British comedian Marty Feldman once quipped that he would never eat anything that has intelligent life but would gladly eat a politician. There is no history of any connection between the late comic and the ruling Democratic Labour Party, but following yesterday’s debate on the Ministers And Parliamentary Secretaries (Remuneration And Allowances) Order 2016, one is minded to believe that Feldman would have found members on the Government benches delectable fare.
Despite Prime Minister Freundel Stuart ‘s recent boast of regaining the reins of Government whenever he decides to call the next general election constitutionally due in early 2018, one could not be blamed for sometimes getting the impression that he has already ceded power to the Opposition Barbados Labour Party. Yesterday’s verbal parade of political poppycock in Parliament could be viewed as ample proof that Mr Stuart and his ministers are already preparing to flee the rampart.
Back in 2014, because of the dire state of the Barbados economy, parliamentarians and their assistants agreed to a 19-month, ten per cent cut in their salaries as part of the austerity measures wider Barbados had to endure. These impositions included increased taxation and massive public sector lay-offs that exceeded 3,000 workers. Yesterday’s debate in the Lower House revolved around the effort to return those monies. We will be the first to admit that Mr Stuart and his colleagues are entitled to have their monies returned to their previous levels. But as leaders of the country the Democratic Labour Party’s hierarchy ought to give some thought to timing and public perception.
All indicators suggest that the Barbados economy remains in dire straits. Governor of the Central Bank Dr Delisle Worrell this week noted that Government and state entities owed BDS$4.9 billion to private individuals and companies. He also noted that Government revenues had fallen by $6 million, and that net foreign inflows were down by $256 million. The overall portrait painted was not a pretty one.
Mr Stuart, in the face of criticism over his management or mismanagement of the country, is always swift to point to the advent of the international recession just prior to 2008 and the negative impact that it has had on this country’s small, open and vulnerable economy. But Mr Stuart must appreciate that he cannot call both sides of the coin. One should not blame the recession for the country’s economic woes and simultaneously ignore that recession when seeking to extract personal financial gain.
That Government has not returned the Value Added Tax rate to the original 15 per cent from its current 17.5 per cent – as promised more than two years ago – suggests the economy cannot entertain that adjustment at this stage. That Government has failed to honour income tax payments to thousands of Barbadians for more than three years suggests the economy cannot withstand that strain. That Government continues to print money to service its internal debts suggests that the coffers are not as strong and sustainable as they ought to be. That public servants have not had salary increases across the board since 2010 suggests that Barbados’ economy cannot hold that pressure. But the ruling Democratic Labour Party would have us believe that as of January 2017 the time is now appropriate for a return of those stated funds.
Not surprisingly, like those bewitched by Hamelin’s Pied Piper, members on the Government benches found logic to the raison d’être put forward for the Ministers And Parliamentary Secretaries (Remuneration And Allowances) Order 2016 at this time. During the debate Minister of Sport Stephen Lashley perhaps gave added meaning to that part of his portfolio when he suggested in all seriousness, that the austerity period was over and hence there was merit in the salary restoration. Perhaps Mr Lashley needs to mount platforms across the island and inform Barbadians that the island has emerged from the recession and that all is now well.
We are not accusing Government of increasing salaries, though some parliamentarians allowed the debate to be sidetracked in that direction yesterday. What we are highlighting is that our Government officials are not at the bottom of the food chain and if sacrifices are to be made in an unsteady or sinking ship, they cannot and should not be the first to bail. In terms of the perception of leadership, it sends the wrong message.
It is ironic that a fervent message of sacrifice formed part of Mr Stuart’s 50th Independence anniversary message to his fellow Barbadians. These were his words to the nation last November. “The age of entitlement has ended. The age of personal responsibility has begun. Those who benefitted from the opportunities created by the move to nationhood 50 years ago must now prepare themselves to make some sacrifices for the benefit of their children, and for the aged parents whose sacrifices made their own opportunities possible.
“The Government must now concentrate on looking after those who are the most vulnerable and the most marginalized in the society, and on encouraging those who have benefitted to give back to society.” Hollow words, you say?
Yesterday’s parliamentary decision will hardly gain the Democratic Labour Party much adoration or many fans. But in months to come it might be used as condiment by those seeking to render Mr Stuart and his colleagues a sumptuous meal.