“Ideas shape how we understand political problems, give definition to our goals and strategies, and are the currency we use to communicate about politics. By giving definition to our values and preferences, ideas provide us with interpretive frameworks that make us see some facts as important and others as less so. In turn, this has serious consequences for how we understand the role of interests in politics.” Daniel Béland and Robert Henry Cox, 2010.
The relative lull before the storm in local politics provides a place to reflect on the nature of politics and its relation to governance in Barbados’ political system. From the outset, politics can be broadly defined as an activity in which conflicting interests struggle for advantage or dominance in the making and execution of public policies within a political system.
The world over, there are some academics suggesting a simpler characterisation which indicates that politics is about who gets what, when, and how – the distributive phenomenon of politics. Hence, ideas matter as people and their constituents both participate in and think about everyday social and political life. It is suggested that ideas open central questions about agenda setting, policy choice, and the conceptual categories that underlie politics given the contexts of national politics, party politics, interest-group formation, and institutional change among many other attributes.
Consideration in this article is focused on both the broad and simplified descriptions of politics presented above and some key ideas that define many actions in Barbados. This approach is to provide sufficient analytical purchase on the occurrences that are emerging and shaping the context of Barbados’ socio-political sphere. The fact is, the term government describes how a society organizes itself and allocates authority to accomplish collective goals, and to provide benefits that the society needs.
Indeed, it is given the public’s demands both for effective government and good governance that such things as social, economic, and distributive justice are expected to be met through the agency of politicians.
It is said that there is politics because the common is divided. Politicians will often seek out and exploit legitimate ways to build their political capital while at the same time expanding their capacities or assets to gain consensus and support. The contemporary Barbadian politician sees it as beneficial to organize activities, thereby providing him or her with forums to influence and tactfully engage targeted populations for the maximisation of their interests and goals. Politicians are aware that attaining and enhancing power is essential due to the contention that politics is an action field in which a game of ‘give and take’ is yoked to political success.
In addition, the media are relied upon by politicians, and are susceptible to the whims and fancy of political elites. It is widely accepted that the mass media permeate almost every corner of society, and have a strong impact on their audiences. The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about and even helping to determine what passes as popular discourse or even good politics.
In Barbados as is the case around the globe, politicians adapt their behaviour to the requirements of the news media, to achieve increased coverage. Barbadians need to reflect on the nightly newscasts, and the ways that ministers of Government allow themselves to be paraded rather than the key importance of news items. Nonetheless, all forms of media, inclusive of ‘new’ media, bring issues into public discourse while omitting others for reasons left hidden from public scrutiny. In recent years, Barbadians have become wearier of traditional media and their incestuous attachments to politicians.
Alternative sources of information, in the hope of finding truth and not alternative facts, attract ordinary people to almost every available form of social media. However, the constant flow of new and often unverified news, combined with increasingly brief and superficial treatment of unconnected and unexplained events for which politicians refuse to answer to their publics, compounded by the media dodging under the cape of self-preservation rather than the right to inform, all contribute to the sense that public ignorance is manifold and an incomprehension of politics in Barbados persists.
Take, for example, the decision to sell government-owned firms like the Barbados National Terminal Company Limited (BNTCL) which has stimulated much discussion in the public domain. However, apart from concern of a monopoly in fossil fuels being created and that such a situation will cause an increase in the cost of fossil fuel products like petrol and diesel for Barbadians, little else have been given to Barbadians as ‘hard’ information.
The sale, once completed, is likely to depend not only on financial factors, but also on political costs and benefits. While the benefits of privatization, such as revenues from sale which are expected to boost the severe drop in Barbados’ foreign exchange reserves, not much else has been stated on factors of distributive or social justice.
Perhaps, the politicians, aided and abetted by the media, prefer that there are no real discussions on the local financial market development, and debates on what if any efficiency gains will redound to Government. In wider discussions of privatization, will Barbados ever get to hear the costs of privatization and how the changes will affect taxpayers who are tired of reading damning Auditor General’s reports? What about things such as layoffs of surplus workers and to what extent are the trade unions kept abreast and part of the decision-making processes?
Moreover, if the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, with its high indebtedness of over $100 million is to be worked into private hands, will the loss of private benefits of control for politicians be an asset for the society wanting fair and balanced news during prime-time television? Of course, there are many other questions around many other topics. The key here is to demonstrate that ideas, politics, and power all matter in bringing back good governance to Barbados.
Our national development requires an informed society and a thinking constituent not duped by the media or made gullible by the politician. As part of the demands before the next general election in Barbados passes, Barbadians must strongly advocate for the media to have easy access to information so that those entities could pass on to the people without their injections of biases and hidden agendas. While agreeing that the media establishments possess the capacity to empower citizens, the people must continue to demand quality and accountability from their governments.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a