Owen to the Dems’ rescue?
Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur has pulled off a stunning political coup without lifting as much as a finger. Vilified over the years by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) that mockingly referred to him as “the great economist”, a seemingly desperate Freundel Stuart administration is now sending an SOS to Arthur to come to its rescue and lend his expertise to kick-start a chronically stagnant Barbados economy.
What an amazing “Road to Damascus” experience for the beleaguered Dems! The invitation to Arthur to head up a revamped Council of Economic Advisers, first made public in a Barbados TODAY exclusive on Monday, follows a dismal scorecard from the Central Bank of Barbados last week showing the economy had underperformed for yet another year.
Based on trends up to September, the gross domestic product (GDP), which measures total output of goods and services, is now expected to grow by a negligible 0.5 per cent, instead of one per cent as originally forecasted.
Who could have ever imagined, given the brutal character assassination of Arthur from the DLP platform during the 2013 general election, that a time would have come –– and so quickly at that –– when the Dems too would be “going with Owen”. Truly, to quote the well-known hymn, “the head that once was crowned with thorns, is crowned with glory now”. They will say, no doubt, that it was only politics –– yes, the outdated, exhausted politics which people around the world have grown sick of and are rejecting because of its irrelevance to their needs.
Like cricket, politics in some respects may be described as a game of glorious uncertainties. Because the future can be so unpredictable, politics sometimes has a baffling way of transforming persons previously despised into overnight heroes. A case where the stone which was once rejected, to borrow from the biblical narrative, becomes the chief cornerstone.
Arthur has to be smiling today. He has been vindicated, ironically, by the fiercest of his detractors. Their credibility now lies in tatters.
It is no secret that I had major difficulty with Arthur when he was Prime Minister during my turbulent tenure as editor of The Advocate. Because of an unfortunate but malicious case of name-carrying, he saw me, not as a journalist, but as a covert DLP operative strategically placed to stir up trouble for his administration. If he only knew back then the sources of the stories, which caused him so much anguish, were right within his own party.
The tension between us, which I tried to defuse but he refused, led to endless problems with The Advocate’s then Trinidadian owners and eventually contributed to my premature departure. While I naturally felt that he had treated me unfairly, I always quietly had a healthy respect for Arthur as a political tactician and as an effective manager of the economy, never mind my strident political criticism
Barbados prospered under his leadership and it gave me immense pride as a Barbadian when I travelled across the region to hear so many complimentary things being said about my beloved country.
In contrast today, I hear mostly unflattering things. As fate would have it, Arthur and I finally had a friendly conversation one afternoon in Worthing about a year ago. Listening to the explanation he gave, I finally understood why he reacted to me in the way he did. Were I in his position, I probably would have done the same. We are all imperfect
Spending two years at Codrington College taught me the beauty and value of forgiveness. The rift between us ended that afternoon. I happily buried the hatchet.
In contrast with Arthur’s 14 years as Prime Minister and Minister Of Finance which were indisputably bountiful years for Barbados, the last eight years under the Dems, especially the three since the last general election, have been a virtual nightmare. Initially, they said the global recession was to blame. However, long after it came to an end, the Dems kept on singing the same tune. While it is true that Barbados is an open economy vulnerable to external influences, the fact of the matter is that these can be mitigated, to some extent, by the Government making the right domestic policy responses.
Neighbouring economies also have to contend with the same external environment but are generally doing better than Barbados. The Dems clearly administered too much of the wrong medicine which they are reluctant to admit. It stabilized the patient but the harsh side effects are stifling the opportunity for a speedy recovery, which explains why growth is stubbornly hovering below one per cent.
The overall effect is that our economy today is at the 2008 level where output is concerned. Hence, the last seven years can be aptly described as lost years.
Knowing them as well as I do, the Dems’ SOS to Arthur comes across more as a painful admission that they lack the necessary expertise to fix the economic problem. It can also be seen as an attempt to win back private sector confidence which is critical for the economy to grow faster. Arthur inspires such confidence while Prime Minister Stuart and Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler sadly do not.
Barbados did not have to come to this sorry pass. While almost everyone recognized and agreed that some tough decisions had to be made, the problem we face today largely stems from the Government’s approach, especially its stubborn refusal to engage and level with the population on the critical issues. Whenever a government has to make tough decisions which require sacrifice, securing public buy-in is crucial for the success of the plan.
Were I providing political advice, I would have insisted that the Dems go to the people, place the options on the table and say: “This is the situation we face. This is what we propose to do. Tell us what you agree with and what you disagree with. Tell us, in the national interest, what are you willing to sacrifice?”
Barbadians are basically reasonable, patriotic people. The responses would have provided a sound basis for the development and implementation of a people-informed adjustment plan reflecting a national consensus.
If Arthur agrees to serve, an interesting question is what will be the future of Central Bank Governor Dr DeLisle Worrell. Arthur has been repeatedly critical of his performance as an economic policy adviser and has called for his removal. As it seems unlikely that they can co-exist, the Dems may be forced to make a hard choice.
Even if Arthur comes on board, a bigger political problem still remains. Arthur simply will be providing advice but de facto economic decision-making remains in the hands of Sinckler and ultimately Stuart who both do not inspire public confidence.
As I have said before, there is a symbiotic relationship between politics and economics. Fixing the economy, therefore, also requires fixing the political problem. From what I am sensing, I believe we have reached the point where only the people can now satisfactorily resolve this issue. The raison d’êre for electing a government is the delivery of solutions to major problems facing the people.
The incumbent DLP, especially post-David Thompson, has failed terribly in this regard. The only viable solution now is to go back to the people and let them decide in a free and fair election.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist.