Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler is receiving tacit support from an unlikely source for his position on the privatization of state enterprises.
Economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) hopeful Ryan Straughn believes some public entities could be placed in the hands of the private sector, but only after a comprehensive national dialogue and consensus on the contentious issue.
“I believe there should be a national consultation before any action is taken, [however], I think that it is an area that is obviously ripe for some revisiting but we can’t afford to lag much longer,” the BLP candidate for Christ Church East Central told Barbados TODAY, without naming the agencies.
His position closely resembles that of Sinckler, who in January this year said while Government was open to selling off some state enterprises, it had to approach the issue carefully before taking a decision.
“We are not rushing ahead to just go picking this and picking that and privatize this and privatize that. We are going to [take] a judicious approach to this matter, where it lends itself, where everything substantially lines up, and we will consider it.
“If it doesn’t, we look at the cost all around – financial, social and environmental costs – and then we make a decision. It is not that we are opposed to doing it but it has to be done for the right reasons and in the right way,” Sinckler said at the time in response to calls by various economists for the Freundel Stuart administration to divest itself of state holdings as a way to improve public finances and help to accelerate recovery of the economy.
Sinckler returned to the subject last week when he made it clear the governing Democratic Labour Party was not about to embark on wholesale privatization of state entities, even while hinting at the possibility that Barbadians could one day be made to pay for a number of the social services currently afforded them by the state.
In an interview this week, Straughn agreed that coming to a consensus on what services to be privatized could lead to some people paying more for some services.
However, he explained that it was a matter of assessing how the services were being delivered and making the necessary changes, with provisions made for priority to be given to the “most vulnerable”, including children, the disabled and the elderly.
“The reality is that you do not know what is the best or the most efficient way of delivering the public goods and service unless you truly assess it.
“Does everybody need equal access at the same time? Maybe not, but the reality is if you can reallocate resources, certainly to the areas of persons who are the most vulnerable, then obviously that means then that the slack would have to be taken up elsewhere. But as I said it is in the context of a national consultation that I think all those things should be clearly ventilated and articulated so that everybody is pretty much on the same page,” the former president of the Barbados Economic Society said.
Straughn stressed that he had no problem with Government still owning a number of the statutory entities, but with improved management.
“It can be privatized and managed poorly. It could be owned publicly and managed poorly by the Government. So all I am saying is that we have to focus a whole lot on the management of the institution and the mandate that they are supposed to deliver,” explained Straughn.
Sinckler adopted a similar position last week, signalling the need for the management of the state entities to be improved.
However, Straughn said in light of the most recent Auditor General report, which painted a pathetic picture of this country’s public sector, Sinckler could not now be taken seriously.
“If you read the Auditor General report – and he is talking about management – and you are seeing these kinds of reports under his [Sinckler] stewardship then obviously he really cannot be taken seriously . . . He is basically in a sense talking from both sides of his mouth at the same time. That is unfortunate,” Straughn said.
Government has already announced plans to sell off the Barbados National Terminal Company Limited (BNTCL), with Sinckler announcing in mid-April that the sale was all but complete, with Government simply “waiting on the cheque” to consummate the deal. He did not name the buyer, and no announcement has been made since.
Delivering the third annual lecture of the Financial Services Commission at the time, the minister also hinted at the possible sale of other public institutions.
“We in the Ministry of Economic Affairs we are waiting on the cheque [for the BNTLC sale], but we had put in up for sale. You know, cross my heart and hope it will come through soon enough. But the ones that we can move and are appropriate to be moved will be moved. That is just simply a fact. But there are others, which I am not so absolutely certain that that kind of intervention will work. At least not at this stage,” Sinckler then.
The divestment of the BNTCL is part of the Stuart administration’s statutory reform programme that involves the amalgamation or sale of Government-owned entities in order to cut costs.
The Barbados Water Authority, the Sanitation Services Authority and the Child Care Board are among those expected to feel the effect of the attempts to cut $1.2 billion in subsidies.