Tale of two parties

It is once again good to be writing in Barbados Today and contributing to national debate on the state of socio-economic affairs in Barbados. From what I have been discerning, while it is unorthodox for a ruling political party to be subdued in its quest to retain the hold of government, it appears that the current DLP Administration is deceptively allowing the Opposition BLP to have an easy walk-in to the seat of governance in Barbados.

Disturbing for the Barbadian populace is a suppressed, if not limited, discussion emerging from the political centre of the ruling Democratic Labour Party. This is in stark contrast to the confident voices being heard in the Barbados Labour Party, especially on economic matters.

A set pattern of reasons are being given by the DLP’s supporters as to why Barbados appears stuck at one phase. On the one hand and at best, it is said that the DLP’s efforts have kept Barbados relatively steady under trying and difficult circumstances not of its making. DLP supporters are convinced of an inherited “bad hand” that was perhaps aggravated by disappointments possibly attributed to the previous administration.

On the other hand, there are broad, even if protracted outlines being sounded by the Opposition BLP and its supporters. The BLP together with other critics, apparently derived from all walks of life, are increasingly questioning the preparedness and capacity of the current DLP’s policymakers to accept and deal effectively with the challenges facing Barbados.

One may surmise that the partisan approaches are strategic, given the boiling political climate in anticipation of a date for the next general election. This state of affairs perhaps confirms CADRES’ view that a majority of the Barbadian electorate rests in a polarised cone of established voting patterns despite the certainty that floating or undecided voters are the real power brokers and hence will influence who governs Barbados by the middle of 2013.

My contention is that vital information is being withheld from public purview by the two major political parties in Barbados. In effect, the almost hushed and sometimes splintered retreat by the DLP’s current Cabinet ministers appears to explain that party’s failure to come good on almost 100 different promises contained in the DLP’s 2008 Manifesto. DLP enthusiasm has given way to the infamous, but only partially pardonable, line of the international recession.

Quite rightly, there is a cross-section of the Barbadian electorate that understands government is a continuance. Recognising this structural reality, does not take away from the fact that the BLP has not altogether cleared away lingering debris from either unfounded allegations or actual infelicities attributed to its 14 year period at the helm of government.

Taking the current phase of Barbados’ economic performances under the DLP-led administration into serious consideration, it does not appear that the goals of the Revised Medium Term Fiscal Strategy have reached the desired outcomes of the people or external agencies monitoring Barbados’ economy. The external agencies appear less confident judging from the scale and gravity of their downgrades and calls for swifter and more pronounced austerity measures.

Noteworthy is the November 2011 IMF’s Article IV Consultation Report indicating that: [The IMF] staff argued for the implementation of a comprehensive medium-term fiscal strategy, based on realistic macroeconomic assumptions as a lynchpin of a credible fiscal consolidation plan. In this context, the coverage of the authorities’ revised Medium Term Fiscal Strategy would have to be broadened to include public enterprises, a major source of rising debt. The revised MTFS needs to be supported by a long-term strategy to significantly reduce the debt level since debt levels of around 100 per cent of GDP pose unsustainable debt servicing risks.

In other words, the policy prescriptions implemented by the Barbados Government in the last couple of years, apart from being slow in coming or inadequate in substance, have reaped too few successes but may have increased pressures that those coming later will have to address.

Knee-jerk approaches to the economy can no longer allay the fears of Barbadians faced with rising debts and the long-term servicing of loans. Many of the proceeds have not necessarily gone directly into productive sectors but have rather been used to prop central government expenditures, provide subsidies to terminally ill state agencies, and provide ill-advised social entitlements at a time when government can least afford expenditure without earning commensurate revenues.

While echoing the fears of the Minister of Finance in the 2012 Budget presentation in which he stated that the DLP administration has to “strike a delicate balance between adjustment measures, growth interventions and defending the Barbados dollar against devaluation”, it becomes more damning the failure of clear and definitive steps being articulated by government for achieving growth in the economy as the country enters the general election mood.

If the electorate is saying that the current Administration is in retreat and appears to be drifting away from clasping the responsibility to govern, how then can Barbadians buy into Sinckler’s appeal that says “collectively everyone must, during this period of economic challenge, carry some of the burden of helping the country regain its footing”?

These words ought not to be taken lightly. I would be reluctant to advise Barbadians to endorse measures that are not being fully ventilated, discussed, and re-evaluated given their tremendous impacts on economy and society. Bajans are bemoaning the fact that everyday life in the country, economy or society, is significantly worse than they enjoyed in 2008.

The discussion here is not to say that the BLP should have unchallenged entry back into the seat of governance. Rather, one can say that BLP spokespersons on the economy have tended to keep matters of the economy at the forefront of discussion whilst attempting to regain the confidence of the electorate. This is a clear passage after having to recover from its internally inspired political tantrums and bouts of economic defensiveness.

With some mixed signals and having had its tail between its legs for what some perceived was arrogance and skewed comfort levels, the BLP appears to be re-emerging with an emphasis on the practicality of state divestments, asset-building, and economic reforms given the realities of the dynamic and transformational neo-liberal era characterised by privatisation and public-private ventures.

For the purpose of clarity, the term “privatisation of state assets” in its broad understanding connotes the divestiture, or transfer of ownership and/or operational control, of (usually) productive economic entities to private owners, operators and investors. The forms of privatisation are many, ranging from outright sale of government’s entire stake in commercial entities, to the partial sale, concessions, leases, and management contracts which were the state’s monopolistic reserve especially in the earlier years of independence when nationalised industries were seen to be viable protections for the state.

Indeed, the significance of the tenor emerging out of the BLP is suggesting that Barbados can do better through divestment of assets with the revenues redirected to the productive sectors in which yield can be forecasted. The BLP seems to be also suggesting that Barbados will require more than ever, firm and decisive leadership which, can collectively bring about necessary reforms, certainty, and confidence in terms of the investors (local and international), and in the wider economy and society.

Yet to a measured extent, the articulation of policy options and intentions by the BLP still falls short of many specifics that are necessary as Barbados continues into a “phase” of unprecedented and radical reforms regarding the size of its civil service, ownership and control of state assets, and the distribution of social welfare initiatives against the backdrop of imperatives calling for sustainable directions.

The BLP and advocates on both sides of the political spectrum appear to be guilty of hiding more than they are actually saying. There are numerous omissions and bits of misinformation that have become part of a political obsequiousness characterising Barbados at this time. This is notwithstanding that Barbados has reached a critical juncture in its national development wherein the country’s economic survival will necessitate urgent measures and administrative and market reforms that both parties have indicated, but are still ducking the debate.

Therefore, people-oriented development and the macroeconomic well-being of Barbados ought to be streamlined and discussed in public. The precise nature of necessary reforms ought to be debated as a priority before Bajans reach the date of the next general election.

Coupled with these concerns are questions on how best to position an emerging entrepreneurial group that will be wedged into a relatively non-aggressive local private sector; ultimately, new entrepreneurs will have to operate in a more competitive, liberalised, and internationalised market economy. Therefore, hard questions must now be asked of both major political parties by the electorate.

It is in the interest of all Barbadians that open and informed discussions take place. Generalisations at this stage of Barbados’ independence and relative maturity cannot be entertained. The performances of the political parties (in Government and Opposition) regarding their management and projected paths for Barbados must form part of the pre-election scrutiny.

Barbados has to be again innovative in finding the means for lowering the sky-rocketing cost of living, addressing the stagnated standard of living, overcoming the perilous path of increasing unemployment, and reclaiming a true sense of national development without the travesty of being pinned to externally driven austerity measures or possibilities for currency devaluation. Reforms by the political directorate (whichever side attains the governing mandate) will bring about profound changes.

To the extent that Barbadians are confident about the absence of rifts within the BLP’s leadership may boil down to conjecture and perception. However, if as one of the two contending heavyweights claim that “anyone who knows the two of us will know that he [Arthur] has strong views and I [Mottley] have strong views, but at the end of the day, we both recognise that we have a bigger duty to the country than we have to ourselves”, may be sufficient to indicate that the squalls have tempered, and have given way to professional behaviour capable of redirecting the emergence of Barbados from the woes of economic malaise.

Barbadians must be hopeful that the reforms deliver the types of beneficial outcomes that will improve the lot for all Barbadians. The state and all stakeholders must begin to openly discuss and debate the relevant issues of economic governance. Specific and “credible” plans for Barbados’ national development have to become public; the political parties must say how they intend to address the problems that are of foremost concern for Bajans.

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