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A pantry for our Cabinet!

Todays WomanI have found out the solution to all the ills my country has politically. Wait! Before you dismiss me, hear me out.

My son was looking for peanut butter the other day, and between other things I muttered to him it was in the cabinet. Boys are not known for their patience when they are hungry after school, so he got quite upset when he could not figure out what a cabinet was.

I told him the pantry; and peanut butter is now on this week’s shopping list because he certainly found it.

In that exchange with my son, which happened to be about a day after the Minister of Water Resources’ “Press conference”, I realized why governance in Barbados had broken down. Where the rest of the country, during our 50 years of maturity, had gone from larders to cabinets to cupboards to pantries, our Government was still depending on cabinets.

With the improvement of each type of food storage mechanism, we were better able to secure our food stores. It is amazing then, that we as a country are still willing to accept cabinet governance as we practise it to be the best model for our current circumstances.

There is no need at all in 2016 for a Minister of Water Resources to deliver a politically charged “Press conference” on the future planning of water resources or the management of our crisis. I would hope that a part of building a multimillion-dollar headquarters for the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) was an audit exercise to ensure the human capacity needed
to create a future plan for water resources was in the BWA’s employ.

I mean, you would have to know how many offices to build and what each office would need. The desk of a person whose job is to measure water levels may have the ability to tilt and accommodate maps, whereas such may not be needed for a person in the customer service department.

Since we know that professional engineers and specialists in areas such as geology, water management and the like do not come cheap, if a Press conference is to be held, I want to hear my fancy, well paid experts.

Perhaps I started from a point of jest this week; but, really, we know that our system of governance is problematic. What we seem to be less able to do is to fix the broken system. Labelling all politicians as “wutless” and resolving to stay home and not vote has got us the current Government we have; so let us try new things.

In 2008, we had started a national dialogue about problem areas in our governance such as integrity legislation, accountability and freedom of information. What we did not follow through on is some of the structural features of our governance model and how we would streamline those to have more effective management.

For example, the Cabinet system of Government has never been effective at separating political leadership of the Civil Service from administrative leadership. Although the permanent secretary carries a great deal of authority in how Government finances are expended, there is no real evidence that we hold them up to their responsibility or that there are penalties if discrepancies are identified. Everything falls upon the minister, and once his/her party loses the Government, accountability is impossible.

This system has led to millions of dollars of taxpayers’ resources not being used to the benefit of taxpayers. Rather than accounting officers across the public service using their power to create the necessary checks and balances we throw all the maleficence at the feet of politicians and continue on our merry way.

I am not for a minute saying politicians should not take blame for their actions; but, past the blame, how do we change the system of governance?

The “Press conference” given by the Minister of Water Resources Management was a step in the wrong direction. Ironically, the water crisis also throws up another interesting nuance in our current system of governance.

We as a nation have no idea how much of what we were told would be solutions to the water crisis will come to fruition. This is because there was no evidence the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Water Resource management were agreed on the money needed and where the funds would come from.

Additionally, the Ministry of Finance, for only the second time in our post-Independence governance history, is separate from Prime Ministerial power. This means that although the Minister of Water Resources and the Prime Minister may think of the water woes across the island as important, the Minister of Finance may choose to hold line in terms of meeting the desires of the International Monetary Fund and rating agencies to contain Government spending.

There is no reason why Prime Ministerial power and power over the Treasury must be vested in one and the same person. However, in our system, both practicality and practice make it expected. Where there is a split in power, Barbadians will have to choose carefully whom they want their political leadership to be entrusted to and whom they want their financial leadership to be entrusted to.

They also have to decide which of the two leaderships is more important. They also have to ask questions about emergency situations such as this water crisis and how a final decision is made, when the Prime Minister does not have purse string power.

We are hearing daily different mouthings from different ministers about the same issues. The idea of collective agreement has certainly been challenged under this Government.

I am not flagging that necessarily as a bad thing. I think it points us more to the fact that it is time to replace our Cabinet with a pantry.

The Prime Minister of Barbados noted that the people who were focused on the cost of the opening of our 50th anniversary celebrations knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing. I believe that the true value of our 50 years of self-rule is not concerts and wuk-up moments.

The true value of the reflection is to create a philosophical framework that can then be institutionalized into another 50 years of Government machinery. If we fete every week but do not contemplate these issues, what could the value of celebrating be?

(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.

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