As 2015 drew to a close, Barbados’ beleaguered two party-dominated political system, which is facing a crisis of declining public confidence, found itself under more scrutiny as more and more Barbadians recognize and speak of a need for reform to clean up and modernize local politics and bring national governance in line with 21st century global standards.
A bitter rift which emerged in the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) stronghold constituency of Christ Church West, brought additional stress on the system and possibly will have the effect of increasing cynicism about politics and politicians. The rift surfaced just as everything seemed to be going well for the BLP and downhill for the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP), as a CADRES poll earlier in the year showed.
Caught in the midst of an intractable standoff with an uncooperative constituency branch executive and at odds with the BLP’s hierarchy, sitting first-time Member of Parliament Dr Maria Agard was brought before the National Council on disciplinary charges – mostly related to the exercise of her constitutional right of free speech – and subsequently expelled in absentia after she challenged and walked out of the disciplinary hearing.
Questioning the fairness of the process and contending she was denied natural justice, Dr Agard is challenging her expulsion and seeking damages in the law courts, after the BLP leadership ignored a one-week ultimatum to rescind the decision. It is an unprecedented development in local politics. Depending on how the court rules, this test case may have far-reaching implications for the future relationship between political parties and MPs.
Even though Dr Agard’s relationship with the BLP may be fully over, the outcome of this case, hopefully, will clarify and settle two critical issues. The first relates to the longstanding view of party paramountcy over the MP, even though the Constitution of Barbados does not accord recognition to political parties that it gives to MPs. The second issue relates to whether an MP’s exercise of his or her constitutional right to free speech should be suppressed in cases where it is inimical to the interests of the party, as the charges against Dr Agard seem to imply.
Despite being regarded as always having a more effective public relations machine than the DLP, the BLP managed this issue poorly. As a result of the divisive squabbling which it was unable to control, the BLP suffered some image damage which has obviously hurt its desire to be perceived by Barbadians as a credible alternative to the DLP. It needs, therefore, as a matter of urgency, to come up with an effective damage control strategy for implementation over the coming months.
BLP leader Mia Mottley, whose approval rating in the last CADRES poll was significantly higher than Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s, suffered significant fall-out. Questions about her suitability for leadership, an issue which previously led to her removal as BLP leader ahead of the 2013 general election, have resurfaced with more intensity.
Whether she will survive this time and lead the BLP into the next general election is left to be seen. However, from a perception standpoint, her grip on the leadership does not appear to be solid as it should be. To remove lingering doubts, she too needs to address this issue urgently through appropriate strategic communications interventions, especially after the lethal criticism from former Prime Minister Owen Arthur days after Dr Agard’s expulsion.
A year and a half ago, Arthur took the unprecedented step, as a former leader, to resign from the BLP to sit in the House of Assembly as an Independent after saying that the party, under Mottley’s leadership, had “lost its soul”. This time around, Arthur, who obviously still has tremendous influence within the BLP, accused her of being a “despot” who believed that she had a “divine entitlement” to leadership. Mottley has not yet responded to give her side of the story which is important.
The turmoil inside the BLP was a godsend for the unpopular Freundel Stuart administration. It helped, for example, to shift public attention away from the DLP’s continuing failure, eight years in a row, to reignite a stalled economy and put it back on a path of sustained and robust growth. Such, among other things, would make businesses profitable again, generate more employment, especially for the thousands who have lost jobs since 2008, and generally stop the slide of the Barbados economy which, by one estimation, is five per cent smaller today than in 2008.
“The success or failure of any country over the next 20 years hinges on growth,” posited renowned British economic journalist and commentator, Hamish McCrae, in a futuristic examination of The World in 2020 in a 1994 book of the same title. The overriding function of every government is to ensure a country’s success and economic growth is a key indicator of success or failure. Applying this criteria, the Stuart administration gets a failing grade.
DLP economic policy suffered another major setback in 2015. At the start of the year, Government said it was projecting an economic growth rate of 1.5 to 2 per cent, which would have been the best performance in the past seven years. By October, however, the projection was revised downward to 0.5 per cent, confirming continuation of the sluggish pattern since 2008. There were improvements, however, in the public finances, especially in relation to the deficit. Foreign reserves were also at reasonable levels.
According to University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill economist Professor Andrew Downes, Barbados needs to be aiming at achieving an annual growth rate of four to five per cent, as happened during the 1960s. Such a level of growth would satisfy growing demand for jobs, improve living standards and generally take the country to the next level of development. “In all my decades of being an economist, if someone had said to me in a class that two per cent was robust, I would say they are talking nonsense,” Downes remarked.
Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Chris Sinckler agrees better must be done. “The single largest issue facing the economy is that economic growth in Barbados remains below the 2.5 to 3.0 per cent that is normal for our economy,” he told the House of Assembly during his 2015 Budget Speech last June 15. “We must get back to normal levels of growth sooner rather than later.” The critical question, however, is “How?” since Government’s current strategy is just not making it happen.
A major challenge for this DLP administration is that Barbadians generally seem to lack confidence in its ability to manage the economy effectively. When it comes to economic performance, confidence is always the key. We saw the evidence during the lengthy tenures of both Errol Barrow and Owen Arthur. Even if Sinckler were to be replaced as Minister of Finance now, it is unlikely to make much of a difference. After the painful experience which Barbadians endured during the economic crisis of the early 1990s and now again over the past eight years, the DLP suffers from a perception problem where it is associated in the public mind with poor management of the economy.
