by Reudon Eversley
Politically speaking, 2014 can be aptly described as an annus mirablis –– a marvellous year –– for Prime Minister Freundel Stuart in particular. As he looks back on the past 12 turbulent months, he has good reason to pour a celebratory champagne. He and his fragile Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government survived, despite rumblings of discontent inside the Cabinet and wider society over economic policy.
Economically speaking, 2014 was an annus horribilis –– an awful year –– for the average Barbadian. Regardless of country of residence, every human being is driven by a common aspiration: to achieve steady improvement in his or her material status during the course of a lifetime, so that coming generations can enjoy a better life.
Our parents who were empowered by the progressive Errol Barrow policies of the 1960s and 1970s achieved that objective. Barbadians, however, have experienced significant erosion of material gains under the present administration as the taxman has consistently exacted greater demands
on dwindling personal incomes.
This has been especially so for the middle class, which emerged during the 1960s to 1970s and thrived up to the last decade. Many Barbadians, once considered middle class, have transitioned to a new socioeconomic classification known as the “working poor” because of changed circumstances.
Economic highlights. For 3,000 Government workers who lost their jobs in a wave of layoffs to slash public spending, 2014 will be long remembered. Most went home with little hope of finding new employment in a stagnating economy that has hobbled between decline and negligible growth for the past eight years.
Barbados’ reputation for sound economic management took a further beating in 2014 with more downgrades of its sovereign credit rating. The latest, delivered by Standard & Poor’s on the eve of Christmas, came days after Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler had told Parliament the economy was finally showing signs of a turnaround, thanks to the administration’s 19-month home-grown adjustment programme which was nearing an end.
The S&P announcement, with a warning of a further possible downgrade, effectively poured cold water on Sinckler’s upbeat assessment. It also served to reinforce doubts as to whether the Stuart Government was administering the right economic medicine. Altogether, Barbados has had seven downgrades between Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s since 2012. The island’s credit rating has plummeted from in the high “A” range to current junk status.
The clear message to the capital markets is that lending to Barbados now carries an increasing risk, even though Government has never once defaulted on a loan repayment. Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s consider the Government’s approach to addressing the protracted crisis as inadequate, especially the fiscal deficit which, according to Sinckler’s December statement, was almost halved in the past year.
Given the circumstances, domestic private sector interests and some economists saw entry into a formal arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a necessary step to restore Barbados’ credibility abroad. Government, however, maintained such a move was unnecessary as
it was benefiting from IMF technical assistance and its policies were working.
If Barbadians had any doubts about the dire straits the country was in, an economic performance review by the United Nations Economic Commission For Latin America And The Caribbean (ECLAC) provided a reality check. Where 2014 growth projections are concerned, the report placed Barbados –– with 0.5 per cent –– last among CARICOM countries and third from last within Latin America and the Caribbean. The last time the economy grew significantly was in 2006.
In a clear sign that problems at the macro level were also impacting on the micro level, Government for the first time in living memory was unable to meet the October deadline for sending out annual income tax refunds –– a development that spoiled Christmas for many. Government’s cash flow problems also meant longer waits for Transport Board buses, a noticeable deterioration in garbage collection islandwide, and shortages of vital supplies at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital that prompted protest by doctors.
Credibility issue. The Stuart administration faces a credibility issue which it has brought on itself through poor communication with key stakeholders and the general public. In the current world of the 21st century, openness, transparency, and accountability are the hallmarks of governance. The administration’s approach more suits the 1960s to 1970s when citizens were not as well informed and governments could get away with saying little.
The world is fully into the Information Age. Citizens today expect governments they elect to consult with them on key issues. By not effectively engaging Barbadians, the Stuart Government has missed out on valuable opportunities to frame the debate on the economy in a manner that would have generated goodwill, better understanding and support for its policy agenda. In its handling of the crisis, the administration has often come across as lacking compassion and caring and being on a completely different wave length than Barbadians.
So that when Stuart told Barbadians after visiting a St Philip primary school around Independence that there was no need to worry, many arguably would have had difficulty believing him. Hardly, during the present crisis, has he delivered a comforting message of reassurance and hope. Stuart’s political narrative often speaks to some historical event which is of little relevance to the struggle of the average Barbadian today. To his disappointment, he may be discovering that it no longer matters to many Barbadians when he speaks. The mood in the country seems to be one of resignation and indifference.
The 3,000 terminated Government workers were the most visible casualties of austerity measures aimed at eliminating a serious threat which a ballooning fiscal deficit posed to the BDS$2 to US$1 exchange rate. The terminations occurred despite a pre-2013 general election statement by Sinckler that would have led right-thinking persons to believe that public sector jobs would have been safe under a re-elected DLP administration.
In an address to the St James South DLP branch, Sinckler had said: “All those persons out there who are holding on on a job, the difference between you having that job and you not having that job is the Democratic Labour Party winning the next general election.”
