Leave race out of it.

Tari Trott, a writer for The Royal Gazette who, according to a profile on facebook by the same name, is black and whose friend’s list is dominated by various prominent PLP politicians noted in an article in today’s paper that blogger Jonathan Starling, who was specifically pointed out as being a white supporter and member of the PLP, was recently critical of Premier Brown’s escapades at the Playboy Mansion.

The above outlines an example of one of my biggest pet peeves when race is unnecessarily brought into the picture to stir up controversy, especially when it comes on top of one of my other pet peeves of making it more about the messenger than the message.  Today’s article in the Royal Gazette is a great example of the same thing occurring. 

PLP supporter and blogger Jonathan Starling has jumped on the bandwagon of those criticising [sic] Premier Ewart Brown’s decision to use taxpayers’ money to sponsor a celebrity poker tournament at the Playboy Mansion.

Mr. Starling’s Tuesday commentary on his ‘Catch a fire’ web site labels the Premier’s decision a “scandal” while calling it “embarrassing” and “shameful.

Mr. Starling, who is white, is known for taking conflicting political positions. He has also been a vocal critic of The Royal Gazette.

Why is it necessary to specifically point out that Mr. Starling is white especially when no explanation is given as to why the knowledge of his race adds to the story?  Further, why is this article seemingly focuses more on Mr. Starling than on the message he portrays?  Also, why is the leader of the opposition quoted alongside his comments rather than PLP sources being contacted to give alternative viewpoints either alongside or contrary to what Mr. Starling suggests.   By quoting the opposition leader alongside Mr. Starling does it not give the impression that he is more aligned to the UBP than the PLP which is completely false?  Now, it would be easy for me to go into a large diatribe analyzing the supposed race of the writer of this article and their supposed political connections and proclaiming this as evidence of specifically utilizing the paper to go after Mr. Starling for having voiced his opinion, which happened to be critical of the party, but I’m not going to do that because that’d be attacking the messenger rather than the message, and would be making wild assumptions of bias that may well be unfounded, wouldn’t it?

Getting back on the issue of race, it really bothers me when the race of people is specifically pointed out when it barely relates to the context.  Even more so it is bothersome that it is incredibly rare for a white person to be specifically pointed out as white while far less rare for the same to happen for a black person.  It reminds me of the far too often circumstance where a paper conveniently and far more regularly points out the blackness of an individual in the context where it is better left out.  Such as:

Mr. X, who is black, did something that has nothing to do with his race but we feel like it’s worth pointing it out just so you’re clear that he was black because even though white people do it to, we want to be certain you knew it was a black person who did it…

It severely bothers me when the papers choose to do this and is one of the large reasons why I can relate to those who feel that the Royal Gazette maintains an bias towards whites.  Race, for the most part, should be left out of it unless clear explanations are given as to why race is a factor in the issue.

When getting into bias by the papers this recent article raises a whole new spectrum of means to look at the situation.  This recent article either could clearly be displaying a reverse bias or could simply be attempting to stir up controversy in order to sell more papers.  Who really knows what the real intentions are.  What it does come down to is that, regardless of black or white, the paper would do itself a great favour in avoiding criticism and attacks if it were to leave race out of it when it does not have a clear bearing on the subject matter.  That, and focus on the message far more than the messenger.

The colour of power

The late Martin Luther King Jr. once declared, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  Premier Dr. Ewart Brown’s decision to shut down debate on further concessions for the Coco Reef Resort rather than stand his ground and request evidence supporting the allegations does much to demonstrate his measure.  Sadly, his actions with the recent venture to the Playboy Mansion do little to support his character when there are not only questions of conflict of interest but also questions of the event’s efficacy for the image Bermuda hopes to promote and once again he hides behind the veil of his press secretary’s words.  It should not be too obvious to any cognizant observer that Premier Brown seems intent to test the limits of his bounds leaving some to wonder how far he shall be willing to go and for how long he shall be allowed to cull absolute power.

