Friday’s Throne Speech provided the broad strokes of our plans for the year ahead. Over the next two weeks, ministers will set out the details of the critical elements of the Government’s strategy for social renewal and economic recovery.
In conversation recently, I was asked how difficult economic recovery would be even without the pandemic. It was an excellent question, the answer to which is both frustrating and ironic. Without the coronavirus, the two most debilitating factors impacting the pace of our recovery and our ability to continue to help people by delivering on our promises are the $185m guarantee for Caroline Bay and the minimum revenue guarantee payments for the new airport terminal.
This is frustrating because imagine what we could achieve with the in excess of $35 million that we have been forced to pay to Skyport to date; imagine what leverage and capacity we would have to help the people of this country to advance our projects if our balance sheet wasn’t impacted by the cost of the Morgan’s Point guarantee, which has now reached almost $200m for a failed real estate development.
Even without the coronavirus, the previous administration left us with enough financial woe that renders our public health situation direr. And, it is especially frustrating as both of those projects, the guarantee and the deal with the airport, were not supported by this party when we were in opposition.
Make no mistake; the pandemic has slowed our progress. The ambitious agendas of 2017 and 2020 have been curbed by the need to ensure people did not go hungry and to deliver essential assistance that so many people have needed over the past 20 months. Our mission may have been interrupted, but it is unchanged. The people are at the core of all that we do, and the economic recovery that is the core of our plans for Bermuda will promote the social renewal and the community development we need.
Before I elaborate on some of the initiatives in this year’s throne speech, I would like to provide an update on the items contained in last year’s throne speech. Last year, the initiatives for the Cabinet Office included increased capital development expenditure, moves towards a Bermuda Digital Bank, developing an ecosystem for technology companies through a Bermuda-based incubator, and modernising Bermuda’s intellectual property legislation.
The Cabinet Office has executed our promise to support capital development projects which provide jobs for Bermuda and much-needed improvements to local infrastructure, including our local community and sporting clubs. To date, the Cabinet Office has awarded just shy of $1 million in capital development grants to twenty-one (21) local clubs to assist in repairs to their facilities, from the installation of new roofs to replacing electrical infrastructure to complete renovations of clubhouses.
These projects have used local contractors, electricians, painters, and more. In addition to the Economic Stimulus Program under the Ministry of Public Works, this initiative has meant that more Bermudians and more small and medium-sized local businesses have benefited from this Government doing what we pledged to do.
Moving on to the Bermuda Digital Bank. A business plan has been completed for the Bermuda Digital Bank. The extensive plan contains recommendations that can be implemented in the near term to enable better competition in local banking before the introduction of a Bermuda Digital Bank. The Government and the BMA are now reviewing the business plan and the proposals for open banking to determine the next steps.
Cabinet’s Economic Development Committee has now considered a draft report on the development of a tech hub and tech ecosystem for Hamilton. The report focuses on growing the existing strengths of Bermuda’s insurance and reinsurance model through technology. The Bermuda Business Development Agency will play a pivotal role in accelerating the development of this initiative and identifying those business stakeholders who will likewise be part of this transformative effort.
Moving on to Intellectual Property. Intellectual Property is an evolving and complex area. Legislative priorities have, in this past year, been focused on other areas, and we are working towards introducing amendments to Bermuda’s Intellectual Property laws during the upcoming summer session of the House of Assembly. These changes will position Bermuda to again lead in this area. Significant revenue stands to be generated by this modernised regime, and so this too must be advanced in line with our economic recovery plan.
Moving on to this year’s Throne Speech. It is important to note that this year’s Throne Speech, there are not many grand new promises from the Government but a steady focus on executing the commitments we have made to the people of Bermuda.
Let me start with tourism. Bermuda’s economic recovery will also be driven by a tourism recovery. Global tourism has suffered due to the pandemic, and economies are struggling to regain the consumer attention and confidence necessary to renew leisure and business travel. This period of uncertainty presents a unique opportunity for change. The opportunity is more than changes in border policy or COVID testing policy. Ending or reducing those restrictions is essential, but those are short-term solutions to longer-term systemic issues.
As the Minister responsible for tourism, I have a duty, on behalf of the people of Bermuda, to challenge the Bermuda Tourism Authority to do the best they can do with the $22m of direct taxpayer funding that they receive annually. The independence they enjoy does not translate into an absence of accountability. The same is true of any entity that receives public money.