In the same speech, the Minister of Finance had claimed it was the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) that was planning to send home 10,000 Government workers.
What is undermining confidence, which is crucial for the recovery of the economy, is a credibility issue which the man responsible for leading this effort has created for himself by not delivering on a commitment like the above. With talk of a pending Cabinet reshuffle, it will be interesting to see if Sinckler retains the current portfolios, given tensions with Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick, who has questioned the Government’s approach, and proposed an alternative recovery plan backed by Arab financing.
The generally shabby treatment meted out to terminated Government workers, especially in collecting severance and the fiasco involving the Employment Rights Tribunal, challenges the long-standing perception of the DLP as the party which looks out for the small man. It also raises questions about the veracity of the DLP’s political mantra since 2008 that “Barbados is more than an economy but a society”.
Universal free education, centerpiece of the DLP political brand for the past 50 years, was also sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. As a result, Barbadians attending the University of the West Indies (UWI) from September had to fork out tuition fees. This policy was introduced despite a statement made by Stuart at the 2011 Barbados Community College graduation, that reintroducing tuition fees for tertiary education would be
“a retrograde step”.
Another case where Barbadians were led to believe one thing by this Government which later did the exact opposite. Whenever trust is destroyed, regaining the confidence of people is never easy. The DLP now finds itself in this dilemma.
Political highlights. It is ironic that Stuart chose hope as the theme of his 2014 Christmas address. Was it a tacit admission that Barbadians are despairing and badly need an injection of hope? It raises another question: what has Stuart done, personally, as Prime Minister during the past four years to give Barbadians reason to be hopeful in the present challenging circumstances?
The job of a leader is to give hope to his or her followers, especially when the going gets tough. Leaders do so by articulating a compelling vision of the future that reflects the current needs and aspirations of followers and presents clear, realistic solutions.
When people are heartlessly terminated and made to feel abandoned, they are deprived of hope. When young people are denied the opportunity to benefit from free university education which unlocked the door to a better future for past generations, they are deprived of hope. In quite a number of ways, the incumbent DLP has been a destroyer of hope.
Barbados’ current journey through a wilderness of economic uncertainty is comparable to the biblical trek of the Israelites through the desert after their Egyptian exodus. At times, they naturally became discouraged and believed they were on a journey to nowhere; but their leader Moses kept their hope alive. He articulated a compelling narrative of a promised land as the reward for their sacrifice. Can Barbadians definitely say what will be the award for their sacrifice?
Stuart’s detached style of leadership is alien to the Barbadian experience. Barbadians are accustomed to leaders who are visible on the frontlines fighting battles on their behalf. Stuart does not fit this profile. His leadership narrative does not inspire.
Following the DLP’s narrow victory in the 2013 election, the Government’s longevity immediately became the subject of speculation. There were doubts it could last the full five-year term. However, it got an unexpected gift from an unusual source –– the Opposition BLP. Renewed leadership tensions and the subsequent departure of former Prime Minister Owen Arthur who now sits as an Independent in Parliament, gave the DLP some much welcome breathing space.
While the BLP appears to be more settled now, Mia Mottley’s leadership somehow does not seem to be generating the kind of political traction that is expected when a Government is unpopular. Still, the odds favour the BLP going into the next general election.
More often than not, a general election is a referendum on the performance of the incumbent. If the BLP’s campaign focuses on getting Barbadians to reflect on the question “Are you better off today than eight years ago?”, it will be most uncomfortable for the DLP.
If street debate is a good barometer of public opinion, Barbadians have serious misgivings about both DLP and BLP. It seems Barbadians are looking for a better, more relevant political option that suggests a favourable environment exists for the emergence of a new party. If a new party comes with a programme which relevantly speaks to Barbadian needs in a way neither the DLP nor BLP does, it can quickly become a force to be reckoned with.
Meanwhile, the real threat to the DLP is more on the inside. Dr Estwick began the year complaining and he is ending the year pretty much on the same note. He holds a trump card, and how he plays it could herald a new beginning. If he keeps on complaining instead of acting, he will find sooner rather than later that the people will no longer take him seriously.
Watershed 2014. When the year’s major events are taken together and analyzed, 2014 represents a watershed for Barbados. Some long-standing assumptions about Barbados, such as having a Government job for life, free university education and effective workers’ protection by a powerful trade union movement were overthrown.
Given the current search for a new model of health care financing, it seems the days of free medical care at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital too are numbered. Should this occur, another key pillar of the Barbados paradigm of the past 50 years, will come crashing down.
Barbados is experiencing a shift to a new paradigm. It seems to be driven more by external factors than deliberate domestic choices. This development speaks to the need for a new social contract, especially between Government and citizens. A national conversation to arrive at a consensus on the way forward, is needed now more than ever.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email email@example.com)