The Annual Estimates And Appropriation Bill was laid in the House by the Minister of Finance on Monday.
The major highlights of the bill was that the country continues to run a deficit of about $464 million.
The anticipated expenditure will be $4 billion, while revenue is calculated to be about $2 billion. At least seven ministries, including the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, will receive budgetary slashes.
The country awaited the Minister of Finance weaving the cuts and the Government’s policy plan into a coherent tapestry, clearly outlining the direction of the country for the next year. Instead, we were treated to the usual political blame and rhetoric, and a lesson in how the deficit could be a whopping one per cent less, based on if money borrowed to grow Government investment was covered in the deficit amount or not.
I have opined that one of the major challenges we have as a society is that we currently have no overarching ideological position which can moor our choices and actions, as we seek to continue to develop Barbados. The lack of that overall position for the country was laid bare in this year’s Estimates exercise.
Areas of expenditure, which were seen as important to a socialist framework for Barbados, have been the major areas of reduction. The incoherent policy planning was highlighted in various areas such as with the Skills For The Future Programme in the Ministry of Education.
The Minister of Finance did not expound on the initiative which was allocated $11.9 million. However, the programme cannot have degree granting capacity, so the question could be asked: why was it better to reduce capacity at the University of the West Indies, then to vest $11.9 million into a skills programme?
We should be able to argue whether Barbados should retain a socialist agenda or not. Since we came to a socialist position collectively, there is nothing wrong with adjusting the position collectively, if we deem that the appropriate thing to do. What is less effective is to have a piecemeal approach to our policy, and then haphazard bits and pieces of spend from
the Government purse.
There was little time spent in the Estimates examining the ideas on how to diversify the Barbadian economy. Diversification is a critical need, if Barbados is to rebound from its current position. The economy is currently only recording 0.3 per cent growth, even though tourism numbers have been some of the best in recent years. This seems to suggest that most of the other sectors in the economy are not contributing to economic growth.
Sustainability for Barbados should include ensuring our other growth contributors are correctly configured and streamlined to work. It would also mean we commit to exploring new ideas and niches for growth, such as finding channels to export sporting talent and cultural products.
Sport was one of the areas given attention in the Barbados Growth And Development Strategy 2013-2020. The ministry has also been given a $6.4 million increase from the current appropriations, but over the days of debate there was no coherent plan about how the sector would be upgraded to become the contributor of 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product.
The Minister of Finance had announced there was to be some restructuring of the statutory corporations. This was another area which Barbadians expected to hear detailed in his Estimates proposals, but there was only deafening silence.
Outside the silence on policy, some of the day-to-day actions of the Government are completely discombobulating. The Cabinet of Barbados presided over the dismissal of 13 workers from the Barbados Investment Development Corporation (BIDC) in July, 2015. However, the said Government increased the seats on the board of directors of the BIDC from nine
to 11 in Parliament recently.
The Minister of Finance, in his Estimates speech, also obliquely informed us the Barbados National Terminal Company Limited (BNTCL) had been sold. Did I miss a public debate about that? Are we now into a privatization exercise under an administration that won a mandate in this country by firmly taking privatization off the national agenda? What other assets have we decided we would divest in the exercise?
A part of conducting finances is to foster an environment of trust. If a loan is taken, the parties have to trust there will be a commitment to pay back. They have to trust each other that the truth will be told about the loan, the interest to be paid and the schedule of payments. The lack of information about the state of our financial position is one of the impediments to enhancing our economy in Barbados.
The International Monetary Fund and other stakeholders continue to complain about the statistics and measures being used for Barbados. The citizens of the country itself are left feeling as though the Government is not being completely forthcoming.
The Government has chastized the Opposition for seeming to only want to participate in second reading speeches and not to discuss the heads in the Estimates. Under the current parliamentary procedure, the Government chooses which heads are debated as a part of the Estimates process.
This year, the Government has chosen the Attorney General, agriculture and transport as the areas of focus. To chastize the Opposition for attempting to discuss wider issues in the second reading mechanism is irresponsible and an example of the cloaks which the Government seems to want to place around Barbados’ discussions about finances and choices.
So exactly where are we, and where do we want to get to? As we systematically dismantle socialism, what do we propose to replace it with? Have we even agreed to dismantle it?
The people of Barbados have been presented with the Estimates Bill for another year. We are no closer to feeling as though there is a coherent plan to bring Barbados back into buoyant
Are you comfortable? Are you happy with where your country is? What was your biggest takeaway from the Estimates Debate?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.