It has been a year since the Barbados Labour Party swept the polls, ousting the Freundel Stuart led administration which many believed had shown signs of inertia and indecisiveness.
Unfortunately, the DLP had taken the reins of government during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and had very little elbow room to keep the populace contented. By 2018, ten years of austerity had taken its toll, and the electorate were ready for a change. Impressed with the BLP’s campaign, voters entrusted Ms Mia Mottley with the responsibility of leading the country out of the economic doldrums.
The question now, is how has the new Government delivered on its overwhelming mandate? The appointment of 26 cabinet ministers, while at the same time repeating the refrain that the treasury was broke, appeared strange, to say the least. This was compounded by the recruitment of several salaried consultants whose value to the economic recovery was questionable. The choice of British firm, White Oak, to negotiate the rescheduling of the foreign debt seems incomprehensible, especially since reports suggest that Dr Delisle Worrell possesses the necessary expertise to do the job.
When a five per cent salary hike was granted to public servants, together with a satisfactory increase in non-contributory pensions, public workers and pensioners were pleased. In addition, removal of the unpopular NSRL was music to the ears of consumers. The joy was short-lived, however, as the mini budget soon afterwards brought pain in the form of a garbage tax leading to a rise in water bills, a health levy, VAT on online purchases, among a range of impositions. To make matters worse, the expected drop in supermarket prices did not materialise, and there has been a continual loss of jobs in both the public and private sectors. Then, in the Budget of March 2019, commuters on public transport learnt that they had to find an additional $1.50 for each bus ride.
I like the energy displayed by Minister Abrahams in tackling the South Coast Sewage problem. Nevertheless, it is a pity that we did not see the same vigour in response to the water shortages experienced by consumers in St Thomas, St Joseph, St John and St Lucy, in particular. To be fair, this is not a new problem, but that is cold comfort to suffering consumers who still have to pay the high water bills caused by the imposition of the garbage tax.
Abandoning plans for one or more desalination plants is unwise in the circumstances of drought, loss of water due to corroding pipes and inefficient management. The administration would endear itself to the public if it finds a viable solution to frequent water outages.
The Government must be commended for taking steps to combat corruption and stem the rising tide of violent crimes. Care has to be taken, though, that, in an effort to fix the broken criminal justice system, the Government does not do violence to the Constitution, or use its massive majority to tamper with the document’s fundamental rights provisions.
One other weakness in Government’s crime fighting strategy is its failure, to date, to increase the emoluments for police officers. Money is not all, but the shortage of manpower in the Force is unlikely to be remedied unless salaries become more attractive.
As far as the economy is concerned, improvement in foreign reserves is welcome, but we need to remember that the increase is largely due to borrowing and default on our foreign debt rather than earnings. We now have the dubious distinction of being one of a short list of defaulters in the world. The action of defaulting has come at the price of damage to our reputation as a country which honours its debt obligations. I am still not convinced that we needed to go that route nor am I sold on the need to go to the IMF. That lending agency is more concerned with figures than people, and the less than US$300 million obtained could have been borrowed from China without the onerous conditions.
The decision to accept convergence to appease the OECD might have seemed necessary to save the International Business sector, but as was quickly realised when the European Union blacklisted the country, source markets for such business will move the goalposts whenever we meet the standards which they have set. Further, with convergence, we now have a situation where pensioners, who have already paid their dues, pay higher tax rates than Corporations. In addition, the treasury has been robbed of revenue which government could ill afford.
In Opposition, the BLP rightly cried out against what it saw as discrimination in news coverage on CBC. One certainly expected, therefore, that in power, the party would move swiftly to ensure that all shades of political opinion are fairly ventilated. Unfortunately, there seems to be a total blackout on any information emanating from George Street. Also, where is the promised Freedom of Information Act? Based on comments from the president of the media association, journalists seem hopeful that the Attorney General will get around to having a bill drafted after dealing with weightier matters surrounding BERT. One hopes that the Association’s hopes are not misplaced.
Foreign policy-wise, there was much chest thumping when Prime Minister Mottley assured CARICOM colleagues that a new dawn had arrived for Caribbean integration. Former Prime Minister Stuart was accused of doing nothing to advance the CSME; Barbados was to lead from the front again. Alas, it was not long before it was discovered that such optimism was misplaced. The move of Ross University from Dominica to Barbados led to a cooling of relations between the two Caribbean states, and the United States led opposition to the legitimate government of Venezuela revealed a gaping fracture in the surface deep unity of CARICOM. Once again, we learnt that Caribbean unity hardly goes beyond grand speeches.
The enthusiasm of Ambassador Commissiong and Prime Minister Mottley to throw the doors wide open to CARICOM nationals as one way of redressing the imbalance between the young and elderly demographics of Barbados needs to be measured against a few harsh realities. At present, there is an acute shortage of jobs for school leavers; many Barbadians cannot find decent housing and our health resources are severely stretched. From where will we find the jobs, houses, school places and health facilities to accommodate an influx of migrants? Let us walk slowly to go far.
In conclusion, the first year should have taught the new Government that repetition of phrases like “the lost decade” and “corruption” will not be enough to satisfy a people anxious to see improvement in their lives. Tough decisions must be taken, but people should always be at the centre of restructuring and transformation.