Unless we have missed the boat completely, it is absolutely clear that this issue of privatisation of state enterprises will continue to be a major factor in political discourse until Prime Minister Freundel Stuart calls elections.
Unfortunately, while we have welcomed this type of debate, what it has now turned into is a naked partisan political argument that has been reduced to whether or not workers are going to be sent home.
No reasonable person would welcome the loss of jobs, particularly at this time when avenues for re-employment are so limited, but to reduce the issue to just this is to do a disservice to the entire country — the employed and unemployed.
We also believe it is wrong to paint a picture of privatisation on a canvass of “de country broke and we have to sell off some state enterprises to obtain money”. Privatisation at this time ought to be primarily about efficiency, particularly since the most of the real money-making ventures have already been sold anyway.
We understand the fears that would be attendant in any plan by a government to divest itself of the Sanitation Service Authority, for example, but how can you put an entity like the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in the same category. What is the social good provided by the CBC?
The politicians leading the privatisation debate are largely now pandering to the politically brainwashed or naive. We wish, for example, that when Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler worked himself into a frenzy in the House of Assembly yesterday, he had taken the opportunity to be more educationally methodical and less nakedly partisan in his approach.
We would all have been better served if he had advanced some sound arguments why the state should hold on to these entities, perhaps showing where the private sector had failed in the past, or where history had shown that “social” services suffer when profits take centre stage.
Instead, we were left with the impression that as long as the Barbados Labour Party says sell, the Democratic Labour Party will say no. It matters not if selling is the sensible thing to do!
How else can you explain comments from the minister such as: “We are not going to go on a privatisation picnic, it will not happen under this Democratic Labour Party…
“Those who have packed their picnic baskets with the SSA and the (Barbados) Water Authority, and CBC, they can unpack them, we are not going on that picnic, there is no privatisation scenic ride in Barbados — it is not going to happen.
“We ain’t selling old buses to employees, we are not ravishing the Barbados Water Authority, and we definitely are not going anywhere near the Sanitation Services Authority, that is not our remit. Whoever draft that can keep that policy.”
It is that kind of talking that allows those who manage the Transport Board to comfortably spend $70 million in diesel annually, with never a public discussion on alternative units, fuels or transport modes. After all, the Treasury is just around the corner.
It is that approach that has left us guessing for nearly two decades about whether the BWA actually spills half of the water it extracts and pumps each day at horrendous cost. After all, the Treasury is just around the corner.
Because of words like those, the CBC can settle wages negotiations with the Barbados Workers Union to pay workers increased money the corporation never had. After all, the Treasury is just around the corner.
Again, we thought privatisation was about efficiency!
In fact, we would be so bold as to say that had these entities been covering their costs there would be no discussion about selling them. And while we readily admit that some of these agencies provide critical social services for which the state should be expected to pay, at least for certain sectors of the society, there is no law to say that because the state has to pay, it must also be the provider.
We also ask why the privatisation discussion has to be cast in such a way that it suggests an automatic divestment of the entire entity? If we accept that it is in the best interest of the country at this time to have Government own and operate the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, why should it automatically mean that every service dispensed there must be provided by the state?
Is there any utility, for example, in Government allowing the private sector to add an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art wing to provide all diagnostic services, for which the state pays as the population uses? It may turn out that such an approach is more expensive and therefore not acceptable, but shouldn’t the discussion at least take place? We may end up with an even more efficient alternative!
What we are certain about is that no meaningful discussion will take place when those who lead stake their platform on a “no privatisation scenic ride”.