It would be palpably unfair to accuse the Mia Mottley administration of having become drunk with power after fewer than 12 months in office. But there is at least one glaring indication that its overwhelming victory in the last general election has led Government to believe its undeniable popularity will allow it to get away with whatever it so desires.
Government has been at pains to indicate to Barbadians that the present austerity measures are a sore necessity. It has preached since last year that its policies directed by the International Monetary Fund to stave off economic ruin in the country, will create some difficulties but which are necessary for the revival of the island’s struggling economy. As is usually the case when inflation and mounting debt become unsustainable, the bitter remedial medicine to be administered normally ends on the palates of lower and middle-income workers. Barbados is not unique in this situation.
But it was a crying shame to learn during Monday’s Estimates Debate that while Government is seeking to stem our economic haemorrhaging, to the extent that maids, security guards, postmen, bus drivers, sugar workers, caregivers, and others of similar ilk have been placed on the breadline, it will be allocating $14 million for consultants in 2019 and will bump this up to $21 million by the end of 2020.
During the debate Opposition Leader Reverend Joseph Atherley drew attention to the fact that such consultancy fees had jumped from $206 000 since the Mia Mottley administration [of which he was an initial part] took office in May. He noted: “If you look at the Estimates relative to the Ministry of Finance, these Estimates show a movement from last year, $206, 000 for professional services. . . fees paid to consultants. . . to $4 million when this administration came to office and completed that financial year. In the current Estimates, it is being proposed professional fees. . .fees paid to consultants. . .be moved to $14 million; and these Estimates also suggest that next year, there is a projection to move these professional services’ fees to $21 million.”
Of course, one is dealing with politicians, often the masters of rhetoric, spin, gobbledygook and the abstruse. In responding to his former party colleague’s query, Minister in the Ministry of Finance Ryan Straughn noted that the consultancy expenditure would lead to Government saving almost $1 billion in interest and amortization between 2019 and 2023. He added: “In addition to that, our consultants are also renegotiating all of the egregious contracts that have been agreed to under the previous administration at many of the state-owned enterprises, such that the monies that they are paying these individuals are worth the work that they are doing for the benefit of the taxpayers of this country.” Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister fame would have been proud had he been within earshot.
But since Mr Straughn did not deal with specifics then, perhaps he or one of the many consultants working in the Ministry of Finance can answer a few questions for those former public workers now collecting unemployment benefits and the Barbadian public at large. What is the exact financial arrangement with White Oak Advisory Ltd. out of London? If there is an arrangement, how soon after the May general election was it entered into? Was an arrangement entered into before or after the first convening of Cabinet?
Additionally, if the Ministry of Finance has at its disposal multiple homegrown economic planners dealing with the Government’s debt restructuring programme, why the necessity for an overseas concern? At the end of the day Barbados’ is a very tiny economy. Is this a demonstration of a lack of confidence in our local consultants? Are the foreign consultants practising some form of economics previously unheard of by mankind?
Mr Straughn spoke on Monday of consultants now “renegotiating all of the egregious contracts that have been agreed to under the previous administration”. Could he inform the public whether there is a consultant attached to the National Cultural Foundation? Is there a British consultant in the Ministry of Creative Economy, Culture and Sports? Is there a consultant with the Ministry of Tourism? Attorney General Dale Marshall has already identified his consultant thus no questions need to be asked. Are these part of the re-negotiators? Could Mr Straughn, in clear and modest terms, speak to the going rate for a consultant and if that rate ranges from four to five-figure monthly salaries, how will Government save $1 billion from these specific expenditures?
The irony is that like the last Democratic Labour Party administration when it took up office in 2008 and criticized the Owen Arthur Government for allegedly spreading the wealth around to its political loyalists, the current administration correctly admonished the Freundel Stuart administration for such instances. Now the current government seems set to carry the practice to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, the lines at the Unemployment Bureau are getting longer and longer each month.