the PLP even suggest partnering with the college to "promote mobile application development skills by having students design...mobile apps that make government better and more efficient." This is one of the PLP's strengths: finding ways to integrate community efforts into the business of government. The OBA's plan seems a little more concrete: they wish to work with international institutions to make it possible to earn a Bachelor's or Master's degree in Bermuda.

Bermuda’s economy is in bad shape, although there has been progress towards recovery. America’s Cup, while in and of itself a temporary boost, helped put Bermuda back on the international stage. We created new infrastructure and repaired some of what needed repairing, and in the process, businesses got a much-needed infusion of cash. This trend needs to continue.

The PLP’s plan for the economy includes creating an advisory group to “develop a long-term economic and social plan,” and Economic Diversification Unit to “identify new opportunities for economic diversification and subject them to structural analysis and research,” and a bipartisan Tax Reform Commission. They also want to create a payroll tax exemption to encourage Bermuda companies to bring jobs back to Bermuda, a ‘Bermuda Fund’ to invest in the development of Bermudian businesses, and a Technology Hub at Southside with a view to further development there. They want to give tax relief to first-time entrepreneurs and ‘double the guarantee capacity of the BEDC” to help small business owners. There are some good ideas in here: helping entrepreneurs is something that absolutely needs to happen, and their ideas on consumer protection are sound. There are problems with the rest of the plan however. The think tanks they propose are a good idea, but honestly, shouldn’t the plans that they’re being put together to come up with have been at least partially outlined before election time? These pledges simply promise that plans will be made, which anyone can do. There’s no substance to vote on here: you can’t agree or disagree with a plan you’ve never heard. The idea to make the Tax Reform Commission bipartisan is a good one, and yes, it’s a little more specific, but we still don’t know what exactly the PLP plans to reform about the tax code. There’s nothing to vote for here.

There are bigger problems than this, however. The ‘Bermuda Fund’, for one. Originally, in their ‘Vision 2025’ statement, they said that this fund would use pensions as investment capital. This statement was then deleted from the site and is not in the platform. That said, it was not replaced with any alternate plan for funding. This leaves one of two options: one, that idea wasn’t actually scrapped and an unpopular sentence was simply deleted, or the pension idea has indeed been scrapped and the PLP have no alternate plan as to how to fund this. The Technology Hub in Southside is a nice idea, as is the proposed development of the area, but unfortunately this sounds very similar to the Sandy’s 360 plan, which failed. It’s also not exactly clear what the Technology Hub will actually be: the description in the platform could be anything from an internet café to a databank. In terms of their payroll idea, there aren’t actually very many companies that have sent significant numbers of jobs overseas, and those jobs that have gone include things that 24 hour call center jobs (far less expensive and easier to staff overseas), which makes the policy pretty ineffectual. There’s a touch of irony here: under the PLP, the raised payroll tax meant that Bermudians were paying 8% of their income out of pocket as opposed to this coming from employers. Blue-collar workers went from earning between $700 and $800 a week to between $600 and $500 per week because of this. If the PLP wants to do anything about payroll tax, the best thing would probably be to reduce it.

The OBA’s ideas in this area are focused on infrastructure: they want to redo the Causeway, incentivize hotel development, redevelop Marginal Wharf to create “an East End shipping and transportation hub”, and convert parking lots in Hamilton to “community waterfront green space, event locations, outdoor dining, and boat and yacht berthing.” To deal with the high cost of electricity, they’re proposing going green: finishing a solar energy facility at the Finger and investing in natural gas initiatives. They also want to implement payroll tax cuts for those earning less than $137,000 per year. The issue with these policies is that they don’t elaborate on how they’re going to fund all this. Redoing the Causeway alone is a massively expensive project. The reason the OBA is allowing another company to redevelop the airport is that doing so would be a massive drain on the public purse. The Causeway might not be as expensive, but it would still require an enormous amount of money. There’s a similar issue in terms of redeveloping the Hamilton waterfront, but on top of that, it’s already a nightmare to find parking in Hamilton: taking away parking lots is a bad idea. The OBA’s tenure has seen an increase in hotel development, but their statement that they will continue to attract the same kind of interest doesn’t seem to have a plan behind it. It’s a good thought, but without a plan to back it up, it’s simply a platitude. Redeveloping Marginal Wharf is also an expensive project, but it’s a sound investment: shipping hubs are almost guaranteed to make money, so not only is it likely that it will pay for itself, it will also be a source of income for the island. The push for green energy is excellent: not only is it a meaningful stride towards breaking BELCO’s monopoly on power for the island (which means they can charge whatever they like), it is better for our environment and cuts down on our carbon emissions. That’s not to say that the PLP hasn’t mentioned green energy. They have: they propose giving people “reduced interest loans for installing energy-efficient technologies and solar panels” and “outfitting government buildings with renewable energy technologies.” It’s a good step, but creating full facility to help power the island is more effective in terms of reducing cost to individual Bermudians.

