Bermuda politics: Under starter's orders: Bermuda's leadership race


The confrontational bombast of Bermudan premier Ewart Brown is shortly to come to an end, much to the relief of international business on the island. Matthew Taylor reviews the candidates to succeed him.

When a departing politician urges people to measure his success by the enemies he has made then cynics can be forgiven for suspecting his list of real achievements is rather shorter.

That is the view of most of Bermuda's business chiefs, who are not alone in growing weary of the confrontational approach boasted by retiring premier Ewart Brown.

His four-year term has been fraught with bitter clashes with the governor, the unions, the media, the auditor general, the civil service and most of his own party. In June 2009, three cabinet ministers quit over his unilateral decision to take in four ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoners without consulting the UK, sparking a diplomatic row between the UK and the US. Thankfully, all three challengers now vying for the leadership of the Progressive Labour Party have promised a calmer approach and have pledged to dial down the racial rhetoric in an increasingly tense island.

The new leader, who will be chosen at the PLP annual conference at the end of October, will have plenty on their plate. A turf war that blew up last May among drug gangs in the capital, Hamilton, has seen 42 people shot, 11 of whom died. Business, which has borne more than its fair share of recent anti-white animosity, has had its payroll tax increased as government debt has soared.

Brown's most likely successor is Paula Cox, deputy and finance minister, who has promised more listening and less drama. That would certainly be in character for the reticent and cautious Cox, who has many admirers in international business for her pragmatic approach behind the scenes. Yet there was fury about the payroll tax rise in Cox's February budget as the government scrambled to recoup cash following a spending spree that has seen public debt rise from $240m, when Brown took over in 2006, to $764m at the end of 2009-10.

Conflicting tales
Cox has argued that the actual net-debt-to-GDP ratio is 12.7% and is manageable for a small country with gross domestic product of around $6bn. Nevertheless, she was forced to raise $500m in a public bond in July but has since promised to pay off $210m of debt by the end of 2016. As finance minister for the last six years, few have been impressed by her assertion that she was only a cog in the wheel while spending soared.

Her main rival for the job, Terry Lister, is basing much of his campaign on the need for fiscal discipline. Lister, a Cabinet veteran who quit last year at the height of the Gitmo Bay four controversy, fears government debt could hit $1.3bn by 2014 and so has pledged a review of capital spending to see which projects can be postponed.

Lister, a former partner at accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, also attacked overuse of government consultants at a cost around $100m in the island's last budget. Lister believes the hike in payroll tax introduced by Cox in the last budget has hurt business and wants to reverse it, providing he can make savings in other areas.

Lister has never been finance minister but has done virtually every other job in government since the PLP was first elected in 1998: he has worked in labour, home affairs and public safety; education; and works and engineering. Expressing concern about the 7% cut in international business jobs last year, Lister has vowed to address unhappiness among businesses leaving the jurisdiction as he promised to "dust off the welcome mat and start over". He also said it would not always be possible to accept demands for multiple work permits.

Some of those in business who are warming to Lister might be accused of having short memories. A deep thinker whose temper can sometimes get the better of him, Lister took a hard-line on work-permit term limits during his spell as labour minister. He is now suggesting reintroducing the Workforce Equity Bill, which would introduce heavy fines for companies blocking the progress of blacks. That bill, which was tabled in parliament in 2007 but never enacted, would have given a government-appointed body powers to fine companies up to $50,000 if they had failed to set up policies to ensure that black Bermudans achieve "a degree of representation in each occupational group in the employers' workforce that reflects their representation in the Bermuda labour force". Black Bermudans make up 47% of Bermuda's workforce but occupy few of the top jobs in international business.

The last of the three leadership contenders is Dale Butler, a former teacher who joined the cabinet in 2003 when he took on the low-key community affairs and sport minister portfolio. He was moved to head the newly recreated social rehabilitation ministry in 2006 but resigned in protest at Brown's leadership style last year.

Butler has pledged to introduce a whistleblowers act and investigate allegations of corruption if he becomes the leader of the country, although he cited no specific examples of anything needing investigating. He has also vowed to carry out a review of national debt and set up a referendum bill to seek public opinion on marijuana decriminalisation, independence, conscription and gambling.

