Yesterday Premier Cox gave her first national address, which was carried on various media. I was able to listen to it on a live stream, although Bernews provided a copy of the full speech even before it was completed (indicating it certainly wasn’t live…).
In the run up to the speech, broadcast at 2000hrs Bermuda time, there was (as always) a good deal of speculation about the nature of the speech. On the BIAW forum most posters speculated it was either a general election announcement or an announcement of cutting MPs salaries in light of various Union positions that are increasingly being put to the Government. In the end it was neither.
To be honest, it’s not entirely clear what the motivation or objective of the speech was. It came across as very much a ‘state of the union address’ or a quarterly version of the Throne Speech. Whether it was to simply relay the immediate policies of the Government, or distract people (by giving the impression that they are being listened to and their concerns addressed), or a prelude to an election announcement (in which case I expect such an announcement when Parliament suspends for the summer break), I don’t know.
It was wide-ranging, and it does appear to set out – or clarify – the policy focus of the Government for the immediate future. I do welcome this, especially as, in the immediately preceding post I had criticised Premier Cox for outlining a policy direction or general narrative. This address fills that void that had been increasingly hard to ignore.
The full speech is transcribed on Bernews (in addition to a video of its delivery). What I will try and do here is distill the policies that she has put on the Government’s agenda, policies which can generally be grouped under the headings of crime, the overall economy, tourism, international business, construction and public administration.
On crime she makes a number of statements stressing how seriously the Government is concerned with this issue, even making what (in my personal opinion) was a rather unnecessary comment relating to Lt. Col. Burch’s recent resignation from the Senate. However, she goes on to outline the following policies that she will either complete or oversee under her administration:
Anti-Gang Legislation – She states that the Cabinet will ‘shortly consider’ such legislation. I am not familiar with existing anti-gang legislation (in the US and Australia), but I am not sold on its effectiveness at the moment. I have two initial concerns: (1) how does one define a ‘gang’?; and (2) will it drive existing crime further underground, and thus more ‘unmanageable’ than it already is?
Broaden the scope of proceeds of crime laws – I look forward to hearing more about this, but, as is, I’m all for it. I would however like to make sure that the appropriated funds are ring-fenced and used only to help subsidise the cost of rehabilitation initiatives. There has been too much apparent wasteful expenditure by the Government over the last twelve years for me to be open to it being put into a general government pot.
Incentives to encourage information on the location/ownership of firearms – I’m much happier with this initiative than the earlier ‘money for guns’ proposal put forward by Minister Perenchief, which I thought could translate into a perverse incentive to smuggle guns into the country (and so further fleece the public finances).
Inter-Agency Taskforce to develop a cohesive approach to information sharing/interventions/assistance – I should hope so! What was it doing to date?
Rehabilitation – She doesn’t really make much of a comment here, other than to say that there needs to be a reduction in repeat offenders. No substantial policy direction really hinted at, other than a committment (which was already the policy…).
Crime Prevention – Here she outlines what has been done and what will be done, solely from a technological perspective. This involves additional CCTV cameras and the scanning machines for the docks. I’m not sold on the CCTV cameras as being effective, or, rather, I see them as a poor substitute for community police officers and community wardens. I’m all for the scanning technologies at the docks though, although I recognise that there are still plenty of other holes in the border needing plugged.
Police Pay/Benefits – This has been resolved (and rightly so!), and should help boost morale and effectiveness in the service. Good.
Communty Assistance – She makes a rather generic blurb on the need for the community to take a key role in reclaiming the island from crime. The active participation of the community in addressing the gangs is a vital part, although I’m disappointed that she didn’t outline any particular directions here. Something about increased support for neighbourhood watches, an expanded community police committment or developing a community wardens program would have been useful here. What she said instead amounted to fluffy rhetoric, at least as I see it.
Job Initiatives – She states that a number of initiatives are currently underway, and that there will be a series of press releases in the near future detailing them. Would have been better if she hinted more about what they will be, although she does discuss the summer employment initiative for students and older unemployed persons. Budget funds have been re-directed towards this, although it’s not clear what budgets have been reduced in order to realise this goal. As is though, I support the idea, as , even if its a short-term initiative (summer only) it helps with some money in the pocket and gives people some experience for their CVs.
“Work-fare” – I’m sceptical of initiatives where politicians stress ‘work-fare over welfare’. Usually it means portraying welfare recepients as parasites and focuses on undermining labour rights. This is even alluded to in her gentle reminder to employers that ‘apprenticeships carry a zero rate of payroll tax’, encouraging companies to hire apprentices rather than full-time workers who would be entitled to more benefits. In this speech though very little is really discussed about what it will be, so, well, I can’t comment…
Sign-up roadshows – Okay, no problem. May be better setting up a few ‘job-centre’ style offices (one in the East, one in the West and one in central) where people can go and see what jobs are there, register with the centres and also recieve assistance in the form of interview or ‘soft-skills’ training, as well as help with developing resumes and cover-letters.
