Both parties committed to good governance

  • Report: Commission of Inquiry members,from left, businessman Kumi Bradshaw, former MP John Barritt, Chairman and former Court of Appeal Judge Sir Anthony Evans, and businesswoman Fiona Luck (Photograph by Sideya Dill)

If voters want a succinct definition of good governance, they can look no farther than the platforms of the One Bermuda Alliance and the Progressive Labour Party.

The ruling party views it as a “system of governance that builds transparency and accountability” while the Opposition says its “key competences” are “accountability and fiscal responsibility”.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says “there is no single and exhaustive definition of good governance” but explains that it covers a wide range of processes by which governments, and other public institutions, conduct their affairs, manage taxpayers’ money and ensure human rights, without abuse or corruption.

At its simplest, perhaps, it refers to the regulation of public funds and both parties have been at pains in recent years to stress their commitment to introducing stringent measures in this area.

That is little wonder considering the independent conclusions drawn, this decade alone, by the likes of the Auditor-General, the Sage Commission and the Commission of Inquiry, who found significant failings in and abuses of the financial controls in place within government and other publicly funded bodies.

The four-panel Commission, which was tasked with investigating the misuse of public funds between 2009 and 2012, said in its report released earlier this year that “credible progress had been made since the start of the period under review”.

It cited the Good Governance Act 2011 and 2012 amendments, public access to information legislation, the establishment of the Office of Project Management and Procurement and other initiatives as progress in this area.

“But,” it added, “more can and should be done.”

John Barritt, a member of the Commission of Inquiry and former OBA leader, was instrumental in crafting the good governance pledges made by the OBA in its last election platform, in 2012.

He acknowledged his disappointment with the party’s achievements on those while in office.

The former politician, who is no longer a member of the OBA, told The Royal Gazette: “A lot of people think this isn’t of any importance but I beg to differ. We have got to have the right foundation and the right framework.

“I think this is of fundamental importance to our success as a community.”

The party leaders appear to agree with that stance. Michael Dunkley, the Premier, said this week that his government operated on “principles of good governance” but had not had any “real issues” warranting special scrutiny, such as cost overruns on projects, budget overspends or qualified audits.

He told The Royal Gazette: “Extending good governance and locking it into place is part of our mission as a government. We want to build a system people can trust.”

Mr Burt said earlier this year: “Throughout our history the PLP has always pushed for better governance and better government in Bermuda. Almost every progressive democratic reform that has taken place in Bermuda has been due to PLP pressure while in opposition or by PLP action while in government.”

Additional reporting by Sekou Hendrickson

Party pledges

One Bermuda Alliance

The party pledges to “build on our record of freedom of information, best practices and codes of conduct” by introducing:

• misconduct in public office legislation;

• a code of conduct for parliamentarians;

• laws to strengthen Bermuda’s ability to fight fraudulent activities by sophisticated criminals;

• procurement legislation to streamline and strengthen the process which governs government spending;

• fixed-term elections every five years (first pledged in 2012);

• absentee balloting for immediate implementation;

• a parliamentary committee to address election campaign finance reform; and

• a local governance act to strengthen the role of municipalities and parish councils.

Progressive Labour Party

In the first 100 days of government, the party promises to:

• implement the Sage Commission’s recommendation to establish three permanent parliamentary oversight committees to improve governance, reduce waste and increase efficiency;

• update the ministerial code of conduct to ensure that the Cabinet is held to the highest ethical standards;

• implement a code of conduct for members of Parliament; and

• implement the code of practice for Project Management and Procurement.

Beyond the first 100 days, it is pledging to:

• strengthen the role of the Public Accounts Committee;

• introduce integrity in public office legislation;

• introduce campaign finance reform;

• enact anti-corruption legislation which, among other things, will designate an independent corruption watchdog, increase the requirements for disclosure of financial interests for politicians and senior civil servants and increase the Auditor-General’s powers;

• implement a process whereby petitions that get enough signatures go before Parliament for debate or to the country via referendum;

• hold debates before general elections; and

• implement an interactive citizens forum.

Good governance legislation

Former PLP premier Paula Cox introduced legislation designed to ensure that public cash was being spent appropriately, after repeated claims that it was not, particularly under her predecessor Dr Brown.

She ushered in two good governance laws and set up the OPMP to ensure spending was properly managed.

Announcing the second bill in Parliament in January 2012, Ms Cox said it would “further enhance good governance and transparency and … further underscore the message that this Government adheres to the high standards of ethical behaviour: transparency and accountability, fairness and equity, efficiency and effectiveness, respect for the rule of the law”.

The Commission of Inquiry applauded those efforts in its report, released to the public in March, but said: “We express disappointment with the slow rate of progress that there has been in fully implementing these measures, particularly with regard to OPMP. It is yet to be fully established and delay may be due to lack of political will or to bureaucratic reluctance to embrace change.”

One problem, according to critics, is that though the good governance laws were passed, accompanying regulations have yet to be. A legal source said: “The regulations actually spell out the scope of those powers and how those powers would be carried out. The legislation says ‘what’ and the regulations say ‘how’.”

The COI recommended: “Strengthen the capacity and status of the OPMP. Finalise its code of practice (the Commission understands the draft code of practice has gone through at least 16 revisions) and ensure that the office is funded and has sufficient qualified personnel.”

The PLP’s platform promises to implement a code of practice for project management and procurement in its first 100 days of government.

Mr Dunkley admitted to this newspaper that one OBA pledge from 2012 which had not been acted on was the establishment of an independent Office of the Contractor-General to oversee government construction projects.