Where Premier Brown stands when challenged with controversy should suggest a great deal about the measure of his character.  Marking the 40th anniversary of a hallmark of democratic achievement such as universal suffrage with the stifling of democratic debate is a sad turn of events for the reputation of political stability our island holds dear as well as the ideals upon which the Progressive Labour Party was founded.   Increasingly by his actions, Premier Brown is proving that the oligarchic abuse of power suggested to have plagued the likes of the previously incumbent party is not limited by the colour of ones skin but instead is only bound by the colour of power, greed, hypocrisy and that of envy.

Premier Brown’s actions with regards to his venture to the Playboy Mansion do little to better his pursuits with regards to improving tourism and do more to line the vision that recent tourism endeavors are more firmly founded in the boosting of his own ego.  Indeed, a charity gambling event at the Playboy Mansion goes beyond even the question of conflicts of interest to one of how it is even remotely fitting for Bermuda’s tourism image.  Sex, drugs and gambling are not typically the types of things we hope to promote when people think of Bermuda tourism unless our future is destined to be far more dire.  Further, the careful public relations veil constructed by the Premier’s press secretary Glenn Jones raises questions as to the efficacy of the event’s planning as simply how does three trips to Bermuda equate to $1500-$1800 in flight costs?   Indeed, how exactly does one heighten the awareness of Bermuda among the type of affluent travelers who attend charity poker events at the Playboy Mansion when we must be offering the equivalent of coach class seats as part of the prize.

Sadly, when questioning the words of the Late Martin Luther King Jr. we can certainly wonder how Premier Brown measures up in his fitness as the leader representing our island.  More and more Premier Brown tests the limits and boundaries of what he can get away with as we jump from one extreme scandal and abjection of democracy to the next.  One could wonder how long things shall remain unchecked and un-stifled as the pattern of the past suggests that once again the UBP devil will be resurrected as a means to get the people of Bermuda to herd like sheep behind him.  Simply stepping in line to battle that common foe who is now little more than a shadow of a past that once was.   Sadly once again we should heed the words of Lord Acton when he said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” as we question how much longer we shall place in the hands of Premier Brown, absolute power.

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Swivel

A site I’d like to note for later use is Swivel.  Swivel is an innovative website dedicated to enabling people to share and analyze data.  The site is pretty cool as of my first trial as it automatically generates graphs and allows you to update the data such as adding rows.

Here’s an example of Annual Visitor Arrival Numbers from the National Economic Report of Bermuda 2007

 

Here’s an automatically produced chart of the arrivals data from 2002-2007

 

From what I can tell, the site will aggregate the data in time so that comparisons are produced.  This could prove a useful resource for collaboratively compiling data as well as providing a central place to consolidate data from various sources.

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Making sense of ‘cluster boards’

It has been a struggle to comprehend what the government is implying when they suggest that they want to switch the public school system to using what they refer to as ‘cluster boards’.  Trying to comprehend the Royal Gazette’s interpretations of the meetings does not prove easy nor does trying to comprehend the general sense from the community.  Likely what appears to have happened is that the concept has not been explained clearly enough and just about everyone aside from those directly proposing the idea are confused.  So, with a lack of alternative sources, the best course of action may then be to find someone on the ‘inside’ who can provide a bit of a scoop on what’s going on, which this writer has attempted to do.

Government is not helping itself greatly with it’s attempts to explain their ‘cluster boards’ proposal.  The word ‘cluster’ itself may well be a bad choice of words, at least by the urban dictionary’s definition.  Being that the government has introduced this concept only through a number of public meetings, those unable to attend are left relying on the interpretations of those who did.  While public meetings as a form of public interaction are highly welcomed and encouraged, the lack of supplementary information to digest in order to get a clear picture is disappointing and lends to confusing interpretations.

Thus, in relying on only hearsay, what is the best one can do to get a better idea of what is going on?  Perhaps one can rely on what a friend who has a hand in the reform process and his description of what ‘cluster boards’ are and where education is headed.   By his description, here is this writer’s interpretation (yet another one, so take it with a grain of salt) of what the cluster boards proposal is about.

Aided schools have benefited from trustee appointed boards that have produced considerable success through community and parental involvement.  The problem however is that while some schools have faired better, others have faired worse, and in this it is government’s hope to level the playing field. 

