Bermuda is slipping quietly into crisis.

That’s the view of PLP leadership contender Terry Lister who has cast himself as the ‘recovery candidate’ in next week’s election.

It’s a stance that puts him in a tricky position with voters.

How do you convince the party’s most hardcore supporters —the delegates who will vote in this election — that the country is in such dire shape after 12 years of PLP rule?

It’s a question that the real estate agent and accountant has skirted rather than confronted directly.

He talks about the future, not the past. He talks about himself, not the other candidates.

He talks about how Bermuda can get out of its billion-dollar debt hole, not how it got itself in.

When he talks about the reasons for the “crisis”, it’s global rather than local factors that he alludes to.

Mr Lister is keen not to be the divisive candidate. He won’t take shots at his leadership rivals or the current administration.

But he is clear on one thing; Bermuda needs a change from the status quo.

“I’ve gone out there with a message of hope to get Bermuda back on its feet in difficult times,” he told the Sun in an interview yesterday.

“The fact that we live in Bermuda is disguising the fact of how bad it is. We wake up every morning and the sun is shining. It’s hard to believe we are in trouble unless you are actually in trouble yourself.

“I say it is a crisis when at least 1,600 people are unemployed, I say it is a crisis when restaurants are seeking tax relief in August, I say it is a crisis when the construction industry slows to the extent that it has, when retail sales fall for 28 months in a row. It’s reached that point now.”

Mr Lister, the only one of the three PLP leadership contenders who consented to a full interview in the final week of the campaign, believes it is possible to come to those conclusions without dismissing or disrespecting the work of the party since 1998.

He insists international factors — such as the global recession — have been the biggest contributor to the current malaise.

But he is asking his party to recognize that the country is in a hole. And he is asking them to rethink notions of a succession plan and make their choice purely on who has the best recovery strategy.

“Choosing a leader is easy in good times — you can pick whoever you want for whatever reasons you want. In difficult times you have to stop and think, ‘who can work us through this? Who has the experience and the skills and the background to take us through this?’”

He is fighting the impression within the party that Paula Cox is the heir apparent. It’s been her race to lose from the start.

The Cox name rings out in the branches and throughout the grass roots of the party. Directly criticizing her would not be a sensible ploy.

But PLP sources tell that as Deputy Premier to Dr. Ewart Brown and Finance Minister it’s hard for Mrs. Cox to portray herself as an agent of change: That’s the role Mr Lister has sought to fill in this battle.

“If we are in a crisis, talking about our acheivements and what we did to get the country here is not going to help,” he said. “My focus is on tomorrow. Not what I’ve done in the past but what I am going to do in the future.”

National debt is one issue that raises contrasts between the two leading candidates. Mrs Cox, as Finance Minister, has presided over an $800million increase in Bermuda’s credit tab.

She points out that the debt burden — now tipping a billion dollars — is not that high in comparison to many other countries and considering Bermuda’s high GDP — a sign of the country’s wealth.

Bringing down debt

But for Mr. Lister, getting a handle on that debt and then starting to bring it down is crucial.

He’s aware that talking about problems, like national debt, may be seen in some circles as criticizing the party.

But he believes his campaign has not been divisive: “I haven’t said anything to bruise the feelings of my colleagues.

 “I’m not talking about the past, I’m asking them to think about what they want for tomorrow. I say we have a crisis in several areas and we have to get on it and address it at full tilt. November 2010 should be the busiest period of my life, trying to bring change to Government.

“Some of the other candidates might see November 2010 as the month after October 2010, that’s the real difference…”

If he wins, as he believes he will, Mr. Lister says he would be disappointed if Paula Cox and Dale Butler did not except positions in his Cabinet.

He believes there is too much talent and experience currently languishing on the backbenches. And he says he would seek to put together a team of rivals rather than a team of yes-men.

Differences of opinion and personality, he says, are not so entrenched that the different factions in this protracted contest are unable to work together.

He accepts his public assessment of the state of the country gives ammunition to the oppostion parties. But he says he welcomes it.

“If Kim Swan is a good politician he will remind me of what I’ve said in November and he will take every opportunity to remind me of it over the next few years. I want to encourage him to remind me of what I have said about how we are going to fix this.

“I invite that scrutiny, because what I want is to fix this.”