Since Chris Sinckler reiterated his position on Tuesday that there would be no devaluation of the Barbados dollar under his watch, vowing to resign as Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs were such misfortune to occur, my WhatsApp, email and phones have been ringing off the hook. Barbadians are eager to discuss the issues and are looking for answers.
“Do you think I can believe him now?” a female acquaintance asked. “Mr Sinckler promised before to do a number of things but he never delivered and, in some cases, did the exact opposite. Didn’t he promise before the last election that there would be no public sector layoffs but isn’t that what happened after the election?
“Didn’t he also make us believe that VAT was going up to 17.5 per cent only for the 19 months of the home grown (economic adjustment) programme?” she went on. “Well, the 19 months gone and VAT still ain’t gone back to 15 per cent. I would be stupid now to take anything Mr Sinckler says seriously or this DLP government for that matter. I do not trust them. I do not believe them.”
“As for Mr Stuart, I feel the same way about him,” the lady said. “He told us that Barbadians would not pay to attend university but still the Government introduced tutition fees without consultation. I wonder if he expects me to come out in the night dew during the next election campaign to listen to him? I would have to be a fool.
“Talking with ordinary people like me on the issues which affect us is apparently too much for him but he can find time, though, to speak with the tourists. Well, whatever he has to say in the next election will not be important because I don’t want to hear him. All I really want him to do is hurry up and call the election. That is all I want him to do”
These sentiments, expressed by a middle class single mother who shall remain anonymous, genuinely reflect how countless Barbadians feel after nine years of Democratic Labour Party (DLP) government and six years with Prime Minister Freundel Stuart at the helm. The sentiments also accurately summarize the dilemma facing the regime as it struggles to fix an ailing economy but finds itself not enjoying the required level of public confidence in its ability to correct the problem.
With each passing week, this crisis of confidence seems to be getting worse. Confidence in Government’s policies, especially from key stakeholders like the private sector, is the no.1 prerequisite for successfully turning around this economy. If the private sector really believed that the economy was improving, as the regime contends, then president of the Chamber of Commerce, Eddy Abed, would not be asking for convincing evidence. There would be no need because the business community actually would be experiencing the improvement.
It is unfortunate that the private sector lacks confidence in the Government. It is the private sector, not Government, which generates economic growth. But what begins badly, as the saying goes, always ends badly. The regime has come to this sorry pass because it apparently believed it could fix the economy by unilateral impositions instead of first seeking to win the support and cooperation of the people. It does not work that way anymore, especially in this age where citizens expect governments to be transparent and acountable.
Barbadians are essentially a reasonable and patriotic people who are committed to putting country first — a quality that has helped us to weather and overcome many storms in the past. Being well educated, Barbadians do not expect to be taken for granted or treated like fools. Once Barbadians are effectively engaged through dialogue and are convinced that what Government is proposing is right, they will lend their support and cooperation and make the necessary sacrifice.
During the economic crisis of the early 1990s, Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford certainly recognized this as prime minister. Though it was unpopular, he did not proceed unilaterally to cut public sector salaries by eight per cent to stave off the threat of devaluation. Instead, he directly put the question to government employees who gave the go-ahead through a majority vote. Why couldn’t this government adopt the same approach in 2013 after the economy went into a greater tailspin because of an unsustainable deficit?
Were I advising this government, it would have had to go across the length and breadth of this country, levelling with Barbadians on the issues and seeking to broker a consensus to inform the design of any adjustment strategy. “We have a problem that must be fixed in the national interest,” the political narrative would have gone. “We need your full support for this happen. This is what we are proposing. Tell us what you can live with, what you cannot live with but give us alternatives. What matters is that we reach the destination together. The route being proposed by Government is not cast in stone.”
This way, whatever measures were eventually introduced would have had public buy-in that would make the adjustment so much easier. But I would not have stopped there. The engagement would have been ongoing and, at various times, comprehensive updates on the state of the economy would have been presented so that everyone remained fully informed. In short, the strategic objective would be a grand national coalition for the restructuring and revitalization of our economy.
In the political culture which has developed in Barbados, leadership is crucial. Barbadians always look to the prime minister for reassurance and direction. Frankly speaking, Barbadians feel betrayed by the DLP and are particularly disappointed in the lacklustre leadership of Stuart, who too often has come across as detached, aloof and insulting sometimes in comments he has made in response to legitimate concerns raised by the people.
Being the most bona fide working class prime minister the country has had so far, the majority of Barbadians who come from a similar background naturally thought that he would have demonstrated more understanding of their struggle for a better life. As former US President Barack Obama noted as he quoted the fictional character Atticus Finch in his farewell address to the American people, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of his view….”
Stuart’s dismissive comments in response to public concerns about potholes, for example, portrayed a leader disconnected from his people. When is the beleaguered regime going to recognize that it is fighting a losing battle trying to fix an economy with dwindling public support and confidence? Errol Barrow, whose proud legacy we celebrate tomorrow, certainly would have recognized this. At the height of the economic turmoil caused by the 1973 oil crisis, he engaged the people via his famous television “fireside chats”.
With its relationship with the people fractured and almost beyond repair, there is precious little that the Stuart regime can do at this eleventh hour to salvage the situation, unless a fairy godmother or father shows up with a magic wand. And neither exists. In the circumstances, the moral thing for the regime to do is to put its mandate at the disposal of the people, instead of clinging on to power using the irrelevant argument of five year legitimacy.
We have come to such a point where nothing else will effectively suffice except allowing the people to decide. In the final analysis, it is the country and people that matter the most. For sure, they are bigger than any institution or individual.
(Reudon Eversley is a Carleton University-trained political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)