What the government is hoping to do with the ‘cluster boards’ model is to take the advantages offered by the aided boards and spread them out to all public schools.  This, of course, is where things get confusing.  This writer’s interpretation is that the government hopes to create trustee appointed boards that oversee schools at specific levels of education as opposed to simply overseeing individual schools. 

Under such a model, each level of school from primary to middle to senior would have their own trustee appointed board.  The distinction with such a structure being that each school’s trustees would nominate or elect people to sit on these boards so that each school would have representatives in a board who can collectively work together to offer the same benefits to all schools at the same development level.  The purported benefits of such a model being that where today one program or idea may be suggested for an individual school by one board, tomorrow with ‘cluster boards’ that program or idea could be an initiative shared across all schools at the same level.  This would enable schools to share resources and all gain the benefits of the initiative as opposed to only one school benefiting.

Subsequently, the education ministry would be remodeled into a leaner department that provides the function of an oversight board and necessary administrative support for the schools.  The oversight board would be a one that would contain members from both the ministry and members from the cluster boards so that it could function as a means of providing support to each board.  This would enable boards to be empowered with the administrative support the ministry can provide while also facilitating the spread of ideas and initiatives beyond just one level of schooling.

While this writer is still digesting this concept, it is hopeful that this interpretation is closer to the intentions of those tasked with reforming education.  Indeed, if we are able to gain a less muddied picture of the intentions of the education reform committee than it would lend itself greatly to people being able to decide whether this course of action is right for our community or not.  While it would be helpful if this committee could produce clearer documentation on what exactly is intended by the ‘cluster boards’ proposal, in the meantime hopefully this writer’s interpretation of the proposal is one that shall be of assistance and hopefully will garner some valuable feedback.  Indeed, hopefully as we get closer to solving this critical issue that affects us all we shall grow closer to ensuring proper education for all of our youth in the future.

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School Boards

Government has proposed the dissolution of the elected board of St. Georges Preparatory school in favor of an appointed board responsible for a cluster of schools.  While this follows one recommendation of the Hopkins report, it also directly contradicts another.  While their choice cannot be instantly overruled when considering recent research from the American Journal of Education, a fine line must be followed to ensure that regardless of what type of board prevails, they stay on track with the goal of improving education and pursue a path of transparency and community involvement in the process.

In a recent Royal Gazette article it was suggested that Government is considering replacing the school’s trustee elected board with one that is appointed by government.  When questioned of government’s intentions Education Minister Randy Horton is suggested to have responded:

“Government is considering this because it implements the recommendation of the Hopkins Report to have one standard for all school boards”

However, when comparing this to another recommendation of the Hopkins Report, the move may be in direct contrast of their suggested intentions.

“The review favours the appointment of boards, filled largely by election, to run schools or federations of schools, building on the current example of aided schools.”

Changing and not following the model of the aided schools seems to be a contradiction to what was recommended in the Hopkins report and would be very concerning as government appears to be working backwards by taking aided schools down a level rather than bringing lagging schools up.  The very notion of a government appointed board raises many questions of whether the education system will be marred by politicking and patronage that will leave us no better off in the future than we are today.

However, when considering a recent article from the American Journal of Education, one may well wonder what the difference really is.  Indeed, when reviewing what Physorg.com had to say about the article, one could wonder what difference the type of board really makes when transparency and community involvement may have the greatest impact.  Indeed, it is suggested that both types of boards have been tried in American cities for decades. 

During the Progressive era, roughly the years 1890-1920, large cities installed elected school boards to save the education system from the politicking and patronage that marred local politics at the time. By the time that Boston’s city council placed the schools under mayoral control in the early 1990s, the elected school boards became known for precisely the political intrusion, low standards, inflexibility, and micromanagement that they were created to combat.

Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute who wrote the AJE article suggests that appointed boards can also fail if they mayor in question did not have an unusually high abundance of  political capital.  Using New York as an example he suggests that without strong leadership and a coherent strategy for the appointed board, the plan can quickly fail, especially if a strong mayor leaves office.

