The election is less than a month away but as yet, none of our local candidates have knocked on my door. Maybe they’ve done their homework and realised there is no point in canvassing someone who has lived on the Island for 30 years, owns a local business, is the father of a Bermudian child and pays taxes like everyone else but is still not permitted to vote in a democratic election.
It’s a pity they haven’t stopped by because I’d really like to hear what they think about the continued and unnecessary discrimination against long-term Residents and what their Government might do about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the few benefits that a Permanent Residency Certificate (PRC) gives me – for example, I can come and go as I please without needing a work or re-entry permit (albeit at the discretion of the Government) – but it falls woefully short of what most normal democracies would offer people in my position.
Without the right to vote and the absurd restrictions on buying property (more of which in a moment), PRCs are little more than second class citizens in the place that we and our children call home. In fact, we’re not even classed as full citizens in the same way that Bermudians and Status Bermudians (long-term residents who received citizenship up to the 1980s or obtained it through 10 years of marriage to a Bermudian) are – yet to even qualify for a PRC I had to have been on the Island before August 1, 1989, lived here for 20 years, and be over 40 years of age.
Between us, my wife (also a PRC) and I have 56 years residency in Bermuda, so our commitment to the Island is not in doubt – in fact I have lived here longer than I lived in my native UK – so why should we not have a democratic say in affairs that affect the lives of our family?
Take the property issue, for example. For the privilege of buying an already extortionately priced home (an average home is still around the $1 million mark) a PRC must pay a 25% license fee. For a condo, this discriminating “expat tax” is 18%. Any property I buy must have an annual rental value of $63,000 (basically the top 10% of the real estate market) and I am not permitted to sub divide it or rent any part of it out. It means that property is out of reach for all but the wealthiest PRCs.
As I understand it, the original rationale for all this was to show the international community that they acknowledged long-term residents needed some protection but – because of the size of the Island and its population – wanted to avoid the prospect of having to grant automatic status to the children of PRCs and to ensure that Bermudians would not be priced out of the more affordable end of the real estate market.
Surely this rationale has served its purpose. To continue to deny PRCs full status seems to me to be not only morally and ethically wrong but economically short-sighted. As the economic situation continues to worsen and the real estate market tanks, it is surely in Bermuda’s best interest to put PRCs on an equal footing with Bermudians.
Allowing PRCs to buy even one property without restrictions would surely act as a much-needed stimulus to the island’s economy. What would be lost in Government tax revenue would instead filter into the economy through construction work, cleaners, landscapers, and other service providers. I have no figures on how many PRCs have forked out the license fee but I know there are plenty of others like my wife and I who refuse to pay it on principle and have instead invested money in property overseas. If the restrictions were lifted, many of us would be only too happy to stop paying rent and put down some real roots.
Former Premier Sir John Swan and commentator (and former PLP official) Larry Burchall suggested exactly this in their recommendations for Regeneration of Bermuda’s Economy. As they put it: “PRC holders are told that they can reside in Bermuda until they die, but yet are restricted from having a house to die in. Allowing them to purchase a home would be the right thing to do and again translate into Government and private sector revenue … In qualifying to become a PRC holder the individual has already made a contribution to Bermuda. Therefore, when they are allowed to purchase a home they should not have to pay a high purchase tax.”
What has Bermuda got to lose? According to the latest available Labour Market Indicator figures (May 2012), there are 829 PRCs out of a population of 69,000. The very nature of PRC eligibility dictates that that number is finite. It will decrease as we die off, retire to more affordable locations or lose our jobs due to the recession. I know several PRCs who simply decided that Bermuda is too expensive to be worth the effort and have left the Island.
When the PRC was created in 2002, the now defunct Coalition for Long term Residents, stated in a position paper that the “poorly-defined PRC does little more than eliminate the periodic nuisance of acquiring work permits. It grants little beyond this in terms of additional rights to Long Term Residents and is structured so as to permanently relegate LTR’s to the position of second-class non-citizens.”
It’s about time for a change. There might even be a few votes in it for the party that does the right thing.