There is a sharp contrast between Budget Days of today and yesteryear. During the Errol Barrow and Tom Adams administrations, in particular, Budget Day was eagerly looked forward to by Barbadians across the social spectrum. Parliament Yard would be filled with people –– not just diehard party supporters waiting to greet and cheer their favourite politicians as they arrived.
The public gallery of the House of Assembly used to be filled to capacity by mostly ordinary Barbadians, including high school children. Those desirous of getting a seat would make sure they arrived at least two hours prior to the start of the presentation, so as to be near the top of the long queue and be among the first to enter when the door was opened.
Those who chose not to be inside the House often followed the presentation via radio. A common sight around Bridgetown was persons with transistor radios to their ears, as they headed home after work. In the village rum shops, men would be glued to the Rediffusion sets, taking mental notes for what subsequently would be a robust discussion as they relaxed and poured a drink.
Such was the keen interest in political issues back then. Today, few go to Parliament for Budget Day. The pertinent question is: why? Some will argue that modern technology has given Barbadians more options to access information related to the Budget via a plethora of media channels. That may be true; but it can also be argued that the same existed yesterday, albeit on a smaller scale.
Which takes us back to the question: why the noticeable fall-off in interest?
Human beings tend, by nature, to take interest in what they perceive to be relevant to their needs. Comparing public attitudes towards politics today with yesteryear, it can be said that Barbadians formerly saw politics as a vehicle that advanced their interests. The relevance of politics to their needs was reflected in the type of solutions provided by public policy and so often articulated in Budget presentations. Hence, the enthusiasm.
Today, there is widespread cynicism about politics –– not only in Barbados, but worldwide. Generally speaking, the average Barbadian does not see politics or politicians as serving their interests.
A random sampling of public opinion would reveal that politicians are perceived as functioning primarily in their own interests, and doing little for the ordinary citizen who believes he or she only matters at election time when his or her vote counts.
It is this negative perception that will present Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler with his biggest challenge in trying to convince the general public the economy is improving and life will get better, as he suggested during last evening’s Budget presentation. Indeed, Mr Sinckler’s presentation detailed primarily successes at the macroeconomic level –– the performance of the economy as a whole. For example, the resumption of growth, the stabilization of the public finances, improvements in the foreign reserves.
However, at the microeconomic level, which shows how individuals, households and firms are doing, the presentation offered little hope of any short-term improvement in their trying circumstances. If anything, the new tax measures only add to the pressure. What Government seems to be banking on is that a major pickup in economic activity from the pending start of various projects will deliver benefits at the micro level.
A Budget Speech is a statement on the economy that is, at the same time, also a political statement. Governments always try, even in the worst of times, to paint the brightest picture possible. The role of the media is not to parrot what the Government says as gospel, but to engage in a search for truth in the public interest. When all is said and done, the Budget is nothing more than Government’s perspective on the current state of economy.
The Opposition, in its response this afternoon, would have offered a different perspective. In the ensuing public debate, economists will also offer various perspectives which may support or differ from what the Government and Opposition are saying. If there is one thing for which economics is known, it is disagreement.
The 2015 Budget Speech dealt with the macroeconomy. It spoke of Government’s attempt to put its financial house in order but, in doing so, the sacrifices have been burdensome for the average citizen and businesses in the last few years. While it is good news that Government has succeeded in restoring macroeconomic stability, what ultimately will matter to the average Barbadian is the extent to which they are able to reap the fruits of their immense sacrifice.