If past behaviour serves as a reliable guide for predicting the future, then it stands to reason that Barbadians can pretty much expect more of the same in 2017 from an adrift, beleaguered and unpopular Democratic Labour Party (DLP) regime.
Old habits die hard, ancient wisdom reminds us. Considering this indisputable and unchanging truth, Barbadians can reasonably expect more deafening silence, from the highest tier of government down to the lowest, in so far as sharing vital information and explaining important policy decisions which, one way or another, impact the daily lives of citizens.
Heavily criticized for not meaningfully engaging Barbadians but devoting regular time to wine, dine and regale visitors during the winter season, critics have justifiably asked if the Prime Minister feels more at ease in the company of foreign visitors than Barbadians who elected him to office.
During a visit to St Bartholomew’s Primary School days prior to the island’s 50th anniversary of Independence, Stuart sought to explain the reason for his trademark silence before a docile audience of 6 to 11-year-olds who, though mesmerized by the office of prime minister, do not understand the intricacies of government to have an appreciation of the importance of stakeholder engagement.
Stuart’s logic was equally as baffling as it was simplistic. He said: “If a prime minister can’t get the citizens of his country to feel comfortable, to feel at ease, to feel that everything is under control, then he cannot govern wisely and that is why you don’t hear this prime minister catching at everything, . . . responding to everything, . . . coming to the country over and over again every time there is a spare moment to say everything is going alright.”
The statement was an eye-opener providing valuable insight into the thinking which informs Stuart’s approach and assessment of the current state of Barbados. It naturally leads a thinking person to conclude that Stuart believes Barbadians are “comfortable”, “at ease”, “feel everything is under control” by his government and that he is governing wisely. Ironically, it is the exact opposite of prevailing public opinion and perception.
The statement paints a tragic picture of a prime minister who seems hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the people he was elected to lead. Is it any wonder that more and more Barbadians seem to be coming out, taking to social media where they can conceal their identities, and rating Stuart as the worst prime minister and his government as the worst which Barbados has had so far? The language in some cases is quite colourful and the descriptions most unflattering.
A good example involved a video which recently made the rounds on social media after the torrential rain which caused flooding in many parts of the island around Independence. The voice of a clearly incensed female is heard as she travels in a vehicle which has to skillfully negotiate frighteningly flooded roads along the route. She blasted Stuart, referring to his physical features and describing him as the worst prime minister ever. She complained, among other things, that despite having to fork out more taxes, Barbadians were no longer getting value for money from this government in terms of quality public services.
Stuart’s view of Barbados certainly does find 100 per cent agreement within the Cabinet he leads. For sure, Donville Inniss, the widely-admired Minister of Industry, International Business, Commerce and Small Business Development whom many Barbadians consider a better choice for prime minister, strongly disagrees. Driven by obvious frustration, he has come out publicly, on quite a few occasions, to express concern about the sense of national drift and to chide his political boss for not communicating with Barbadians on critical issues.
Perhaps Stuart’s interests would have been better served had he spent some time before the last election reading a book like Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout instead of appearing so excited by the Philip Freeman translation of Quintullius Cicero’s ancient Roman election campaign manual entitled How To Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians. Had he read Ries and Trout, this piece of advice probably would have caught his attention. “With communication going for you, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible.”
Crunch time, however, is fast approaching for the outspoken Inniss. At odds with his leader and the general approach of the government, he is going to have to make a fundamental decision sooner rather than later. To go on complaining forever, he runs the risk of being compared with the boy who repeatedly cried wolf in the well-known Aesop Fable. Either he chooses to remain in the Cabinet and suffer a loss of credibility, or leave which would favourably impact on his approval ratings for demonstrating he has ‘cajones’.
From this politically advantageous position, Inniss can then make a move, if he so chooses, to challenge Stuart for the leadership using available legal avenues within the democratic system. At any rate, with his age fast approaching 66, Stuart’s career is already in its sunset which naturally raises the issue of the DLP’s future leadership. There are others who also are reportedly unhappy with Stuart’s leadership but are staying quiet. All it takes is for one person with influence to take a decisive stand and the faint-hearted will follow.
