Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur Wednesday called for cooler heads to prevail in the local trade union movement, while warning that Barbados’ “vast” economic problems will not be solved by “political theatre or gimmickry”.
Reacting to Tuesday’s failed attempt by the leaders of the island’s four major trade unions to get an immediate audience with Prime Minister Freundel Stuart while Parliament was in session, Arthur told Barbados TODAY he “fully respected” and supported Stuart’s stance in the matter, while describing the unions’ effort to get urgent tax relief as “misguided” and “totally out of order”.
At the same time, the former Barbados Labour Party (BLP) leader, now Independent Member of Parliament for St Peter, took a swipe at the current Opposition BLP Leader Mia Mottley for seemingly upholding the unions’ behaviour, while insisting that the Office of the Prime Minister must be respected, “especially by those who aspire to hold that office”.
Though making it clear that he was neither defending Stuart nor the current failed economic policies of his Democratic Labour Party Government, Arthur contended that the Office of the Prime Minister was currently being disrespected in a way that would not have been tolerated by him, and certainly not by his predecessors Errol Barrow or Tom Adams, whose tongues “would have been sharpened on both sides”.
“I suspect quite frankly that I would not have been as courteous as Stuart . . . and I have known all the other prime ministers and I know how forceful they were, and I cannot imagine any delegation turning up at Parliament on a Tuesday and seeking to have that kind of audience on that kind of subject with let’s say, an Errol Barrow or a Tom Adams and expect to be treated with even decorum,” he said.
“If they were to do that to those two forceful prime ministers, I believe that when you look out at Carlisle Bay the figures that you would see running on water towards St Vincent would be the persons who would have incurred the awful ire of those prime ministers by seeking to have them in that kind of posture.
“And the reality is that even if you don’t like the holder of the office, you have to respect the dignity of the office, especially those who aspire to hold the office,” Arthur stressed.
In further criticizing the move made Tuesday by the leaders of the National Union of Public Workers, the Barbados Workers’ Union, the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union and the Barbados Union of Teachers to hand-deliver a letter to Stuart outlining their case for immediate relief from the National Social Responsibility Levy, Arthur said while the Opposition Leader had a fully equipped office on the west wing of Parliament, the Prime Minister only had a small “cubbyhole” office within the precincts of the House of Assembly.
“[Therefore] anybody who in good faith and genuinely wants to have an engagement with the Prime Minister of Barbados, to discuss, in the presence of a substantial delegation, a matter as far reaching as the future economic policy of the Government should be advised that they should seek to have such a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office [on Bay Street] where they could bring their flock and he has his advisors, but also on a day when a prime minister is free to have such meetings, rather than on a day that collides with other things that a prime minister has to do,” Arthur suggested, while insisting there was a right and a wrong way for things to be done.
“We have seen where a political party in Barbados, in my view quite wrongly, lead a delegation to the Prime Minister’s Office and sought to have the Prime Minister come and collect a petition on a Thursday when a prime minister is chairing Cabinet,” he said, before informing that “a prime minister is [usually] available to meet in his office on a Monday, on a Wednesday, on a Friday . . . but Thursday is Cabinet and Tuesday is Parliament.
“[So] for the unions just to turn up in Parliament where the Prime Minister just has a cubbyhole office, to expect that they can meet a prime minister there to discuss a matter as serious as this, I think is totally out of order and misguided and I support Stuart saying that ‘I can see one, but I can’t have a full delegation’ because it would be physically impractical for him to do so,” said Arthur, who served as prime minister for 14 years between 1994 and 2008.
Although they were unsuccessful in meeting with Stuart, the unions were accommodated by Mottley, who not only came out of the Chamber to receive them, but also took them into her office on the west wing.
However, Stuart’s letter, as well as two other pieces of correspondence which were intended for the independent members of Parliament had to be left at reception.
Up to Wednesday afternoon, Arthur, who was absent from Parliament Tuesday, was yet to receive his correspondence.
But he cautioned the unions that with the local economy on the brink of collapse, he would not allow himself to be used as “a stage prop in a political opera”.
“I don’t have an office in Parliament and I would have had, if I were to acquiesce, to meet with them under a tree in the hot sun to receive a letter,” he told Barbados TODAY.
“That is for me a waste of my time. If the unions want to sit down and discuss how we could get out of this and how we can build a consensus, I would be happy to meet with the unions, but quite frankly, I know what the unions are opposed to, [but] I don’t know what they are for, and perhaps it behooves all of us in Barbados to sit down and think carefully what we need to do to get out of this situation,” he said.
On the heels of Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler’s announcement of a $542 million austerity package on May 30, the former prime minister further warned that “incantations cannot create what reality denies” and “gimmickry will not solve our problems”.
In response to the union’s 48-hour ultimatum, Arthur suggested that the country as a whole still needed to come to terms with the enormity of Barbados’ economic situation.
In fact, he said there were a number of serious questions which the unions’ leadership needed to answer.
“What happens after 48 hours? Are you going to close down the country? If you force the minister to do what you want, what are going to be the repercussions, cause the minister will tell you, ‘ok, you want me to stop printing money, you want me however to maintain public sector employment, then what are my options?
“Let us discuss those. That is the reality of where were,’ Arthur told Barbados TODAY.
While making it clear he was not pleading a case for Sinckler, who has been under pressure from the unions to reduce the amount of taxation he has imposed on the country and to grant a “coping subsidy” for public servants, Arthur warned that Government had simply run out of options.
“They don’t want on the eve of elections to send home people and I believe that the union will say they don’t want people sent home either, so this is a conundrum that requires very serious engagement,” the former Prime Minister said.
“If the minister buckles and cuts the taxes, then he has to find an alternative way of paying the bills. What are those? I have said that in my view the only alternative way is [policy based loans from] the IMF, IDB, CDB. Are [the unions] prepared to come and go there with me?” Arthur enquired.
While stressing there was “no wrong time to do the right thing”, he further cautioned the unions that “at some stage any government – Bee or Dee – that will have to fix this problem will have to institute changes to the structure and functioning of the economy that may affect the standing of workers in both the public and the private sector and it would serve the unions better to just sit down and discuss if you have to institute tough policies . . . how you could mitigate the risks and turn such strategizations into things that can have a positive outcome.
“I would love to sit down and discuss if you had to deal with the state enterprises what you should do, but just to hand me a letter on the way into Parliament under a tree in the hot sun, that is not for me!
“And I think it is disrespecting the office really,” he said. [email protected]