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Gritty common sense

Bishop Dr John Holder’s recent intervention in the national discussion about the economy of Barbados is to be greatly welcomed and commended. The learned Bishop of Barbados and Archbishop of the West Indies lifted the voice of the Christian church of Barbados above its usual immersion in such “safe” and traditional issues as the denunciation of homosexuality and sexual licence.

And, in so doing, Bishop Holder has placed himself in a local Anglican tradition of informed clerical social commentary that goes back to Bishop Mitchinson’s 1869 denunciation of the prejudiced and narrow minded Barbadian ruling class of his day, and that encompasses Bishop Hughes’ similarly trenchant farewell sermon of 1950, and in more recent times, the courageous and erudite interventions of Dean Harold Crichlow and Rev. Charles Morris.

In his message to the Anglican church’s annual Synod, Bishop Holder commended our Government for keeping public sector workers employed and declared that we must not sacrifice the welfare of the needy on the altar of some perceived model of economic efficiency. He also observed that the current economic crisis should spur our people to tap into the “reservoir of gritty Barbadian common sense”, and recommended that there be a collective and inclusive national search for solutions to the current crisis.

Like Bishop Holder, I too believe that the current crisis requires us to tap into the “reservoir of gritty Barbadian common sense”, and one of the things that the application of such “gritty common sense” will tell us is that while we must adhere to Bishop Holder’s injunction to preserve the jobs of public servants, we should, at the same time, also recognise that our Government cannot persist indefinitely with a budget in which its annual expenditure so far outstrips its annual revenue that it is forced to borrow money on a monthly basis to pay the salaries of its employees! That scenario is a sure recipe for disaster!

Our “gritty Barbadian common sense” should therefore tell us that we need to restructure Government’s budget to bring its expenditure more in line with its revenues, while at the same time not jettisoning the jobs of public servants.

Indeed, our gritty common sense should have told us that we needed to do this at least five years ago, and that the longer we postpone the making of these difficult but necessary decisions, the deeper is the economic hole we are digging for our economy and nation.

The sad truth is that neither late Prime Minister David Thompson nor current Prime Minister Freundel Stuart exhibited the type of pro-active, decisive leadership that was (and still is) demanded by the economic crisis.

Let us delve into history to take a look at how a real leader who, having come to power in a profound recessionary situation and with a government budget running massive deficits, dealt with such a scenario. The leader I refer to is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the US.

Roosevelt was sworn into office on March 4, 1933, at the height of the 1930s “Depression”. But he wisely came to office armed with a broad and comprehensive programme to stimulate and rebuild the American economy. And integral to this programme of economic stimulus was a policy to bring the Government’s budget into an acceptable balance between annual income and expenditure!

Within a week of taking office Roosevelt sent the following message to Congress: “For three long years the Federal Government has been on the road to bankruptcy… The growing deficit has increased economic stagnation…, national recovery requires the government’s credit to rest on a solid foundation, and that requires the budget to be balanced.”

Roosevelt attached to his message a “Bill to Maintain the Credit of the United States” and used this new law to consolidate government programmes and to reduce government spending across the board. The two major items of government expenditure that he targeted were public service salaries and the bloated benefits of war veterans.

Roosevelt cut all government workers’ salaries by 15 per cent and he scaled back the elaborate array of entitlements enacted for war veterans since World War I. It should be noted that Roosevelt led the way himself, with a cut in his salary from $90,000 to $75,000!

Having placed his government’s finances on a secure footing (without having dismissed any public servants), Roosevelt moved immediately to initiate an array of stimulus measures — guaranteed payments to farmers, refinancing of farm mortgages, a public works programme for the unemployed, massive industrial and other development in the Tennessee Valley, renovation of the railways and the list goes on.

When is Stuart and his Cabinet going to lead the way with a voluntary salary cut? When are they going to determine that senior public servants can drive modest Toyotas or Subarus in place of expensive BMWs?

When are they going to seriously consult the government workers about cutting unnecessary programmes and scaling back expenditure? When are they going to launch a national programme – beginning in the public service – for cutting down on electricity usage and on other sources of foreign exchange expenditure? When are they going to ask the class of truly wealthy Barbadians to make a greater contribution to the pool of tax revenues?

In short, when are they going to get serious about saving Barbados from a looming disaster?

* David Comissiong is president of the Peoples Empowerment Party

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