The Throne Speech speaks to the necessity for the leadership in tourism policy to be provided by the Government. That leadership must start with openly confronting what the numbers are telling us. The cruise portion of this tourism economy has been increasing without the parallel success required for land-based guests whose presence supports many hardworking families working in Bermuda’s hotels. The cruise economy is important, but Bermuda’s formula for tourism success demands greater emphasis on those leisure travellers who come to stay on-Island.
The question then is how do we use our strengths to grow the tourism economy, and what change must we deliver to make the difference in today’s crowded tourism marketplace? All of this is against the backdrop of historic, pent-up demand for leisure travel. We know what we have: beauty, safety, and proximity to core markets. Those factors alone are not enough to tip the scales in our favour. Those strengths must be joined with the additional factors that will allow us to become the luxury destination we claim to be genuinely.
We lack the social and lifestyle proposition that converts natural beauty and location into a “must visit” destination. When we produce events or partner with firms, whether local or overseas, we must do so with the aim of working with those whose social reach is the tipping point in today’s leisure traveller’s decision-making.
One travel expert unpacked what made some exotic gathering places so successful – They made the case that no matter how spectacular the settings, it was the social hub nature of the destinations; the social confluence of those who made it the place to be that made the difference.
This is not a new thing for Bermuda. We used to be the “belle of the ball” for those very same reasons, but that edge was lost, and it must be regained. The audience has changed, and to our credit, we are starting to play a different tune – but there is a long way to go. So, yes, this is a challenge, but it is not an impossible one. The unique opportunity presented by post-pandemic travel must be seized.
The Throne Speech set out the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation’s invaluable contribution to the ongoing effort to empower Bermudians in business. In the last 20 months, the BEDC has provided $5.1 million in assistance to 287 businesses.
This core function is set to be enhanced with amendments to their Act which will modernise the BEDC and set the stage for the long-awaited redevelopment of North Hamilton. By extending the boundaries of the North Hamilton Economic Empowerment Zone, other historical and key sites in the area will benefit from the BEDC’s work. Approved Residential Schemes are already provided for in law, and there will be a concerted effort to direct investment to these areas that have previously been neglected following the approval of the North East Hamilton plan.
The BEDC is both an advocate and advisor on behalf of small and medium-sized businesses. I will be working with the BEDC’s Board and its dedicated staff to determine how that expertise can be deployed to support the Island’s communities of faith, Houses of Worship, and the 3rd Sector. Some churches and charities are struggling.
The same people who the pandemic has impacted are the core of these institutions, and those donors who have historically supported them have reduced capacity to do so. During curfews and shelter-in-place, many congregations drew strength from broadcasts and other new forms of outreach. The dedication of these sectors must be respected and sustained. Working together, we can help them navigate these times and, like other entities in receipt of assistance, emerge stronger.
In closing, there have been five general elections in this young century. In four of them, the people of Bermuda have made a clear choice that it is this Government that should be entrusted to lead this country. Tomorrow is the 23rd anniversary of the first time the people took that momentous step, in 1998.
Constitutional reform was signalled in that era also, and unsurprisingly, the same criticism then is being levelled now. But it bears remembering that this Government is one whose actions in bettering the Bermuda Constitution brought an end to the unfair parish-based system where votes in Paget were worth more than votes in Warwick and ushered in the decades overdue change of one man or woman one vote, each vote of equal value.
So, a decade on, we must review and revise laws related to public access to information, strengthen privacy laws, and, yes, reform our Constitution.
The Attorney General was to join me this morning, but as she is not here – she will be doing a press conference later this week, and I will defer questions dealing with the issue of constitutional reform and Public Access to Information reform to her as she is best positioned to speak to the specific issues.
The Throne Speech spoke to the imperative for change and how changes deferred are now an imperative for survival. We cannot stand still, as a Government or as a country. We must adapt, be bold, and collectively take ownership of building a better future for Bermuda. If we wish to see that better future, then our work for change must continue and be a unified effort amongst all Bermudians.
The change in which we must all participate will lead to success in our economic recovery. The change in which we can all play a part will renew our communities and restore hope to our young people, dignity to our families, and continued comfort to our seniors.
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