However, also cited are high profile failures and half-measures of appointed boards in Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles which showed that “appointed boards can repeat the mistakes of the past, falling prey to the temptations of micromanagement and lack of transparency that plagued their predecessors.”

Most notable is that regardless of who has control over the boards Hess found that there exists limited measures of actual educational success to prove that one was more beneficial than the other.  Suggesting that:

Regardless of the form of the school board, a clear mission for the education of the city’s children must be accompanied by a flexibility to address the problems of a rapidly changing society.

From this we can wonder if the greatest measure of success for any school board is not whether it is appointed or elected but whether it ensures flexibility and encourages transparency and community involvement in its efforts to address problems.  Indeed, one of the other recommendations of the Hopkins Report cited by the gazette article suggests:

“Harness the power of parents, business and the community in the reform effort. The review team believes that stakeholders should have greater direct involvement in the management of schools and have greater opportunities to support learning.”

A large question is whether or not this recommendation has been fulfilled to it’s fullest extent.  While government has proposed the dissolution of the elected board in favor of an appointed one, one could wonder what impact this really shall make.  Why does it appear to contradict the recommendations of the Hopkins report?  What shall be done to ensure that regardless of the type of board that they shall stay on track?  Indeed, can the goal of improving education be achieved through a pursuit of transparency and community involvement in the process and just as importantly, has such a pursuit been occurring to the depth that it shall yield the greatest success for our future generations?

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Public perceptions

Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once suggested “People only see what they are prepared to see”.  His words lead us to recognize that when it comes to matters of public opinion, public perception is what guides support for the actions of our legislators and drives the creation of public policy.  Regardless of the story behind the public’s perception, the perception itself is all that matters.

In response to this blog’s last post on the transport workers strike action, Jonathan of Catch a Fire suggests that many public commentators make the mistake of not understanding how a union works and defends that unions indeed do eliminate alternative options prior to engaging in strike action.  To these remarks one may easily contest that public commentators do not need to know how a union works for public commentators represent little more than a reflection of public perception.  A perception that alternative options have not been eliminated which says more about the need for effectiveness when the union communicates its processes than it does about the need for commentators to understand it.

Indeed, the one voice represented by this blog may reflect the feelings harbored by many who grow increasingly frustrated with the rising frequency of industrial action, especially where there is a lack of explanation as to whether or not all other means of negotiation were first exhausted.  While it is easy to suggest that in most cases process is followed, how can it be ascertained that this case has been treated as such?  Indeed, how can one be certain that any case matches most cases if the process has not been communicated?

Abraham Maslow, a man considered to be the father of humanistic psychology, once said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails”.  His words hold merit as increasingly the actions of the union give rise to the perception that industrial action is the only tool that is widely used.  This perception rises when considering the many incidents of the last few years that have been solved through industrial action as opposed to negotiation.   Adding to this perception is the consideration that with a labor government in power unions should be less likely to have to resort to strike action to resolve differences.  Thus, while many such incidents may have been justified some may not have been and one may begin to wonder how often the boy shall be able to cry wolf before the people stop listening.

As was suggested when we began this piece, when it comes to matters of public opinion, perception is the only reality that matters.  The question of whether or not the union has exhausted all options before industrial action matters only in the depths of how well this has been communicated with the public.  That communication then being measured against the action the public perceives has been taken to justify whether it was necessary.  If the public does not hold the perception that the union has been right to take action then perception can work against their favor.  Indeed, the opinion formed by the public is that which shapes support and guidance for our leadership and their approach to policy.  Policy which can shape the course of how readily unions are able to wield a hammer to strike a nail.

The BIU is only embarrassing itself with it’s tantrums

The Bermuda Industrial Union’s approach to resolving disputes could be likened to a child that always throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.  It’s one thing when a strike is called when all other attempts to negotiate have failed, it’s a whole different thing when it seems like every time there is a slight disagreement, an ’emergency meeting’ (read: strike) is the first course of action.  The union certainly is justified to do what it takes to defend the rights of it’s workers but at some point the depth of their antics do more to damage their reputation in the eyes of the public than help it.