None of the candidates looks likely to begin a push for independence - a long-held PLP goal - given the unpopularity of the issue among the wider public.

Butler has made the most explicit pitch to heal racial divisions, even offering to work with white establishment figures such as opposition MPs John Barritt and Grant Gibbons. Yet Butler suspects that sentiment will help win over the majority of the 150 or so PLP delegates who will pick the new leader at the conference starting on 27 October 27.

Yet, Butler could well pick up the deputy premiership amid the fallout and help engender a more peaceful political climate throughout the country; it is sorely needed, says John Weale, chief financial officer of Catalina Holdings. For Weale, who has been working in reinsurance in Bermuda for 27 years, the atmosphere in the last four years under Brown had been the worst he has ever known it.

"Generally, the whole tone of the leadership of the country needs to be different; it sets the tone for the rest of the country. A less confrontational approach from government leaders is certainly something a lot of people are hoping for.

"The overall level of communication between government and international business which has always been pretty good seems to have slipped a little bit over the last year or so. We have also seen the payroll tax debacle."

No wonder Weale is looking forward to change at the top. For him, crime and education are big issues but he is also keen to see government spending brought under control. International business needs more educated Bermudans as staff said Weale, though the island's failing education system will only increase the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Weale thinks former teacher Butler would have the background to improve standards in schools while Lister could be useful in tackling government debt. He adds: "I guess we have seen over the last 12 months that Cox is not necessarily the right person to be addressing government spending or the growing debt issue because obviously all that has happened under her watch.

"Her expression about being a cog-in-the-machine was not received very well by a large cross-section of the island, including international business."

Yet Cox has her supporters. Former IPC Re head Jim Bryce has seen plenty of Cox over the years and likes what he sees: "She truly has a concern about business. She is somewhat quiet but once you get to know her she is a very good person. She is not only friendly but helpful.

"She's becoming more of a gem as she has become polished over time."

Her softly spoken manner has been mistaken for diffidence but Bryce said: "She's certainly no push-over if you get to know her. She's the very opposite."

For many observers, it is not just about who is captaining the team but also who will be in it and where will they play. Who, for instance, will take on the finance portfolio? It would be little surprise if it remains with Paula Cox should she win the leadership because she has precious few options.

After 12 years in power, the PLP is running short of talent at the top. The two cabinet members most suited to taking the job, attorney General Kim Wilson and labour minister David Burch, sit in the senate and are constitutionally barred from the job as such.

Few other PLP politicians take an interest in economic issues, which will likely mean that Cox could be forced to repeat the feat of United Bermuda Party leader David Gibbons, who was both premier and finance minister during the 1980s.

It would certainly make sense because Cox, who has kept a job as corporate counsel for Ace throughout her stint as finance minister, certainly knows international business inside out. She has built up key contacts in Washington in governmental annual diplomatic trips designed to convince US lawmakers that Bermuda is not a tax haven.

As Brown prepares to leave office this month with personal approval ratings of barely more than 20%, the polls show that he has not done lasting damage to his party's fortunes.

One-party race
The new leader will inherit a sizable parliamentary majority and Cox has reportedly ruled out seeking out a fresh mandate before Christmas. She can hold off until early 2013 if she deems it necessary.

Whenever the election comes, the PLP looks odds-on favourite to romp home to its fourth successive general election victory, facing opposition in disarray, its benches now split between the United Bermuda Party and the fledgling Bermuda Democratic Alliance, which was formed by ex-UBP members fed up with the party's inability to shake off its white establishment image.

Yet, among the wider electorate, the PLP has plenty to do to bolster its image after the self-inflicted turmoil of the Brown years.

One senior business figure, speaking anonymously, said: "Everyone is looking forward to a change. People would like to see someone more conciliatory in the top position, someone less prone to making inflammatory comments. That doesn't just apply to the person at the top but those around him or her. Business will hope that fewer of these outbursts will be tolerated from others in government."

Whoever wins has plenty to do, said the source. "Business knows Paula Cox and has worked well with her but was certainly taken by surprise earlier this year by the payroll tax hikes: the government lost a lot of credibility for that. There's a repair job to be done with international business; there's work to be done in restoring confidence."

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