Shortly after it was announced that the original 2015 growth target would not be met, Barbados TODAY broke the news that the Dems had approached former Prime Minister Arthur, whose 14-year tenure was characterized by sustained, robust growth, to chair the Council of Economic Advisors. Considering that the Dems had previously pooh-poohed Arthur’s credentials as an economist, the surprise development can be seen as a white flag admission by the administration that it does not have the answers to kick-start the economy. What a humiliating climbdown it must have been for an administration which loves to rub it in, sometimes with a tinge of arrogance, that it was elected to govern and govern it will!
The need for political reform, both at the level of the party-dominated system and also within the institution of government, is generally overlooked in local discussion of economic performance, even though there is a link between the two. Economic performance is always influenced by political decisions, proving the existence of symbiotic relationship. Fixing the economy, therefore, cannot be accomplished without fixing the politics. The two must go hand in hand.
Political reform is necessary to improve the enabling environment for economic growth to occur. The existing culture of Government, especially certain antiquated practices, serves more sometimes to frustrate than to facilitate growth. In many instances, Government functionaries come across as anti-private sector, which frustrates business people and dampens their enthusiasm about investing in Barbados and contributing to growth of the economy. The private sector, not government, is the engine of growth.
Political reform is also necessary to bring about improved governance where there is greater openness, transparency, accountability that will help to root out corruption, for example, which undermines economic performance. Under the leadership of the late David Thompson, the DLP was voted into office in the 2008 general election on a platform of improving governance. Under Stuart who took over as Prime Minister when Thompson died in 2010, the Dems are yet to deliver on this important policy platform.
All things considered, the Stuart administration will go down in history as one of the most secretive and disengaged. Its deafening silence on many key issues, despite calls for open dialogue, suggest the Dems are locked in a time warp where they remain wedded to the culture of secrecy which once defined Westminster parliamentary government before the advent of the current Information Age. Britain, Canada and the Cayman Islands, which have the same political system, are among countries which have instituted reforms to adapt to the new reality.
Stuart’s major policy initiative for 2015, announced before a partisan audience at a DLP St George South constituency branch meeting earlier this year, was about the introduction of republican status to coincide with next year’s 50th anniversary of Independence, for which the Government has unveiled plans for an elaborate, year-long celebration.
“We cannot pat ourselves on the shoulder at having gone into independence; having decolonized our politics, we cannot pat ourselves on the shoulders at having decolonized our jurisprudence by delinking from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and explain to anybody why we continue to have a monarchical system Therefore, the Right Excellent Errol Barrow decolonized the politics; Owen Arthur decolonized the jurisprudence and Freundel Stuart is going to complete the process,” he argued.
The change, however, will simply be a cosmetic exercise involving the replacement of the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative with a ceremonial president who will function pretty much as the Governor-General. Far from receiving unanimous support within the DLP, which took Barbados into Independence under Errol Barrow in 1966, objection interestingly has come from former Prime Minister Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford.
Sir Lloyd, who led Barbados from 1987 to 1994, suggested that the incumbent DLP administration has its priorities all wrong. “The big issue now is not our constitutional status, but our economic status . . .,” he said. “(Republicanism) can come if the people so determine and whenever they want to determine it, but just tell me how that is going to solve the current problems.”
Careful study of Stuart’s reasoning – “the Right Excellent Errol Barrow decolonized the politics; Owen Arthur decolonized the jurisprudence and Freundel Stuart is going to complete the process” – provides a clear insight behind the decision. Stuart is thinking of political legacy to cement his place in history. Republicanism happens to be one of few positive opportunities to draw on because, by and large, his administration is associated with a string of negatives which paint a dismal picture of an ineffective Government on many fronts.
Besides public dissatisfaction with the management of the economy, the negatives include perceptions of weak, ineffective leadership, inadequate responses to the worrying issues of illegal guns, violent crime, and deviance among the youth, misleading Barbadians in a number of instances, and alleged scandals which have caused Barbadians to opine that the DLP campaigned for the removal of the BLP on an anti-corruption platform but finds itself being tarnished by the same brush.
The start of 2016 will see the official launch of year-long celebrations to mark the island’s 50th anniversary of Independence. The celebrations will serve a dual purpose as they will also provide a cover for the quiet launch of the DLP’s campaign for the next general election, constitutionally due in the first half of 2018. The Dems are clearly hoping that the festivities will trigger an outpouring of positive feelings which will pay them handsome political dividends.
The DLP’s thinking is not difficult to decipher. Independence is associated with the DLP and Errol Barrow, the father of Independence, remains much loved by Barbadians who are also patriotic about their country. The strategy clearly is to tap into these positive emotions, hoping a “feel good factor” will result to support the Dems re-election.
This objective will be supported by major projects like the Sam Lord’s Castle redevelopment which will fully come on stream during 2016, providing a boost to the economy, generating a few hundred jobs, increasing the money in circulation and hopefully numbing the painful effects of the austerity measures introduced since the 2013 general election.
Politicians clearly operate on an assumption that Barbadians have short memories, think short term and as long as they can be made to feel good, getting elected is pretty easy. This approach may have worked in the 1960s and 1970s with our fore parents. If the Dems are considering this approach this time around, they may be in for a rude awakening. Barbadians today are far more sophisticated and their memories are far from short.
Anyone with his or her ears to the ground can sense that the fate of this government has pretty much been determined already. However, Barbadians do have some misgivings about the BLP that present a few complications and suggest the timing may be right for a credible new alternative to both the BLP and DLP to emerge. The current layout of the terrain sets the stage for an interesting election battle, whenever Prime Minister Stuart decides to ring the bell, which can possibly occur as early as the first half of 2017.
Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communications specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: [email protected]