High energy bills are only a small part of the problems Bermudians face, however. The lack of a living wage makes paying for those energy bills (and rents and gas bills and groceries) that much more difficult. Both parties have promised to implement one, but neither party has elaborated on what they consider a living wage to be. On top of that, jobs can be difficult to find because we import a large number of expatriate workers. That’s partially do to the educational problem mentioned above (in terms of jobs that require higher education), but it also has to do with the fact that it is less expensive for companies to employ them rather than Bermudians, because they aren’t currently required to provide pensions for expats. Both parties recognize this, and both have promised to address it, but again, neither goes into detail about what legislation to make this happen would look like. The OBA does, however, add another plan to put expats and Bermudians on a level playing field: “Companies that offer housing benefits to international employees should be encouraged to offer housing benefits to their Bermudian staff. The OBA will therefore introduce an Employer-based Home Loan plan that incentivizes companies to offer interest-free loans forgiven over time to their employees for the purchase of a first home.”

Both parties have recognized the need for social reform and an update to our criminal code. The PLP wants to appoint a “Gang Violence Reduction Coordinator”, provide financial support to Bermudians trying to get out of gangs, strengthen legislation around child support, amend the law to permit sex offenders to be named in the press (for certain crimes), increase resources to Bermuda’s DNA database, and mandate that inmates contribute a portion of their earnings to the Victim Compensation Fund. They want to allow medical cannabis and to potentially create domestic dispensaries for that purpose. They also want to get rid of conscription and have the Human Rights Campaign “investigate and penalize” businesses that discriminate against Bermudians.

Let’s start with the good. It is past time for medical marijuana to be legalized, and dispensaries are good ways to generate income for the island. Improving the function of a vital evidence-gathering tool for the BPS is great. Getting rid of conscription is something Bermudians have been demanding for the last decade Providing financial support to Bermudians attempting to get out of gangs and improving legislation around child support are another two great ideas: addressing one of the root causes of young Bermudians’ continued gang membership and making it harder for people to neglect their children are things that need to be done. A “Gang Violence Reduction Coordinator”, however, is next to useless. It’s been tried before and it failed to do much before. It’s another iteration of the PLP trying to pass off the promise to make a plan as an actual plan. Inmates contributing money to their victims, the HRC investigating discriminatory businesses, and decriminalizing 7 grams of marijuana all sound just fine, but all of these things are already in effect; it’s a bit disingenuous to put them in an election platform as things that still need to be accomplished. And it would be interesting to know exactly what sex crimes would merit a warning to the public about an offender.

The OBA wants to implement a version of America’s ‘Operation Ceasefire’, which yielded positive results there, in conjunction with GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training), an outreach program intended to be taught in schools. They want to use the seized profits of crime to benefit communities (Cashback for Communities), stop the automatic release of violent offenders after 2/3 of their sentences have been served, and make cyber bullying and revenge pornography illegal (introducing a BPS cybercrimes division in order to do so). They want to make sure that those who need to know about sexual predators do, allow evidence to be given in court via video to spare traumatized victims, enact hate crimes legislation to protect those people who have characteristics protected by the Human Rights Act, and remove the automatic presumption of bail for those charged with sexual offences or domestic abuse. They also want to create a satellite police station in St. George’s and add red light cameras to Bermuda’s roads.

These are far more specific policies and have a much larger scope. The PLP’s platform mentions nothing about the automatic release of violent offenders, the problem of cyber crime, or anything to do with hate crimes legislation. The OBA has been very specific in outlining what, in their view, needs to change about the law and the way we enforce it. There are things to be criticized here as well, however: who counts as someone who “needs to know” about a sexual predator? A better way to go about it would be to simply have a public sex offender list, which seems to be something neither party is willing to do. And the additions of a new police division and a new police station are all very well and good, except for the fact that the Bermuda Police Service is desperately understaffed. There would have to be significant recruitment to employ enough officers to fix the shortfall and then to staff these new divisions. Neither party has addressed this problem, which is incredibly short sighted: you can’t fix a crime problem without the officers to do it.

In terms of separate social policies, the PLP wants to review the current drug policy in order to come up with better (one would hope rehabilitation – focused) solutions to the problem of drug addiction, provide support to working parents attempting to improve their skills by attempting to create more affordable childcare, and make the Land Registry fully functional (which would help end disputes over boundaries). Their stance on same sex marriage has evolved somewhat: “We accept that same sex couples should have similar legal benefits as heterosexual couples, save for marriage, and will introduce legislation to achieve this aim.” First of all, the only way that same sex couples get the same legal, tax, and insurance benefits as heterosexual couples is for marriage to be available to them. Legislation to that end already exists in the form of a Supreme Court Justice’s decision that the Human Rights Act applies to both LGBTQ people and the Registrar General’s office. Any attempt by the PLP to modify that law would be to curtail it, which would be a huge step backwards for Bermuda. The OBA, while not including any specific reference to same sex marriage in their platform, does guarantee that they will “introduce legislation to protect churches from being forced to perform any services that are contrary to the central tenets of their faith”, which would suggest that while they do not intend to make changes to the Supreme Court ruling, they will not force places of worship to perform any ceremonies they do not wish to perform.

Both platforms leave something to be desired: the PLP has a habit of promising to make plans rather than actually presenting the public with them, and neither party details where the funding would come from for many of these projects. Yes, this election was called quickly and left little time for them to prepare for it, but frankly, this was going to be an election year no matter what, and these plans should have been begun at the beginning of the year. That said, personally I prefer concrete and more detailed plans to promises to put think tanks together for plans that no one has seen. You can’t have an opinion on something that doesn’t exist.

Whether you’re voting PLP, OBA, or independent, the important thing is to get out and vote. Find your polling station and make sure you have your say in your country’s future.

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