He said: “This idea was put forward because of the huge scandals surrounding government capital projects that had become so common and that were costing Bermuda taxpayers, as it turned out, hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Since coming into office we have concluded that the Office of [Project] Management and Procurement in the finance ministry — set up in the final days of the previous government — has been operating well. A side benefit to sticking with the office is that we avoided the cost of setting up an Office of Contractor-General.”

Parliamentary reform

John Barritt said the notion of good governance for him meant putting in place “measures that will bring about better governance and, by better governance, I mean allow for greater participation. For views to be heard, for people to feel that their views are to be taken into account. This is entirely possible and feasible to do”.

Mr Barritt believes that key to this is a reorganisation of Parliament, introducing a “network of parliamentary committees” to scrutinise government. Such a system was one of the recommendations made by the Sage Commission and endorsed by the COI.

“It positions our governments to be better able to tackle challenges, some of which will always be controversial,” he said. “I think it’s very important for whoever wins the election to put these new measures in place and move on these things right from the outset. It gives the right impression; it sends the right signal.”

Under the last PLP government, in June 2010, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises government spending, began meeting publicly for the first time.

And the Opposition says in its 2017 platform that it will establish three permanent parliamentary oversight committees, as recommended by Sage.

Opposition leader David Burt asked Mr Dunkley about the Sage recommendation in the House of Assembly in March, stating: “In our view, increasing the oversight leads to better decision-making for the people of this country.”

Mr Dunkley replied that joint select committees had been tasked with investigating important issues and were due to produce reports which would be tabled in the House.

During the OBA’s term in office, temporary committees have produced reports on parliamentary reform, mandatory drug testing for parliamentarians and elections.

The last PLP administration, meanwhile, had select committees look at crime and education, with meetings held in public.

Public access to information

Freedom of information is often described as one of the cornerstones of a modern democracy, as well as a fundamental human right. Bermuda’s residents obtained this important right to access records held by publicly-funded bodies in April 2015.

As independent Information Commissioner Gita Gutierrez said in her first report last year, it placed the public “at the centre of decisions because the [Public Access to Information] Act provides a new mechanism for public scrutiny”.

She added: “Not least, when the Pati Act went into force … those impacted by public authorities’ decisions gained an enforceable right to understand the rationale behind those decisions.”

Both political parties like to claim credit for freedom of information because the 2010 Act was passed in Parliament by the PLP, under the leadership of Ewart Brown, but was enacted almost five years later by the OBA, under Mr Dunkley. The Premier said: “It was literally the first major change I implemented after becoming premier because I believe an open government makes for the best government.”

Former PLP premier Alex Scott was arguably the man who introduced the idea of Pati to a wider audience in Bermuda and championed it for the longest. His government produced a consultation paper to set the ball rolling, though it would be several years before a bill went before MPs.

Though Pati is now enacted, it is a work in progress, as requesters know all too well. Guidelines for the civil servants who process requests for information have yet to be introduced and appeals against refusals to disclose can be long and protracted.

In her report, Ms Gutierrez recommended allowing universal access to records and anonymous requests but neither party touches on that in their manifestos.

Financial instructions

The Commission of Inquiry had much to say about financial instructions, the official rules for how public servants should handle taxpayer money, but the take-home message was clearly that they were not robust enough and were viewed by some merely as guidelines. Neither party mentions them in their 2017 platform.

The FIs are updated regularly but the COI urged the government to “give financial instructions the force of law by making them regulation. This will provide clarity that financial instructions are not just general guidelines, but statutory protocols that must be followed.”

While in Opposition, Mr Burt has pushed for giving FIs the force of law.

Finance minister Bob Richards said this week the jury was still out on whether that was necessary. “It’s not part of our platform but we are looking at that.

“Financial instructions are a set of rules that ministries have to abide by. Whether or not financial instructions have the force of law, if they are being flouted, like they used to be, the force of law is not going to matter a whole lot if that law is not going to be enforced. What we need to have is a set of rules and, also, combine that with an updated code of conduct for ministers, to put in place a more rigorous environment. Alone, by saying financial instructions have the force of law, is not going to solve the problem.”

Campaign finance reform

The idea of transparency regarding political party financing — a facet of many other democracies — seems to be gaining traction in Bermuda, after once being seen as a measure unlikely to be introduced.

Its purpose has been described by judges in the United States as to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption and give important information to the electorate about the parties and candidates seeking their vote.

Mr Dunkley noted in May that Bermuda has no rules on who can make donations and loans to political parties and there is no requirement to disclose amounts received or the identities of donors.

The Premier said: “That’s something I would like to consult broadly with my colleagues on. I think there needs to be some kind of campaign overhaul because right now there is nothing on donations.”

The OBA’s manifesto stops short of pledging such reform but promises to form a parliamentary committee to “address election campaign finance reform”.

The PLP goes further, promising to introduce the reform to “bring transparency to political donations”. The party says it will set caps on individual donations and oversee political spending by political parties. Lovitta Foggo, the Opposition candidate for St David’s, said in June: “We believe that the best policy ideas should win — not the political party with the biggest war chest.”

Openness regarding political donations helps to avoid conflicts of interest, as does the disclosure by parliamentarians of their financial interests.

Although there is a Register of Interests for parliamentarians in Bermuda, and a committee which oversees it, disclosure is not mandatory. Many of the forms submitted by MPs and senators which are available to read at the Bermuda Parliament website are more than five years old. That may change after the election, with both parties pledging a code of conduct for all parliamentarians (the PLP’s to be implemented within its first 100 days in office), which could include required

annual disclosure.

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