Governor General Dame Sandra Mason today called on Barbadians to face up to the grim economic reality facing the country.
Speaking ahead of this afternoon’s talks between the Mia Mottley-led administration and a team from the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dame Sandra also strongly urged citizens to keep faith with the new Government as it prepares to enter into a balance of payments support programme with the IMF, with a view to restructuring the country’s $15 billion debt, which amounts to a whopping 170 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).
But even with the looming likelihood of tough austerity measures being introduced, the Governor General, in her hour-long Throne Speech assured that efforts would be made to ensure that “the burden of economic adjustment is shared fairly and does not fall disproportionately onto workers”.
Before a large gathering of dignitaries, including Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson and Mottley’s parents Amor and Sir Elliott Mottley, QC, suggestion was also made that the austerity period would not be allowed to go on indefintely.
In fact, Dame Sandra said “Government’s macro-economic framework is to present a balanced budget by 2019 with no new financing requirements.
“At all relevant stages of the process, it will act with transparency and will keep the Parliament and the citizens of Barbados fully informed,” the Governor General added, while stressing the need for the country to get its economic fundamentals in order.
In outlining the programmes and policies of the new Government, Dame Sandra also made it clear that Government was not going to tax its way out of the current crisis.
Her exact words were that “over-taxation cannot lead to economic recovery or a return to growth, nor does it lead individual citizens to prosperity”.
It was in this vein that she said the Mottley administration would be sticking to its election campaign promise of a repeal of the dreaded National Social Responsibility Levy, which was hiked last July from two to ten per cent on the customs value of both imported and domestically produced goods.
The Governor General also reiterated Government’s plans to scrap road tax and replace it with “a more equitable but bearable” tax on petroleum products; repeal the requirement for tax clearance certificates and giving a tax credit over time to those who paid, and to lower the rate of Value Added Tax from 17.5 per cent to 15
per cent within 18 months.
The vexed issue of a salary increase for public workers also features high on the agenda of the new Government, with the Mottley administration promising to provide a cost of living allowance to civil servants if negotiations on pay are not concluded within the next three months.
Barbadian students attending the University of the West Indies (UWI) will also stop paying tuition fees from next semester, according to the Governor General.
“My Government will during this term [also] reduce the number of homes being foreclosed on, by working with the [commercial] banks to establish a Troubled Mortgage Relief Programme . . . pay the reverse tax credit of $1,300 for those earning less than $18,000 . . . [and] eliminate the 5,000 pit toilets still remaining across Barbados through a programme of works carried out via contracts to small contractors and community-based businesses,” she added.
The Governor General also outlined a raft of proposals which seek to address issues of the ailing economy, safety and security, education, job creation, youth empowerment, health and wellness, corruption and the judiciary.
In terms of dealing with the current indebtedness of the state, Government plans to assign a dedicated team to work with those individuals and companies who are owed some $1.7 billion in arrears as of September 30, 2017.
“While there can be no overnight solution, given the magnitude of the problem, my Government commits to assigning a dedicated team to work with affected individuals and companies on a feasible plan for settling Government’s current indebtedness,” Dame Sandra said, adding that thereafter, the Government would establish a structure for regular on-time payment of money owed.
“When the system is established and functioning well, Government will be required to pay interest or penalties for late payments,” the Governor General pledged, before a hushed audience that included the newly-elected President of the Senate Sir Richard Cheltenham,QC, and Speaker of the House of Assembly Arthur Holder.
In terms of tackling rising crime, the Mottley government, which came to power just over a week ago in the May 24 general election in which it achieved a clean sweep before suffering one defection, said it will offer “a six-month gun amnesty and buy-back programme for legal and illegal firearms to reduce their numbers in the hands of civilians and in communities,” even though such a scheme has been dismissed as not workable by the top brass of the Royal Barbados Police Force and the former Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite.
“My Government will consult with Barbadians on major national issues, such as the decriminalization of recreational marijuana and the question of Parliamentary reform, including fixed dates for elections and term limits for Prime Ministers,” Dame Sandra said.
The Governor General also pledged today that Government would immediately introduce into Parliament, comprehensive integrity legislation to hold ministers and state board chairpersons and deputy chairpersons accountable for their actions and require politicians and key public officials to disclose their assets and liabilities.
“Stiff penalties [will be coming] for those who attempt to bribe politicians and public officials,” Dame Sandra said, adding that the Mottley administration was determined not to allow corruption to become endemic in Barbados.