Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has responded to public criticism of his decision to change his official car to a sleek new Mercedes Benz vehicle, while preaching a message of austerity to Barbadians.
Last Friday, Barbados TODAY carried a front-page caption story and photograph of Stuart’s brand new S-Class Mercedes Benz vehicle, which is reportedly valued at $350,000 duty-free or $700,000 inclusive of duties.
The story noted that with all the talk about austerity, Stuart’s new ride was fresh out of the Simpson Motors showroom in Warrens and was met with harsh criticisms of the Prime Minister, who less than 24 hours before had centred his Budget contribution in Parliament around the need for personal sacrifice on the part of Barbadians as the country grapples with severe economic challenges.
In fact, Stuart had likened the current economic burdens faced by the country to “a jockey which has gotten too heavy for the horse” and, in this context, had praised former Prime Minister Owen Arthur for the position he took in the Budget debate, that Government could no longer carry the burden and that national sacrifices would have to be made.
The Budget itself was reflective of the country’s dire situation, with Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler announcing a $542 million package of new austerity measures as the Stuart Government seeks to immediately redress a $537.6 million deficit position over the next nine months.
However, speaking on the sidelines of the launch of a book entitled Of Halls, Hills and Holes: Place Names of Barbados by Sir Woodville Marshall at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society Wedbesdat afternoon, the Prime Minister brushed aside the criticisms of his new car, saying he did not own it, but merely had access to it.
“First of all, the Prime Minister does not have a new vehicle, it’s the Government of Barbados that has one. I don’t own MP2; I’m driven in it,” he said, pointing out that the new vehicle was ordered in the Estimates of 2016-2017 but was only delivered a few days ago.
He argued that the situation was no different from when a replacement car was ordered in 2007 under the previous Barbados Labour Party (BLP) administration and delivered to late Prime Minister David Thompson in 2008.
“I well recall, Prime Minister Thompson having to defend himself in the House of Assembly on the issue of just coming to office and getting a new car, when in fact, the car was ordered by the predecessor Government . . . and the Leader of the Opposition at that time . . . the Leader of the Opposition now, was going after Prime Minister Thompson for having a new car that they ordered,” Stuart added.
The Government leader said he was therefore not surprised about what was currently being said of his new ride.
“The truth is that MP2, the car that has been replaced, is nine years old . . . . It was breaking down all over the place. It had become very expensive to maintain.
“In fact we were advised for some considerable time, not to keep these cars too long because they become very expensive to maintain and wisdom should be on the side of getting rid of them after three years or so. So that you can sell them at a price that would be substantial enough that you wouldn’t have to make up too much in getting a new vehicle,” he added.
The Prime Minister said Government did not do that, but had tried instead to keep his other vehicle, M50, as long as possible and had only replaced it last year.
He pointed out that at 11 years old, M50 broke down one night when he was coming over Horse Hill, St Joseph and also in Wavell Avenue, Black Rock, St Michael when he went on a Town Planning site visit.
In dismissing the latest controversy, the Prime Minister therefore contended that there was no mystery surrounding the replacement of prime ministerial vehicles.
“This is normal, so I do not know what all the fuss is about. It isn’t as though we delivered the Budget on Tuesday last week and went and bought a car on Friday. The car was ordered since March 2016, but it had to be built . . . put together, cause it has to have certain special features and it was delivered to us last week,” he told reporters.
Suggesting that he was the worse person to talk to about vehicles, Stuart said he had owned two cars in his entire life – a Toyota Corolla which he said he bought in 1984 as a young lawyer and kept for 13 years and a reconditioned Toyota Corolla which he kept for another 13 years.
“And I don’t own a car now as such. The car that I drive is a little Toyota Yaris, which I inherited from my sister who died two years ago, and that car is now nine years going on ten. So I am not fascinated by cars, I am not into trying to look impressive. I am not a Prime Minister in search of status or standing. I’m a Prime Minister in search of service. So anybody who wants to get in a quarrel with me over a car that even doesn’t belong to me, but belongs to the Government, is really wasting time,” he added.
Stuart noted that prime ministers and Governors-General did not enjoy the same privileges as High Court judges and chief justices, who were allowed to buy the vehicles they were using at concessional rates, when they were retiring. He however made it clear that he was not complaining about that.
“The car belongs to the Government of Barbados, and when I cease to be Prime Minister, whoever becomes Prime Minister would have access to the car,” he said.