So Prime Minister Freundel Stuart is at a loss over the uproar triggered by Government’s decision to purchase a spanking new top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz for his use in these tough economic times? As he put it to reporters earlier this week when questioned on the matter, “I don’t know what the fuss is about”.
If ever there was a statement that conveyed the image of a prime minister disconnected from the reality of the very people he supposedly leads, it certainly would have to be this one. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that Mr Stuart has difficulty understanding what’s the fuss about. The reason, however, is pretty clear and simple.
It relates specifically to quite a few inconsistencies and contradictions between what the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) regime has been telling Barbadians they have to do and what the Government, on the other hand, is actually doing. The inconsistencies and contradictions are quite apparent to the average Barbadian, whose characteristic docility should not be mistaken for stupidity.
Barbadians can clearly see, in this particular instance, what appears to be a case of one rule for them and another for the political class. To justify the last four years of harrowing austerity, the Stuart government has repeatedly suggested to Barbadians that they have been living beyond their means and sacrifices through belt-tightening were necessary in the national interest. Such thinking clearly informed the proposals in the 2017 Budget which last week imposed what is arguably the largest tax take in living memory.
When the full impact of these new measures hits home in another month, the struggle by the average Barbadian to make ends meet will become a lot harder as less disposable income will now be available. Buying food, for example, to enjoy a decent meal will become an even bigger challenge for many especially the poor and elderly. It is already a sad spectacle in supermarkets to witness some Barbadians having to leave items at the check-out counter because their meagre budgets cannot stretch any further. With the hefty tax impositions announced in the Budget, more will have to do so unless some good Samaritan comes to their rescue and pays the difference.
The painful truth is that it is not the average Barbadian who has placed the country in the current economic mess. It is poor management at the policy-making level by politicians. Yet it seems to the average Barbadian that while what amounts to incompetence in some cases is rewarded with handsome salaries followed by generous pensions on retirement, they are always the ones called upon to pay the heavy price of these costly mistakes by politicians.
If the DLP is telling Barbadians they must tighten their belts, then prudence dictates that DLP politicians should be leading by example. But, as the Budget clearly demonstrated, what we have essentially is a tax-and-spend government which has a seemingly voracious appetite for extracting the last tax dollar from citizens instead of engaging in belt-tightening through trimming expenditure. It is therefore understandable why Barbadians would be upset about Stuart’s new ride delivered, ironically, days after more fiscal brutality was inflicted on their backs.
The decision to purchase the vehicle at this time not only reflected poor timing but also conveyed a lack of sensitivity. It reinforced a picture of sharp contrasts in which the population faces the prospect of further pauperization by a supposedly broke government which chooses, nevertheless, a vehicle that is a symbol of opulence and luxury for the prime minister. Stuart’s feeble explanation was that it was a government decision, not his.
But you know what? Stuart certainly did not have to go along with the decision. At least he could have asked for the purchase to be put on hold given the country’s circumstances. Were Errol Barrow the prime minister of Barbados today, he would have done exactly that in a demonstration of solidarity with the suffering of Barbadians. Though he was a patrician or aristocrat in the Barbadian social context, Barrow did not care about having such trappings of luxury and opulence at his disposal in public office.
Indeed, Barbadians who are old enough will easily recall that when Barrow began his second coming as prime minister after the 1986 general election, he contemptuously turned his back on the green Mercedes used by his predecessors and settled instead for a lowly Toyota Crown. Though members of the same DLP, it seems, from a philosophical standpoint, that Stuart is definitely not cut from the same political cloth as Barrow.
But there is an even greater underlying reason why Barbadians are upset with Stuart over the new Mercedes. And it goes way beyond the fact that he has admitted receiving not one but two new official vehicles for his use in a matter of months — the other being the SUV M50. Marketed by the DLP as the most authentic working class prime minister Barbados has had, most Barbadians with the same socio-economic background generally thought that Stuart would have demonstrated more compassion and understanding of their plight.
The verdict, sadly, is that he has let them down. After assuring Barbadians that there would be no change in policy, Stuart still presided over the dismantling of free education introduced by Errol Barrow and Cameron Tudor to allow the sons and daughters of the working class to attend university. Stuart also went along with the controversial restoration of the 10 per cent pay cut for the political class in an economic environment where most Barbadians have not had a decent pay increase in almost 10 years.
Politics is largely about perception and success at the leadership level hinges heavily on the effective management of perception which has been repeatedly lacking or weak in Stuart’s case. Whoever is advising him — if there is indeed such a person — is clearly a novice given the many blunders.
Stuart did not have to find himself in a pickle over changing MP2. As he explained to reporters, the vehicle was giving problems and maintenance costs were high and rising. However, such happens when a government comes across as indifferent, insensitive and does not understand that at the heart of politics is a permanent battle of communication to win over hearts and minds.
Instead of ending up as another DLP public relations fiasco, replacing MP2 without controversy was entirely possible but it would have required what I will describe as careful preparation of the wicket beforehand. The skillful execution of such would be through specific strategic communication interventions where a compelling case would have been presented that delivered public consent.
This latest gaffe, coming on the heels of last week’s punishing budget, the restoration of the 10 per cent, and the millions spent on the 50th Independence anniversary celebrations, is just another self-driven nail in the political coffin of the DLP, months before a general election.
In their arrogance and contempt for the intelligence of the average Barbadian, the Dems somehow believe that morality is their sure passport to a third term. But here are some questions. Will morality provide Barbadians with jobs, pay their mortgages or children’s university fees, or lower the cost of living which was the DLP’s no.1, no.2 and no.3 job back in 2008?
If morality was indeed the solution to all of our problems, I would not dispute that the Dems are worthy of re-election. That, however, is not the case. The silence of Barbadians does not mean acquiescence; Barbadians are simply waiting patiently for the election bell to ring so that they can perform the last rites on the DLP in the ballot box and lay its tortured soul to rest without the hope of a political resurrection any time soon.
(Reudon Eversley is a Carleton University-trained political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist.