There is a buzz in the camp of the Barbados Labour Party. And understandably so.
Suggestions on the ground indicate that they have a relatively good chance of wresting the government from the incumbent Democratic Labour Party.
But this is not written in stone, and a victory for the DLP in the next general election should not shock anyone.
Similarly, the mass eviction of the DLP from the seat of power should not provide consternation for their supporters. Such is the nature of politics.
But while there is justified optimism among the members of the Opposition BLP, there are several questions related to their tenure between 1994 and 2008 that remain unanswered and with which they will undoubtedly have to deal on the political platform before the populace entrusts the proverbial keys to the national treasury to them again.
Barbados has unquestionably benefited from excellent BLP and DLP political leadership, generally, but there have been massive mistakes, and to whom much is given, much is expected. Hence, accountability comes as par for the course.
In the early stages of his tenure, late Prime Minister David Thompson promised the Barbadian populace that all the details behind the failed Gems of Barbados and Greenland Landfill projects would be revealed for Barbadians to make their own judgements on how their tax dollars had been spent, or as he stated, squandered.
It is perhaps prophetic, that attempts to visit websites dealing with the Gems of Barbados project is met with a warning that: “visiting this web site may harm your computer.”
In the context of Opposition Leader Owen Arthur’s objection to the National Insurance Scheme investing in the stalled Four Seasons project, just how much “harm” did the estimated $400 million injected into Gems inflict on the Barbados economy?
Perhaps the Opposition’s objections to the NIS’ involvement in Four Season might have its genesis in the financial disaster that has been the Gems project. There are still unanswered questions with respect to the transparency of monies injected into the project. There are questions that the office of the Auditor General is still waiting to have clarified.
In 2010 then Minister of Economic Affairs, Dr. David Estwick, advised Thompson to sell off the remaining GEMS properties to ease strain on both the Government and taxpayers. During debate on a $9.014 million supplementary resolution, of which $3 million was earmarked to supplement GEMS parent company, Hotels and Resorts Limited, Estwick explained that the GEMS project had an accumulated debt of $229 million, while the estimated book value of the properties was only $74 million.
Estwick revealed that GEMS had also benefitted from $145 million worth of loans from the Government. He described the project as an “albatross” on the necks of taxpayers.
The St. Philip West MP charged that at a time of economic prosperity the Arthur Administration had still sold off Eastry House, Silver Rock and Worthing Court, and were looking for buyers for the Savannah Hotel, Time Out and the Hilton Hotel. Why, and what played out with these transactions?
And what about Greenland Landfill? Though the spending there pales into relative insignificance compared to the Gems investment, $70 million to $85 million is nothing at which to scoff. At least with the Gems fiasco, some hotels actually were up and running, even if heavily subsidised, and some were sold, but Greenland must arguably be the world’s most expensive landfill that never was.
What makes the spending there such a tragedy is that the project was carried out despite objections on environmental, economic and ecological grounds from experts, and from those with a very undervalued qualification — local knowledge.
Professor Hans Machel of the University of Alberta described the Greenland Landfill debacle thus: “Anyone who does not understand the reasons for the unsuitability of Greenland as a landfill is stupid, and anyone who denies these reasons is callous. These people just do not give a hoot about the environment, nor do they care about the welfare of Barbadians. All they care about is themselves. Barbadians will have to pay a very high price for this, and for generations to come.”
And there are questions of accountability at the National Housing Corporation, the Urban Development Commission, the National Conservation Commission, where millions of dollars were spent for jobs not completed and some never started. These have been chronicled in report after report from the Auditor General.
The current Opposition Leader once famously told the electorate that if there were any indiscretions, infelicities or mistakes committed by his regime, that he should be blamed since he was the Prime Minister. “Blame me,” he said. And most did, but not many asked for an accompanying explanation, clarification or accountability with respect to state funds.
Both the BLP and the DLP at some stage have fallen down in their accountability to the general public. We are still waiting for full ventilation from the DLP on CARSICOT decades after that scandal.
These are circumstances with which voters have lived, ignored or simply reconciled themselves to a situation where the political choices are limited.
But apathy is a dangerous thing. The people should always demand answers of their political leaders and hold them to account. It is not prudent to be satisfied with what has become a routine cycle of drowning in rhetoric while switching from one political institution to another.