The UBP’s legacy isn’t the problem. The problem is that people have lost confidence in our leadership. If the OBA wants to succeed they need to focus on regaining confidence, not new names, faces and radical new leaders. The OBA needs to offer something different, not just new window dressing but a new political process that involves the people and restores confidence. The OBA could take a deep look at existing forms of direct democracy and find ways to adapt them to work here.
Tom Vesey sort of gets it when he suggests that in order to succeed “the OBA needs to offer something genuinely new”, though like many others he then gets caught up in the UBP's legacy as the issue. The UBP held power for 30 years because they held the support of the middle class swing vote, which they then lost. None of the elections since have been landslide victories but instead won on the basis of handfuls of seats. The PLP has done such a brilliant job of painting the UBP’s legacy and race as the core problem that old UBPers believed it, BDAers separtists believed it, newly formed OBAers believe it as do former and current newspaper editors. It is falsely shaping the driving force behind the OBA's strategy and yet it may be off the mark because people want more than new faces, they want a new approach.
Here’s where I think Mr. Vesey is spot on:
[The OBA] has to be promoting and presenting itself as something new — a new party, a new idea, a new way of conducting politics in Bermuda.
As the OBA positions itself for the rough election road ahead, it needs to make sure it is more than just a critic and more than just an “alternative government”
It must at all costs offer something genuinely new — an alternative WAY of government.
The OBA sort of gets it in that they’ve committed to increasing democracy, though their implementation could go further. People need to be able to regain faith and confidence in their ability to lead and a likely route to success is to give more power to the people.
If we look back to the example of the declaration of American independence, people were hungry for a change in how they were governed. They were tired of Monarchist rule and unjust taxation, they’d lost confidence in their leadership and wanted more say in governance. The founding fathers turned to the inspiration of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and his idea for an amendable constitution. Penn understood that people are more easily governed when they feel they have a greater hand in governance. He said as much in Fruits of Solitude.
If the OBA hopes to succeed they need to provide new and modern means of accommodating dissent and embracing new ideas. Our current representative system just doesn't go far enough for it was designed for a colonial age long past. We live in an age that travels at a far faster pace and is far more connected than during Penn’s time and thus we need to offer modern approaches. We need a system that offers the people not only representation but also a more direct hand in governance.
The OBA deserves considerable credit for setting the bar higher with their pledges for referendums and intent on allowing internet voting for their upcoming leadership election. However can they be doing more to make people feel heard and like they can make a difference? Can they enable people to have a greater hand in governance and can they do more than talk about it but also demonstrate how they can deliver on it?
“One of the core elements of the OBA’s better governance platform is to engage the public more directly in decision-making. One aspect of this objective is the use of referenda to measure public opinion, particularly on controversial issues”
These pledges are excellent, though part of the problem is that people don't really understand what the OBA is talking about when they say better governance. Some might wonder if the OBA themselves even understand it. What is meant when the OBA calls for a referendum? Do they mean “Gambling: tick yes or no” or are we talking about something far more substantial? Most Bermudians have vague ideas of what referendums are and thus we have no idea what it will look like. We need samples and rather than talk about it the OBA could make more of an effort to provide clear working examples by enshrining them in the foundation of their party function. Referendums and direct democracy should be placed at the core of how their own party operates as a demonstration of how they would work.
This leads us back to the question of whether people understand what better governance really means. One example of better governance would mean developing our legislative framework such that the people are provided the opportunity to be more involved. Referendums are a likely answer, though it is important that people understand what referendums are and the process which could be followed. Certainly one would be well advised to avoid the California model, it has been an disaster. The Swiss model on the other hand has been a shining success that has worked well for over a century. What is the Swiss model and how could it work here? The OBA could be reading and borrowing liberally from the Guidebook to Direct Democracy for ideas. Here’s a short summary example of how Bermuda could be approaching it (with parathensis for party specific examples).
- Start with an initiative to institute a new law. It could be a law (policy or position in the case of the party) to resolve any issue (eg. gambling) of which the initial trigger can come from individual voters (party members) or interest groups. These individuals would file a petition to start an initative which has the support of a certain minimum number of signatures. An initiative could also be triggered by parliamentary (or caucus) representatives.
- Work out a preliminary draft. Appoint a bi-partisan committee (or interested party members) composed of those who have interest in the initiative law to put together the preliminary draft. Put this draft out for consultation and request formal opinions and proposed changes from related organizations and interest groups. On the basis of the feedback, revise the draft and send it to a national council (Caucus) for review and consideration.
- Debate the draft. In parliament, open the draft for debate (within the party, perhaps assign groups to openly debate the draft in a town hall format) and request a formal opinion to be compiled by each side to be presented alongside the original draft. Revise the draft according to the opinions gathered and resubmit for debate. Continue revising and resubmitting and if after three rounds of debate there are still differences seek to call an agreement conference comprised of members of each side to seek a compromise solution. Put the final solution to a national council vote.
- Seek open public feedback. For issues triggered by parliamentary (or caucus) representatives, make the law (party policy or position) subject to an optional referendum by setting a reasonable timeline (100 days?) for the people to petition for a binding referendum to be held on it. For issues triggered originally by petition, make a referendum a binding requirement. Ensure constitutional changes are binding to decision by referendum regardless of the source.
- If supported or unopposed put the new law into force. If 100 days pass without enough people petitioning for a referendum or a referendum being called and the majority approves it (or their is not enough turnout) then put the new law (policy or position) into force. If a referendum is held and the majority oppose it, scrap it.
The important factor is to provide a binding means for the public to start an initative and have it put to a referendum. This gives the people faith that they can require our leadership to address and resolve an issue by way of referendum. It also gives people the faith that any new law can be placed under the requirement to be put to a referendum. It also provides a valid process that can avoid the pitfalls of people simply petitioning for “free beer” or against any and all tax increases without consiquence while empowering any individual or group to feel like they have a say. Further it provides people a valid means to petition against a new law to which the people disagree with. Other requirements such as big budget expenditures crossing a certain threshold could also be required to be supported by way of a referendum. Such a structure would go a long way to offering “something genuinely new — an alternative WAY of government”. It'd be far more encouraging than a new name and new lead for the same old boring play.
Those interested in knowing more would be wholly encouraged to read the Guidebook to Direct Democracy, it is a relatively short read which covers the history, successes, implications and successful implementation of direct democracy in Switzerland.