Having personally witnessed, on December 2, 2016, how the police seamlessly allowed a few protesters to occupy the gates of Parliament, without so much as a whimper that morning, I have been vocally critical of how the police handled this whole affair.
Therefore, I was pleased that a parliamentary joint select committee had been struck to review the events that day and was hopeful that its report would be balanced and nonpartisan, providing the public with the relevant facts, supported by an unbiased presentation of context. Alas, it was not to be.
The report was not balanced and evidenced the implementation of a distinct political agenda in favour of the now ruling party, whose senior members were caught on videotape as being among the protesters. There are a number of egregious problems with this report.
First, and most importantly, the report makes a false equivalence between the rights of the public to protest, on the one hand, versus the rights of democratically elected legislators to enter their chamber, debate and approve legislation, on the other hand.
There is no such equivalence. The right of democratically elected MPs to enter the Parliament building to conduct the people’s business is a right that occupies the core of democracy. No one elected the People’s Campaign. No one elected Move Bermuda.
They had the right to protest and they had a right to be heard, but they had no right to physically block Parliament, thereby preventing debate of a Bill they did not like.
In democracies around the world, protesters against various issues are commonplace. In fact, they are a daily occurrence. But nowhere in such countries will you find that protesters are allowed to prevent democratically elected legislators from performing their duties. When non-elected members of the public can determine, by physical means, whether it be violent or non-violent, when Parliament meets and what it debates, then the line between democracy and anarchy has been crossed.
To refer to these protests as mere “civil disobedience” indicates a clear bias intending to legitimise the protesters’ actions. This false equivalence throws the credibility of this report, as non-partisan and balanced, into the dustbin.
Secondly, there is a problem with the statement, “the OBA government must accept some responsibility for the decision making. It appears that members of Cabinet [were] determined to have the already oft-delayed debate on the airport redevelopment Bill occur that day ...”
There is an implication here that there was something wrong with, or unreasonable about, wanting to get on with this important debate. There was not anything wrong or unreasonable about that desire. The report inherently defeats its own intended implication by saying that it was “oft-delayed”.
These delays were not at the behest of the then Government. All of them were at the direction of the Speaker who was bending over backward to give the then Opposition more time to study the matter and give them more information. And there was plenty of it: hundreds of pages. So, after all those delays, Cabinet certainly did not want the debate further delayed because of interference by protesters, most of whom were unlikely to have read those hundreds of pages.
In the section entitled “Context”, the report ignores the context for the determination of the Cabinet to get this airport redevelopment started.
That context was that the Government was determined to enact all possible measures to stimulate the Bermuda economy, which had been on life support when it took over, without incurring more government debt. The pressure was on to create jobs. This project completely fulfilled those objectives.
Third, again, in the section entitled “Context”, several paragraphs are devoted to the views of the People’s Campaign, an unelected organisation, which was plainly working hand-in-hand with the then Opposition. There is also a narrative on Page 18 that blatantly reflects a particular point of view favoured by the then Opposition. So much so that it quotes a publication of one of their MPs. Again on Page 19, there is a reference to the People’s Campaign position paper, A Bad Deal for Bermuda. Yet there is no counterpoint in the report indicating what the government of the day was trying to achieve, either for immigration or the airport redevelopment. This complete absence of balance is yet another blatant example of bias in the report.
Fourth, the committee’s actions, with respect to the Gold Commander, are completely puzzling. They issued a summons for him to appear, but the Commissioner of Police made it clear that he could not appear, except in the company of the commissioner. The committee appeared to take offence at this, but instead of acquiescing to the commissioner’s condition and interviewing the Gold Commander, it appeared to act out of pique and never interviewed the Gold Commander.
The Gold Commander was the most important person in the Bermuda Police Service to interview. He would have had all the knowledge of what transpired from the police’s perspective. The existing commissioner would not have been able to contradict him, as he was not yet on the job until much later. Therefore, the presence of the commissioner at the interview was moot.
This was like a prosecutor declining to question the star witness!
They could have asked him why there were no barricades erected that day. Police routinely erect barricades for low-risk events such as the Annual Santa Claus Parade, but there were none on December 2, 2016.
They could have asked him why the seven-point plan was reduced to three. They could have asked him why the police didn’t arrest the six to eight men who blocked the gates initially at about 7.45am, when the police had an at least a 5:1 manpower advantage at that time.
They could have asked him if there was a Platinum Commander, and who he was.
They could have asked him if there was any interference whatsoever from members of Cabinet.
They could have asked him all these things with the commissioner present. Yet, on this narrow point of principle, which appeared more like pique, the committee squandered its chance. This makes no sense. It’s as though the committee really didn’t want to get to the bottom of this matter after all.
Fifth, the section on the Platinum Commander is also puzzling. I was asked by the committee about a Platinum Commander, but said I had never heard of it. I met with the Gold Commander.
The committee cannot identify who this person (or persons) is, or even if he exists. As the leader of this project, the person leading the debate in the Legislature, the Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance, one would have thought that I would know or had heard of this Platinum Commander. But I hadn’t.
But the committee has played this like it was a mystery novel, leaving it to the reader’s imagination to draw a conclusion. Speculation is not what this committee was formed for; it was for finding facts. This section involving the Platinum Commander looks like it was included to provide cannon fodder for conspiracy theorists.
In conclusion, it is deeply disappointing that this committee, after extensive deliberations, has produced, essentially, a political document that has shed little light on what happened that day and why. In some ways it has further muddied the waters.
They didn’t even interview the most key witness, the Gold Commander. They didn’t interview the Premier of today who was clearly seen in the crowd that morning. What was his role? They didn’t interview the then Cabinet Secretary who might have been able to shed light on the matter; instead interviewing the present Cabinet Secretary, who was not involved.
If I had been an Opposition MP today, I certainly would not have signed off on such a report. I would have submitted a minority report of my own.
• Bob Richards was the Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier between December 2012 and July 2017