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Opposition boycotts opening session of Bermuda's parliament

HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) -- Opposition lawmakers in Bermuda boycotted the opening of the island's parliament on Friday to protest planned government changes that could slash the number of seats in parliament and consolidate power of the ruling party.

The 14 United Bermuda Party (UBP) parliament members remained in the House of Assembly while Governor Thorold Masefield read out a Throne Speech on the Cabinet lawn in which the ruling Progressive Labour Party outlined its legislative plans for the year.

The opposition party has accused the government of failing to consult voters in the British overseas territory over plans to reduce the number of parliament members from 40 to an unspecified number, and introduce single seat constituencies.

After the Throne Speech, held outside as in the previous year to accommodate the public, opposition party members left the House of Assembly along Hamilton's picturesque harbor, leaving the government to begin the first parliamentary business of the new session in their absence.

It was the first time a Throne Speech has been boycotted since the governor of the colony began the tradition in 1968.

"This is not a game, it is a very serious thing and we are taking this issue very seriously," UBP leader Pamela Gordon said at a press conference afterwards.

"We are talking about democracy and the potential for dictatorship. Without the checks and balances we've had before in having a viable opposition, we are talking about the country turning into a dictatorship," she said.

Premier Jennifer Smith, leader of the ruling Progressive Labour Party, has rejected calls for a constitutional conference -- which has been held for previous constitutional changes -- or a referendum on the issue.

But Smith appeared to offer a compromise on Friday, announcing in the Throne Speech that a public meeting will he held to discuss the changes.

Smith in August announced that a Boundaries Commission comprised of parliament members, or MPs, from both parties will recommend the number of MPs and seats.

But the Premier would retain the right to amend the recommendations before they are presented to the House of Assembly for approval.

Gordon said the opposition party will continue to put pressure on the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, which must ratify the changes, to demand that proper consultation takes place.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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