It is generally useful, if not inspiring, when the nation’s executive leader speaks to the governed about ‘getting Barbados right’. On the face of things, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’, in his recent interaction with the media, spoke on important and controversial matters requiring redress.
Regardless of our take on things such as Cahill, the latest Auditor General’s report, the unending water woes, the flouting of instructions given by the Chief Town Planner, sooner or later, PM Stuart had to address Barbadians on these burning and vexing issues.
Among the explanations coming from the Prime Minister, there was a clear admission that several perplexing occurrences are compounding issues of governance in Barbados. He agreed that there are still “many risks out there” and suggested that he was energized in such a way as to respond to the numerous challenges confronting his Cabinet, inclusive of the requests for public servants to receive salary increases.
The Prime Minister apparently felt compelled to signal some disquiet regarding the possible flouting of laws and enforcement orders, suggesting that legislation may be needed to bring about the requisite strengthening of key offices such as the Chief Town Planner in order to achieve legal enforcement.
All of these types of concerns become perceivably larger, especially given that the country is now within the two-year expectation of a general election. It is, perhaps, only the simple minded that would totally embrace Mr. Stuart’s mocking assertion that “elections have not crossed” his mind. The Prime Minister would do well to treat to Barbadians’ perceptions and expectations with a greater modicum of appreciative mellowness.
Notwithstanding that there exists a perception of Mr Stuart’s disregard and lack of synchronization with the people, he still has to find the communicative expression resembling certainty and clarity of thought. As leader of a Cabinet that has rocked perilously from one major crisis to another, he must still position himself as the one to provide reassuring statements, despite him sometimes making statements of absurdity.
The fact is, sometimes our Prime Minister’s spin on serious social and economic issues may invite laughter, but the propaganda – near perfected by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) machinery that is often heard as the panacea or distraction away from the hard concerns of Barbadians – is insufficient to bring real comfort to the nation. Yet, it is in these times that the Prime Minister’s communication can be a useful commodity going forward, because trust and credibility issues are likely to emerge whenever campaigning for the next election officially begins.
This recent attempt to connect with the people through the media, is a ‘high move’ invitation, given that reflections on the political rhetoric leading up to the 2013 general elections reveal that several about-turns followed by broken promises were executed by the administration.
The impoverishing circumstances, several initiated by the DLP’s 19-month home grown adjustment programme, were damaging to many households whether it was about maintaining gainful employment, having to pay increased taxes which snatched away more than a fair share of their disposable incomes, and then the disheartening impact of persons seeing their children shut out from going on to tertiary education due to the DLP’s sharp and costly turn away from having at least one university graduate in every household.
Charged with providing adequate health care and reliable transport were challenges too huge for an administration fettered by an inability to be creative. Some have argued that the DLP failed to maintain the people at the forefront of national developmental policies; backwardness appeared on several fronts. The shoddy and callous cutbacks and the slimming down of human and financial resources across sectors in Barbados, would have come immediately after the DLP gained victory in a keenly contested battle with the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
It ought to be remembered that the BLP was depicted as the knife-wielding culprit ready to privatize and dislocate with blasé cuts. Relatedly, the DLP’s 2013 manifesto insisted that the party “is cognizant of the importance of a thriving middle class to the continued socioeconomic development of Barbados”. Unfortunately, several of the macroeconomic policy choices reversed the growth of this ‘thriving middle class’.
It is hoped that the Prime Minister would soon be in a position to directly speak to the many pushed from the national workforce. Hopefully, he will provide statistical data showing where the country fell down, and outline what the DLP administration will do precisely to alleviate the burdensome sacrifices that the middle class was forced to endure.
Last year, it was the Minister of Finance who pragmatically indicated, “Unless we accept the reality that growth of our public expenditure based on our desire to provide universal free public services has now collided with our inability to grow our economy fast enough and, is therefore feeding the growth of deficits.”
The Prime Minister needs to level with Barbadians, not only saying why there is a deterioration in public services (e.g. water provision, health care, transport, education), but he also must spell out what is to be expected; what creative mechanisms are being used as practical interventions; and whether the DLP is satisfied that the middle and lower rungs of society have given up much more than they needed to; and it is now for them to receive forms of distributive justice.
Therefore, this writer welcomes the Prime Minister’s ‘soft’ engagement with the media. At first glance, one would not accuse the Prime Minister of the “unpretending indifference” for which he suggested obtains by some Government ministries and departments with regards to the supply of information to the Auditor General. It is established that: “Ministries and Departments are responsible for maintaining a system of internal controls in order to provide reasonable assurance that transactions are properly authorized, assets are safeguarded, and financial records are properly maintained.”
However, one must further reflect on the Auditor General’s statement that: “Government’s financial statements, compiled by the Accountant General’s Department (the Treasury), do not represent all entities owned and controlled by Government. They encompass all ministries and departments, and exclude statutory boards and Government owned companies; these agencies report the results of their operations separately. It should, however, be noted that in order to be compliant with the accounting standards, there should have been a consolidation of the accounts of Ministries, Departments and all entities which are controlled by Government and receive budget support.”
Moreover, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance will still need to explain to the general public why it is that: “There are approximately 50 state agencies whose accounts are not included in the financial statements of the Government?” The Auditor General has suggested that “the majority of these agencies, however, rely on the Treasury for the funding of their activities, and there should have been a consolidation of these accounts.” In addition, the Auditor General has concluded that “the financial statements presented for audit did not in all material respects fairly represent the financial position of the Government of Barbados.”
While these statements do not indicate malfeasance, they are nonetheless worrisome regarding public scrutiny, transparency, and accountability. Barbadians have once again expressed utter disgust at several of the Auditor General’s findings. More pertinent, though, has to be the shielded accounts of statutory corporations in which political operatives mainly comprise the boards and are most likely leading or heading the everyday operations.
It is there that the Prime Minister should lend some of his attention in the interest of Barbadians, and in the interest of proper accountability given that there is open scope for things to happen, especially as the country draws nearer to general elections. History is replete with examples.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a researcher and political consultant, and up until recently, he was editor of Caribbean Times (Antigua). Email: [email protected] )