Debate on Government’s Estimates Of Revenue And Expenditure (2015) got under way in the House of Assembly on Monday. And several things caught my attention in the subsequent days of exchanges between Members of Parliament.
Politics crops up naturally in an article on women’s issues. After all, gender studies and political science are very interconnected disciplines. The lobby for equality for women is, broadly defined, a challenge to the established system of governance and male hegemony, and the rights and privileges of citizenship are constructed and executed in relation to women.
Generally, I remain disappointed with the level of understanding, engagement and discussion being afforded the people of Barbados by the Government. The arguments put forward on critical areas such as education and health are simplistic and dismissive. I also find the general conduct of many Members of Parliament to be off-putting and disrespectful to the wider public.
I am not the only commentator who has made that observation over the last few days, but it seems as though most of the MPs do not care about the general sentiment.
The usefulness of having more Independent voices in the House also became clear to me. I listened to Member of Parliament for St Peter Owen Arthur because of his academic credentials and experience. I also listened because he is standing on middle ground, and rather than taking a side expedient to a particular political purpose, he was expected to simply present facts.
This type of engagement has become less of a feature of political debate in Barbados, and it is one of the defining features that separate the nationalist period of political debate from much of that of the globalized times. But though recognizing that our politics has changed, I still found a bright ray in Leader of Opposition Business in the House and Member of Parliament for St Michael South-East Santia Bradshaw.
The Minister of Finance started the debate with the presentation of the appropriations. He chose to wrap the Estimates in a wider discourse about the “positive gains” which were being made in the overall management of the Barbadian economy that had brought the dollar back from the brink of devaluation.
This glib mention of how close the Barbadian dollar was to devaluation was the first time we had ever been told as a nation how serious things were/are in our financial and economic situation. Up to that point, people in Barbados who were voicing concerns about where the country was were ridiculed as unpatriotic and incapable of accepting the result of the 2013 election (an election the Prime Minister of Barbados admitted had instances of vote buying).
The Minister of Finance, after revealing for the first time how bad things actually were, was at pains to explain that all of that was behind us and the country had made a primary surplus of $56 million. A primary surplus may be considered as what’s left of your salary after taxes have been deducted.
Say you made $300 for the month and paid $50 in taxes, your primary surplus is $250. You then have to pay your mortgage of $100 and you are faced with other bills of $250. This takes your primary surplus from a healthy position originally to a negative, or a deficit by the end of your payment period. You would have to look for an extra $100 just to meet your expenses. When you do that you are unable to have a net surplus or savings.
I am not sure why the Minister of Finance chose to approach the Estimates by fronting the primary surplus, because it takes the sights off other things which the country must focus on.
The presentation of the lone Independent member in the House was helpful in focusing the country on the issues that still need national attention. The question which he posed and which stuck with me was: are the appropriations for fiscal year 2015/2016 financeable?
We are still not producing sufficient in the economy to support our spending. Borrowing for basic functions such as paying wages continues with our debt to GDP ratio already at -12.4 per cent, according to current figures on the Central Bank of Barbados’ website. Mr Arthur compared the current situation of Barbados to that of Jamaica before its devaluation and destabilization. He indicated that the current debt service demands had the Government in a “stranglehold” and that returning the economy to growth would not be possible without debt restructuring to create fiscal breathing space.
Mr Arthur also spoke to the issue of education and he agreed with the Government, the Opposition and the people of Barbados that a national discussion on education had to be convened. The Government is now changing history by making it seem like Barbadians have not accepted that a debate on education is necessary.
What offends Barbadians is that the Democratic Labour Party blatantly misled the electorate on the issue of education in the politics of campaign convenience. After it won the Government in 2013 it did not engage in any national discussion. Seemingly with no choice, the Democratic Labour Party took drastic and unplanned last-ditch measures that have resulted in tertiary education becoming inaccessible to large numbers of Barbadians.
Many of the affected are women in single-parent households (whether they are the mother or one of the siblings) and those who have either not received a pay raise in seven years or have been placed on the breadline due to the economic situation.
Amid the crosstalk, I was heartened by the presentations of Ms Santia Bradshaw. The 39-year-old Ms Bradshaw is a second-generation politician. This by itself is a badge of honour, especially in a country where enough of the children of the political class who benefited significantly from the involvement of their parents are not repaying future generations with the benefits of their involvement.
Many merely continue to derive privilege from being so-and-so’s child. They sit on boards, they get hired and all without the sweat of service.
Santia has been put to service, and it pleased me to hear her in her first presentation on Tuesday begin to outline the parliamentary reforms necessary to strengthen the procedures in the House. Alas, the former Christ Church Foundation student was told by the Speaker of the House that her call for reform was not relevant to the debate.
For me, the Speaker’s observation was a perfect summary of the Appropriation Bill for 2015. The Estimates were prepared in the now. There is no forward planning or ponderation on how 2015 will affect 2035.
I thought I should tell a Today’s Woman like Santia Bradshaw that her forward thinking and ability to link the present to the future in the House was not lost on me. I look forward to a time when we can get more of this kind of debate as we negotiate our national affairs.
It makes me ask how much further can this nation get on its current trajectory? And when we reach our destination, will you accept that you were agreed on wherever we end up by not paying attention to where we were going?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and a part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)