Maria Agard’s expulsion from the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) is just another distraction; a piece of political theatre in Barbados. I know next to nothing about the affair, but it looks as if she has now become a pawn in Owen Arthur’s bitter struggle with Mia Mottley over the leadership of the BLP.
This insane tug of war is inflicting serious damage on the party. But the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) should stop chortling with malicious glee. They have an even more serious problem: they are gripped by a paralysis of political will and vision that is infecting the whole nation.
We are a society aflame with problems. And while Barbados burns, our politicians –– like Nero –– fiddle. Take that how you want it.
That is why the Maria Agard affair is a distraction. It’s all froth on the surface of our politics and society. Meanwhile, underneath, the foundations are crumbling.
As we begin this 50th year of our Independence, we must rethink where we are and where we’re going. Some critical areas are our geography, our systems of economics, politics, education and law.
We start with geography, the physical ground of our existence. Our one natural resource is the beauty of our island –– an extraordinarily fragile beauty. If we mar or destroy it, we can never get it back. Our economic livelihood –– tourism and international business –– depends on it.
Who would want to visit or come to live in an island that is a traffic-jammed, litter-strewn, concrete jungle surrounded by a polluted sea and filthy beaches? This is not a calamity that happens overnight. It’s a horror creeping up on us even as we speak.
Decisions about our environment cannot be left to politicians and bureaucrats, nor to the market. As a society we must collectively take enforceable decisions on a number of issues:
Dedicated land use for the next 50 years;
Preserving our physical environment, including agriculture and green communal recreational spaces and our built heritage;
Committing ourselves to ecologically sustainable development (the absurd Cahill waste-to-energy project, apart from its dubious origins, is a technology totally unsuited to a our tiny fragile island; we can recycle our waste, and get our energy from the sun, the sea and the wind);
And, most crucial of all, working out and integrating into our planning the carrying capacity of Barbados for tourism. We cannot allow tourism to develop willy-nilly mainly in response
to the market.
This is not an attack on tourism.
It is the lifeblood of this economy. But tourism is a two-edged sword: it can be the basis of plenty and prosperity, or destruction and despair. If, in the pursuit of quick profits, we destroy the goose that lays the golden eggs, we are all doomed.
If geography is our first priority, the political and economic philosophy which we have chosen to govern our society is next in importance. Underlying the political and economic arrangements
of all societies is a philosophy that is either explicit or implicit.
Our Constitution crafted at Independence had this to say about our economic arrangements: “The people of Barbados resolve that the operation of the economic system shall promote the general welfare by the equitable distribution of the material resources of the community, by the human conditions under which all men shall labour and by the undeviating recognition of ability, integrity and merit.”
This is as good a definition of social democracy as any. Private investment and entrepreneurship are the engines of growth, but that growth has to be tied to the common good, economic equity and humane and fulfilling conditions of work that promote the integral development of the human person.
Social democracy is the only economic philosophy that has any validity today, since the centrally planned command economy characteristic of communist societies has proved disastrous; and the market fundamentalism or extreme laissez-faire doctrines characteristic of Reagonomics and Thatcherism have equally been failures. Nevertheless there is broad room for vigorous debate within the social democratic paradigm.
It seems though that we have, for all kinds of reasons, got away from this commitment to social democracy. Once again, we cannot leave this matter entirely to the politicians, but need as a society to examine and agree on how we want to go forward economically so as to maximize economic growth at the same time as we ensure social equity.
The market is a useful servant, but a ruthless master. This discussion will provoke much controversy, but we cannot shy away from it.
Similarly, we have to have a national discussion about our political system. Reform is urgently needed in our political parties, our legislative institutions and our electoral system. The framers of our Constitution declared their intention “to establish and maintain a society in which all persons may, to the full extent of their capacity, play a due part in the institutions of the national life”. We have not lived up to that ideal.
Casting a ballot every four or five years is not enough. Barbadians have a lot to contribute to the governance of our country. Citizens must have new institutional means of participating in the decisions that affect their lives.
Education is what made it possible for Barbados to be a stable and well-governed society, and also created a broad middle class. But it is now failing us, with 70 per cent of young people leaving secondary school without adequate certification. We need to have an urgent discussion on the way forward. The present system is unsustainable.
Finally, what has made Barbados not only work but also “punch above its weight” internationally is the high level of social trust. Underlying that is our belief in the rule of law.
Right now, our legal and criminal justice system seems to be going off the rails. Whether it’s the courts or the creakingly slow Registry, if we don’t get this right we will implode.
Welcome to our 50th year of Independence. At least the conkies remain uncorrupted.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)