We suspect that while most Barbadians who listened to the presentation of the Budget by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler last Tuesday understand the gravity of the situation facing the country and that action had to be taken to bring the country’s fiscal position back on track, they, like us, are still uncertain of how these measures will play out.
We expect therefore that over the next few months individual ministers and department heads will turn the abstract into concrete action and Barbadians generally will start to form a clearer picture in their minds.
What there can be no doubt about, however, is that almost $200 million in spending cuts by Government cannot be implemented without some pain — however that pain is defined.
Thinking Barbadians, and workers in the public sector must therefore be feeling some measure of unease, when they consider that, for example, the Transport Board is getting $15 million less, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital $35 million less and the Sanitation Service Authority $30 million less. These are agencies with the chronic complaint that they don’t have enough money to begin with, to execute their mandate. We are in no doubt that they can all be considerably more efficient, and that improving on efficiency will save money. What we are not so sure about is that an agency like the Transport Board can do what it is now doing with $15 million less by “improving efficiency”.
Perhaps the weakness in the Government’s programme as announced so far has been taking privatising off the table, since the option, however defined, could make a difference in how the board succeeds in these strained financial times. But maybe we are misreading the situation and the cuts are in fact a backdoor approach to partial privatisation.
As far as we are concerned, the same way the Government can enter arrangements with the private sector to build and maintain roads in the current situation, there is no sin in the Transport Board being given a mandate to lease buses that are more fuel efficient and better suited for plying routes with smaller commuter demand, for example, or even giving up some routes wholesale to private operators — but under very specific operating conditions.
By the same token, if achieving greater efficiency means that the Queen Elizabeth Hospital contracts private operators to provide certain services, then so be it. We can privatise the provision of a service without privatising the institution.
We understand a political party or a government may have philosophical positions that might preclude certain approaches, but at the same time it does not seem like smart politics to commit to any stance publicly before you know all the factors that will influence the outcome.
However, we do not believe that the proverbial dog is dead for the Government on this option. Barbadians are intelligent people. They know that you can’t spend what you don’t have even if what you are desirous of acquiring or providing is essential.
Therefore, a proper outline of options and engagement of the population in dialogue — especially when you have already made it clear that if what you have put in place does not achieve the desired results then job losses will follow — is likely to be met with understanding and support.
We do not believe Barbadians will accept without a lot of noise any suggestion from the QEH that they can’t provide some service because they have no money; or from the Transport Board that commuters in some district will have to walk because it has no working bus or driver; or from the SSA that no garbage will be collected for a few weeks because it has no crews to operate the trucks.
The exercise of a single option with these agencies — cutting their allocations — is therefore not the most sensible approach in our view. We have spent too much money on university education, which is now also being cut, not to be able to do better.