Horticultural Training/Certification – I am supportive of this, but I know there is not a huge desire amongst many in the population to seek work in this field. Myself, I prefer working outside than in an office, and I think the certification and training will help introduce more people into this field. Personally, I would like to combine it with the Regiment, along with some other training and certification programmes (plumbing, masonry, electricians, carpentry), so people can develop skills which directly benefit them as well as the Regiment (in post-hurricane operations).
Tourism – She doesn’t really outline any real policy objectives here. Just notes that there has been some improvement in tourism figures since she took office, that new air routes are coming online (Baltimore and Atlanta), and that a number of hotel developments are continuing.
Construction – The sector remains weak, but the tourism developments will help, and the Government has also helped keep the sector afloat with a few projects. To be honest, I see the construction industry as an inherently unsustainable one for our island. We only have so much land to build on afterall. There will always be a need to replace some buildings, and occassional major infrastructure projects, but overall I think we really need to reduce the number of people dependent on this sector and get them into a more sustainable one. As is though, I am supportive of public infrastructure projects that will (a) help people through the recession; and (b) put Bermuda on a strong base to benefit when the economy improves. While the hospital is a key one here, I would also like to see the new Causeway started.
International Business – While noting the vital importance of this sector within Bermuda’s existing economic model, and devoting a number of paragraphs to it in the speech, she didn’t really outline any policies here. At most she stated that ‘we are formulating policies to provide real incentives to those job-makers… …who provide real opportunities for Bermudians’. What these policies and incentives are is not touched upon though.
Civil Service – She discusses the restructuring of the service and the advantages this will provide. I am supportive of the reconfiguration, although I have raised my eyebrows at some of the moves. I am, however, willing to give it time to see how it develops.
Office of Project Management & Procurement – One wonders how we didn’t have such an institution previously. Certainly a good number of wasted expenditure in the past (under both UBP and PLP) could have been prevented. While I welcome this development however, I cannot but help point out that Premier Cox, in her capacity as Finance Minister for pretty much the last decade, should have been able to do this from within her Ministry, and it has not been satisfactorily explained why this was not done. [This bit covers also her blurbs on a Director of Procurement, a Senior Compliance Officer and giving legislative ‘teeth’ to internal audit and procurement functions.]
Consultants – I welcome the review of these positions and, while I understand their occassional need, I am wary of the overuse and potential abuse of consultancies. Also, far too often consultants have ben hired when a participatory consultative approaches (like town-hall meetings) could have produced the same (and often better) product at less cost and with the added bonus of increasing social and political capital and trust.
Particpatory Budgeting – This was briefly discussed in the 2011 Budget, and is only touched upon here; she say’s that she will discuss it more in her ‘next update’ – which implies we may well be in store for this sort of quarterly Throne Speech. As I noted in my comments on the Budget at the time I welcome this initiative, although I am awaiting further details, as it is possible to give an illussion of participation rather than giving full participation, and I’m curious how it will be developed. I am however very supportive of this direction.
I think I’ve covered above all the policies that Premier Cox outlined in her speech. I realise it makes for a rather long post, and I apologise for that. The only other issue which she seemed to touch upon is the calls, being put forward by various sections of civil society, that Cabinet take a pay-cut in order to ‘lead by example’ in this time of austerity. The BIU and the BPSU have been particularly vocal on this (with the BIU more militant), essentially arguing that if their members (largely Government blue and white collar workers) are having to make sacrifices in the form of overtime bans and wage-freezes, then Cabinet Ministers (who are effectively the CEO equivalent of the public sector – Permanent Secretaries being the more adminstrative side of the equation) should also make sacrifices, with many Ministers making approximately $166k a year.
As Premeir Cox notes, this would be merely ‘symbolic’. Cutting their salaries to even $100k a year won’t solve our financial problems. That, however, is not the point. It sends a message that the Government will share the sacrifices with the people. And, while it won’t solve the budget problems, it will free up a significant amount of cash which could go a long way in some social services which have seen their budgets slashed. From my own perspective, if you can’t live comfortably in Bermuda at $100k a year then you’re doing something wrong, quite frankly. Personally, I would like to see a cap on salaries, or (and this is perhaps more workable) a heavily progressive payroll tax, where workers earning under $65 pay no tax, and it increases by 5% for each additional $10k (as a suggestion).
I would also like to see a freeze on food prices and utilities for at least the next twelve months. To qualify this statement, I mean a freeze only on basic staples (milk, eggs, bread, rice, dried beans, pasta, fruit and vegetables), and for utilties I’m thinking along the lines of a freeze for basic uses (I’m sure its possible to calculate the price of electricity required for basic use, lighting, cooking and fridges only). Anyone going above their rationed uses would face increasingly steep charges, which would help subsidise the basic utilities. Similarly with food, I would advocate increased taxes on luxury items (processed foods, confectioneries, junkfood, alcohol), the proceeds of which would go to covering the basic staples subsidies.
Premier Cox’s flat out refusal to offer even a symbolic concession on the issue of Cabinet salaries (or an alternative to their cut), and particularly her spectacularly poor choice of words in defending her position (which, quite frankly, comes across as both arrogant and contradictory) sets her on a very risky collision course with the unions, especially with the BPSU march on parliament being organised for next week. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the unions to her speech, and whether it will be just the BPSU marching on Tuesday…