The dust has settled since the 20,000 strong protest march against the austerity measures outlined in the 2017/2018 Budget and the shouting match involving Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and members of his Cabinet, trade unions and the private sector has also abated.
Tomorrow in the full glare of the public as promised by the Prime Minister, all sides will meet face to face for urgent overdue talks on the way forward for this ailing Barbados economy in the first ever televised meeting of the Social Partnership.
On the table are grievous matters.
And we have heard it all before from the common man in the street to the qualified economists, the pundit and the Government itself.
We are spending too much, earning too little, the debt is beyond high and there’s no fairy godmother with a magic wand to wave our woes away.
In the January to March report on the island’s economic performance, Acting Central Bank Governor Cleviston Haynes outlined that the economy recorded modest two per cent growth while forecasting that overall growth this year was likely to slow down to less than one per cent.
He said then that the Government had fallen short of its fiscal targets and warned that more belt-tightening measures were needed to stabilize the stuttering economy.
Mere weeks later, the Democratic Labour Party administration responded.
Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler imposed onerous taxes, including a hike in the excise tax on gas and diesel; a two per cent tax on foreign exchange transactions and the main bone of contention – the 400 per cent increase in the National Social Responsibility Levy that moved from two to ten per cent.
The outcry has been loud, but the painful problems linger and time is against us.
This outlook is disastrous and fiddling at the edges of expenditure cuts and removal of some private sector impediments to investment will not do the job. Introducing incremental reform will simply not work. Importantly, it will not stop Barbadians from demanding relief, demands the Government cannot afford.
The greatest mistake our capable Social Partnership can make now is to avoid making the tough decisions quickly.
Barbadians know there must be some tough decisions, because the alternative will not deliver what this island desperately needs – a return to sustainable growth.
Therefore, all stakeholders need to come to the party and ensure that they are determined to start on a new path to fix our economic troubles, by listening, exchanging and devising realistic, effective strategies to halt the economic slide.
The glare of television cameras is not a licence for theatrics – Barbados can ill-afford that. Grandstanding and the blame game will get us nowhere.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who chairs the Social Partnership, rightly said recently that the buck stops with his Government. His duty tomorrow should entail explaining the scope of the massive economic problem and what alternative measures Government can genuinely consider to ensure that all Barbadians can still make a decent living and provide for their families.
We have been warned time and again that Barbados cannot tax it way back to economic growth. Hence given that the NSRL will cripple business and households, aren’t there other measures that could help to achieve the desired results?
Spending cuts, elimination of wastage, a drastic improvement in business facilitation easily come to mind.
Trade unions no doubt have to represent the interest of the country’s workers who have been subjected to this prolonged period of austerity despite promised recovery.
However, they have a duty once provided with the true economic picture to temper their demands with a realization that it cannot be business as usual. Workers deserve a fair deal from Government, but they should not take a hardline stance on improbable desires when the country’s viability is at stake.
Equally, the private sector has to lay its cards on the table and help to formulate a programme of reform for big and small businesses. The private sector too must recommit to maintaining jobs, boosting investment, stimulating entreprise, and increasing its contribution financial and otherwise to the society.
It is incumbent that Government, labour and capital accept they have contributed to the island’s challenges and they have a duty to be part of the solution.
While it would be unrealistic to expect a quick fix tomorrow, we urge the players at the table to be on the same page and take decisive action buttressed by commitment, to re-ignite hope in Barbados.