Yesterday’s ’emergency meeting’ was just another in a string of impromptu strikes that have been called at the hand of the Bermuda Industrial Union over the last couple years.  It has risen to such a state that a perception has developed that each time there is a slight disagreement between the union and government, the first action of the union is to strike as a means to embarrass the government into backing down.  The distinction is that it has occurred so frequently that the union has done more to embarrass itself than the government. 

These impromptu meetings have reached a state where it becomes very easy to question the union’s motives and whether it is actually reasonable in it’s approach to resolutions.  Indeed, what procedure does it undertake in resolving disputes?  Does it exhaust all other options before resorting to public disruption or is this simply a case of selfishness on the part of union members where the easiest route of embarrassing the government is the first choice simply because it will always yield the best results for the union. 

While when reading the story of Mr. Herbert Russell’s dismissal it is easy to side with the union that a termination of his employment was going too far, however so too was the calling of an emergency meeting to seek resolution.  The union is earning for itself a reputation of “screw the people, it’s all about us” when they reach for such drastic action each time there is a dispute.  It is this perception that may well lead to it’s own downfall for while unions can be wonderful tools for ensuring worker’s rights, when abused they can also very quickly turn the tides of public opinion against them.

A bit of advice for union heads should any of them read this blog, if you want to adequately communicate with the membership without disrupting and pissing off the public at every turn, look further into technology to assist you in your efforts.  These days nearly everyone has a cell phone and is capable of sending and receiving text messages.  Look into communicating with your membership as well as even holding votes on action through text messages.  This way, you could easily vote in advance whether to strike on a given day over a dispute.  This allows you to communicate quickly and efficiently with your member base while also giving swift notice to the public and government that action will be taken.  This gives the public ample time to learn of the scenario and decide whether to support your efforts as well as government ample time to respond to the threat of action.  Simply taking action via ’emergency meetings’ does you no favors.

Indeed, the Bermuda Industrial Union’s approach to resolving disputes at present is one that is far less than ideal.  While defending the rights of it’s workers is certainly warranted, impromptu strikes will do little more than turn the public against them.  As someone who has personally been left stranded and lost a day of work due to one of these impromptu strikes, this writer can assure you that his support of the union now diminishes with each such unnecessary action.  If anything, the union is doing itself a disservice with such action as the more it occurs, the more support for government to take punitive action will grow so that we can finally put an end to such tactics.

Foresight?

Previously we noted the lack of foresight in policy planning related to the introduction of term limits.  Vexed Bermoothes picked up on this and noted the lack of foresight in the implementation of the new demerit points system for traffic offenses.  Now we take note of the lack of foresight when it comes to the introduction of midi-buses.  Again that question arises, does foresight and proper planning come into consideration when it comes to the introduction of new policy?

Donte Hunt, the St. George’s South MP, has noted in a recent Royal Gazette article that the promised East End midi-bus service is inconsistent if not nonexistent. 

“The service may have been started, but it is our understanding that the new buses have not held to their daytime, hour-on-the-hour schedule,” said Mr. Hunt,

“Residents have reported that the buses, when they are seen, are few and far between. Reports indicate that there may be a driver issue with the steering of the vehicles. “

In response, Premier and Minister of Transportation, Ewart Brown suggested that there was a shortage of midi buses which is causing problems.

He said: “There is a regular schedule that is being maintained in St. David’s with a full size vehicle. We currently have two Euro 3 Midi-buses. We were able to obtain the last two from that model’s production line.

“We are currently trying to obtain the Euro 4, a later model, however it is not currently available with an automatic transmission. “

Here’s a question, if this policy was more than just a quick and dirty vote winner, shouldn’t it have been planned out enough in advance to ensure there is enough availability?  Indeed, going back to the announcement it is suggested that the government was planning to bring in 8 midi buses, not simply 2, so why not plan for 8?

The Royal Gazette also suggests the Bermuda Sun reported last month that midi bus drivers were upset about the lack of power steering and the accessibility of the handicapped ramp and were taking the keys as a result.  This again raises questions of foresight and planning.  Shouldn’t those who were due to drive the midi buses have been included in the selection process?  If they had been would they be able to turn around and blame the government for problems with the midi-buses?

Foresight is a question that lingers on the minds of at least some in the blogging community and likely some of this writer’s fellow St. David’s residents as they continue to be poorly served.  While the PLP was able to sail in to win constituency #3 based on lofty promises of improved transport, they have as of yet failed to deliver on those promises.  All we’re left to wonder is where is the foresight and planning when it comes to the introduction of new policy?

Fiscal Responsibility

While our government’s sudden concern for fiscal responsibility with regards to its advertising budget is appreciated, one could easily wonder where similar concern has been for other budgets over the last 10 years.  Indeed, simply by taking a handful of categories of government expenditure over the last few years one could quickly account for millions in annual expenditure increases and yet one could ask where the added value has been for the average citizen?  Such questions cause us to wonder whether or not we could use some of that same fiscal responsibility applied to advertising applied elsewhere.  Especially when there are so many places beyond just advertising that we could find that would help put money back into the pockets of everyday tax payers.image

Source:  Government budget books, figures for 2008/09 are based upon estimates, 2007/08 and 1994/95 are based upon revised and all others are based on actual’s. 

When comparing budget statements from 1998/99 to that of the estimates for 2008/09, one would note that estimated expenditure on travel alone has risen by some $5.1 million.  That is quite a hike representing more than three times the expenditure of 1998 levels.  When looking at communications costs we’ve seen an increase of another $5.1 million, more than twice the expenditure of 1998 levels.   How about government salaries?  In 1998 expenditure was $186 million.  2008?  It amounted to $329 million or an increase of $143.2 million.  Again, massive increases in expenditure over 10 years and what tangible value has the average tax payer gained that we can point to as a result?

Next we could ask where the fiscal responsibility is in ensuring that the public sector isn’t too bloated?  Indeed when looking at the number of government workers, the size of government has risen by 20%, or
990 since 1998 and these numbers may not even include consultants and contractors.  Taking the amount spent vs. the number of workers in 1998 suggests an average annual salary of some $39 thousand for each government worker.  Compare that to 2008 where the average annual salary has skyrocketed to $57 thousand.  This represents an increase of some $18 thousand in annual salary over 1998 levels, representing raises of about $1.8 thousand a year.  This is quite a hike and it might even seem reasonable until you start asking yourself if every government worker received such raises, or instead just a select few. 

image

This leads us to our next question.  If the average salary has gone up, has every government worker benefited?  Indeed, if raises have not been evenly distributed, someone in a low bracket may have seen no increase while those in the high brackets may have seen far more than $18 thousand in raises over 1998 levels.  A case and point goes to reviewing the situation of our police officers.  Next time you wonder about the lack of a police presence while you’re worried about deaths on our roads or a rise in break-ins, ask yourself why police officers haven’t received a raise since 2004 and are like still stuck in a pay dispute.  If we’ve seen a rise of $11 thousand in average annual government salaries, shouldn’t our dedicated police officers have seen some of this?  To put it more bluntly, if you’re a government worker, have you seen your salary rise $11 thousand annually since 2004, or $18 thousand annually since 1998?

If you’re one of some 40,000 taxpayers (or closer to 30,000 if you rule out non-Bermudian workers), are you at all concerned about our government’s fiscal responsibility?  Certainly it is reasonable for them to be fiscally conscious when it comes to advertising budgets and yet, where is that consciousness when it comes to flagrant overspending in other categories?  Indeed, just be looking at the categories mentioned above we’ve seen a rise of $153 million spent annually beyond what was spent in 1998.   As a tax payer, does this bother you?  Perhaps not until you realize that when divided amongst those 40,000 tax payers mentioned above, that amounts to about $3.8 thousand that could have gone in your pocket.  Counting out non-Bermudian workers, that is more than $5 thousand.  Though should you really care?  $3.8 thousand or even $5 thousand is little more than chump change, isn’t it?  If not, perhaps it’s time you take a second look at government spending and begin asking what value we’re actually getting in return for our money.