Editorials

Answered prayers and mixed blessings

  • Election triumph: PLP deputy leader Walter Roban celebrates victory (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Itís often said that more tears are shed over answered prayers than the unanswered variety, and this holds particularly true in the political field.

The Progressive Labour Party defied its own expectations with last monthís stunning election victory over the One Bermuda Alliance, securing landslide majorities both in terms of the popular vote and the number of parliamentary seats won.

Now basking in the early days of whatís likely to be an extended honeymoon period, the new Government is preparing to fill in some of the details of the appealing but vague policy agenda which drew so much support on the hustings.

Doubtless the early initiatives it plans on rolling out will be crowd-pleasing and largely uncontentious, aimed at cementing ó and burnishing ó the PLPís populist bona fides.

Then factor in this administrationís proven mastery of spin, deflection and political communications: when it comes to the more bitter pills every government has to dispense from time to time in terms of policy and priorities, itís all but certain they will be sufficiently sugar-coated to broadly maintain the wide support the PLP now enjoys.

With the OBA routed and likely to be demoralised and unfocused for some time and an unassailable majority in the House of Assembly, opposition to the PLPís programmes will be negligible and easily overcome.

So theoretically the new administration will have carte blanche to govern without compromise and almost without impediment.

What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, actually, certainly over the long-term.

One thing all politicians eventually learn, and many voters repeatedly choose to forget in the immediate aftermath of an election, is that itís a lot more difficult to govern than it is to campaign ó and itís certainly a lot easier to make promises than it is to keep them.

The PLP ran a vigorous quasi-insurgency campaign against the Bermuda Establishment in its many forms in the four years leading up to the 2017 election.

But now the party faces the paradox which confronts populist political movements the world over once they are in office: it cannot actually govern without the co-operation of that same Establishment.

Itís only a matter of time before it becomes clear PLP claims to be the only party in Bermuda capable of steamrolling entrenched interests and championing the cause of the common man were always more a matter of vote-winning political rhetoric than actual intent.

Practical compromises will eventually eclipse the sketchy grand designs to put the country right outlined by the PLP on the campaign trail ó and, of course, dash the artificially raised expectations of those encouraged to believe the islandís post-recessionary economic and social problems werenít nearly so deep or entrenched as the OBA had claimed them to be.

This need to compromise and make concessions to the stubborn realities on the ground will first become evident on the fiscal front.

Given the constraints the PLP will operate under, given its limited ability to borrow from international capital markets, the new Government has no choice but to rein in spending and encourage private enterprise if it is to maintain Bermudaís public-sector workforce and public services. Efforts begun under the OBA to reinvigorate and substantially broaden a tax base that has diminished as a consequence of both a shrinking population and a contracting economy will need to continue as a matter of urgency.

And the PLP is fully aware of the fact that governments cannot directly create private sector jobs ó they can only encourage job creation by way of tax and immigration policies and public spending on stimulus projects like the OBAís airport redevelopment plan and the Americaís Cup.

While those two projects were publicly derided by some in the PLP as wasteful sideshows, privately they were acknowledged by all but the most diehard parliamentarians and activists to be sure-fire methods of putting Bermudians back to work and putting more money into the pockets of workers and the wider economy.

While PLP stimulus and infrastructure projects will place a heavier emphasis on the significance of small Bermuda businesses for economic growth and job creation than was the case under the OBA, not much else is likely to materially change. The airport plan, for instance, may be tweaked and somewhat modified for public relations purposes but itís doubtful it will be substantially reworked, let alone scrapped.

And the demonstrable need to buttress the offshore sector, its support services and satellite industries will, by necessity, lead to the type of tax, immigration and other incentives which the PLP would almost certainly have railed against on the campaign trail if proposed by the OBA.

But given the economic conditions which Bermuda must still contend with as a result of the crippling one-two punch of a worldwide recession and past PLP borrow-and-spend policies, such incentives will likely be unavoidable.

These are precisely the types of bitter pills which will, of course, be sugar-coated by the partyís PR gurus and the first months, perhaps even the first one or two years, of the new PLP term are likely to be relatively problem free.

But eventually a segment of the electorate will begin to grow angry and frustrated with the fact the PLP is not making our economic or social woes go away any faster than the OBA did.

And with public-sector wages and benefits almost certain to remain stagnant over the foreseeable future, thereís also likely to be increasing discontent on the labour front as the PLP pursues steady-as-you-go policies largely indistinguishable from the OBA programme for economic retrenchment and eventual regrowth.

Then consider the fact that a lopsided parliamentary majority can very often lead to factionalism, infighting and intriguing within a governing party.

Simply put, in the absence of a strong and determined opposition to keep them united against a mutual enemy, a ruling partyís legislators have a tendency to start fighting among themselves. And having gone through six leaders in the last 14 years, the PLP is obviously no stranger to such destabilising internal power struggles and feuds.

The tears may not come for some time yet. But unless the PLP works diligently and consistently on attempting to reconcile the high hopes of energised supporters with some of the harder truths of governing, they will indeed come at some point ó and the party will end up ruing the election day when its prayers were answered in so spectacular a fashion.