Far from being “comfortable”, as Stuart is suggesting, Barbadians generally are worried about the future, largely because of his government’s lack of effective leadership and seeming inability to get the crisis-hit economy fully back on track, despite demanding unprecedented sacrifice by citizens. Despite recent heartening signs of growth, serious structural issues remain. The latest admission by Central Bank Governor, Dr Delisle Worrell, is only certain to add to public anxiety.
“The foundation for growth is a stable economy and in Barbados that means a balance between foreign exchange inflows and outflows,” Dr Worrell said in his January 2017 Economic Letter. “We know when we have achieved that balance because in that case we do not have to dip into the Central Bank’s reserves of foreign currency to make up the difference. The country has failed to achieve that balance since 2013 and there remains a need to dampen spending further in order to protect the country’s reserves of foreign exchange.”
It is certainly an ominous statement. Is the Barbados economy in a state of “fundamental disequilibrium” which usually means, in most cases, that International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervention is around the corner? What is particularly disheartening about the statement which raises the possibility of more austerity, is the feeling that all the sacrifices made by the Barbadians, especially in the last three years, to put the economy back on track were largely in vain.
The issue compounds the negative perception facing this DLP government that it does not seem to know how to fix the problem. It is a further blow too to the image and prestige of Barbados which was once looked up to as a development model by its Caribbean neighbours. In a published interview early last year, the St Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister, Dr Timothy Harris, put paid to that idea.
“For a very long time Barbados had been seen as a model of good government, good governance, good macro-economic policies, model for small island states and certainly over the last decade Barbados has lost that,” Harris said. “Barbados, to some extent, is now, as you say for a prolonged period in a situation of economic difficulty which I think tarnished the way people look at Barbados for leadership in economic matters and that is a result of a number of factors both internal and external.”
The Freundel Stuart government cannot absolve itself of responsibility for a general erosion of confidence in the management of the economy. Various policy flip-flops would have contributed as well as broken promises. Barbadians were led to believe that the home-grown stabilization plan was the cure-all once they made the sacrifices. The sacrifices included paying an additional 2.5 per cent in value added tax for the 19-month duration of the adjustment. This period has long passed but VAT remains at 17.5 per cent.
An unprecedented spate of demoralizing downgrades of Barbados’ sovereign debt rating, recurring difficulty getting promised investment projects up and running to stimulate economic activity and growth, and a rather eerie feeling that nothing seems to be happening, are other factors fueling disenchantment among Barbadians. Many hopes of a better life lie amid a growing rubble of shattered dreams.
At least, what seems to be giving Barbadians a ray of hope is the inevitability of a general election which, with the dawn of 2017, is constitutionally just one year away. The odds are heavily stacked against the DLP. The 50th anniversary of Independence celebrations, from which the DLP was clearly hoping to extract some political mileage, did not deliver. Instead, it only added to their troubles as strong objection was raised to the $7 million price tag at a time when residents in some parts of the island were going for weeks without water.
If the Dems barely scraped home by two seats in the last general election when so much was going in their favour, imagine the fate, which seems to be waiting whenever Stuart decides to ring the bell. Are we looking at a possible whitewash? The DLP has done such extensive damage to its political brand through the clumsy manner in which it has managed the country’s affairs, along with displays of insensitivity, indifference and arrogance in various instances, that getting back into the people’s good books before election day is clearly an uphill task.
With not much to stand on in terms of performance, and little elbow room to engage in the kind of lavish spending that would create an extensive feel-good factor, the Dems are quietly hoping that internecine squabbling will break out in the opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) to improve their chances. With the economy among the major concerns of Barbadians and empirical evidence presented last year by University of the West Indies economist Dr Winston Moore showing that the Barbados economy tends to perform better under BLP governments, the BLP goes into the next election under Mia Mottley as the clear favourite.
Elections the world over are generally determined by the economy. “The economy, stupid” was how James Carville, the Bill Clinton presidential campaign strategist, put it back in 1992. When none other than the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs – in this case, Christopher Peter Sinckler – can declare that the next election will be determined more on morality than the economy, it is clear that desperation abounds in the DLP camp.
(Reudon Eversley is a Carleton University-trained political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email:[email protected] )