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Judicial CP - August 1996

Bermuda Sun, 30 August 1996

Edness gets tough

Public Safety Minister Quinton Edness says Bermuda is under attack - and needs to fight back: 'I'm not going to sit back and let my country be overtaken by criminals.'

By Tony McWilliam

GOVERNMENT'S law and order supremo yesterday explained his new get tough stance amid what he sees as a rising tide of lawlessness and public fear.

Quinton Edness says Bermuda has gone too soft and it will take a return to discipline -- instilled by the birch and hard labour for prisoners -- to prevent the island's delicate economy from being snuffed out.

The Labour, Home Affairs and Public Safety Minister has dominated headlines in recent weeks with his calls for corporal punishment for criminals and tough action against drink-drivers and road hogs: He even railed against street beggars, suggesting they go out and find jobs.

It seemed to indicate a sharp lurch to the right for the UBP veteran, who has always been seen as a moderate, even a little left of centre.

"I'm still a liberal," he insists. "But when my country is under attack, when my people's lives and welfare are being threatened, my positions have to change.
"I'm not going to sit back and let my country be overtaken by criminals."

Mr. Edness insists he has not traded his compassion for the populist vote, and reasserts his commitment to a slew of measures which he says prove he is still a liberal at heart: The birch alone is not the answer, and Government and the entire community has to dig at the roots of the island's social ills.

He is angered, however, by what he sees as a proliferation of street crime: Teens robbing teens, ever-growing gangs intimidating neighbourhoods, drug pushers (who even when arrested make bail too easily and get immediately back to business), purse snatching and arbitrary violence.

"Our society is changing, like the rest of the world, and if I have said things recently that make me seem as though I have changed from a liberal to something else, it's because of the dangers that I see coming down the road."

The minister attributes his hybrid of liberal and conservative positions to his blue collar family background and his personal experience in the business world. He is anti-abortion and anti-death penalty, and, until recently, has been anti-corporal punishment.

Maybe, he suggests, Judge Stephen Tumim's sparing approach to punishment has been "misinterpreted by us all," with the result that parents and teachers now fear that physical discipline is an offence.

In a previous era, offenders were birched and it straightened them out for life, he said; now, Mr. Edness fears, unruly youngsters are progressing from petty theft to serious assaults, robberies and even murder.

"There is a difference between applying the birch as a disciplinary measure as opposed to using it arbitrarily in a violent, aggressive act," he said.

No one has shown proof that birching begets violence and makes recipients angrier, he added.

Can you advocate the birch and still call yourself a liberal? "Yes, because I feel punishment for bad behaviour is essential."

But why does the minister display an aversion to the label 'conservative?' "If some of my revised positions characterize me as a more conservative person, then so be it -- I can't get too excited about that."

Birching, he says, must be augmented by "early intervention" programmes: Counselling for parents, advising young women -- and men -- on how to avoid unwanted pregnancies, job training, supporting dysfunctional and poor families: "It takes resources, but we must recognize as a society that early intervention costs far less than the end result."

Mr. Edness still believes in rehabilitation for prisoners, but with a twist: They should be out in the community doing hard work, painting and fixing up old people's homes, building -- giving something back to the tax payers who fork out $45,000 a year to keep each prisoner locked up. "Everyone in this country works hard," he said. "Why shouldn't prisoners?"

Last week the minister was urging the public not to give money to beggars on the streets.

He says it feeds a culture of dependency: Beggars already pester tourists on Front Street and it won't be long, he fears, before it becomes "an industry" and we get beggars on the beach.

"My great fear is that it doesn't take very many crimes against tourists, or bad accidents on the roads, for those countries which we depend upon for our living to view us in a negative way and issue an advisory against coming to Bermuda. If that happens, our economy is gone."

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� Colin Farrell