One of the greatest attributes of astute politicians is an innate knowledge of the people they ostensibly serve and the ability to use that insight to their benefit. It is often said of Barbadians that they have short memories and thus this is exploited by politicians with impunity. One can judge if that is true, or whether it is more a case of a people being apathetic to things swirling around them as long as they are not directly affected or are oblivious to the fact that indeed they are being affected indirectly.
Recent political utterances and events in Barbados point to a level of disregard for the intelligence of citizens. Some political decisions that have drawn little public comment also point to a degree of apathy among the Barbadian public and confirmation of our politicians’ deep understanding of the people over whom they lord. An institutional and administrative absurdity that is exposed annually but remains intact, continues to provide example of much of what is wrong in this country.
A few years ago, the Office of the Auditor General highlighted a number of financial infelicities involving taxpayers’ money, some were criminal, others were purely administrative. Among the former was an instance of a top civil servant breaching the Financial Management and Audit Act, or the Financial Rules 1971, by forming a company and giving himself multiple Government contracts reaching into high six-figures. He also used state funds to buy equipment for his company. That equipment was not even located in Government’s inventory at the time. The civil servant’s company also collected VAT from his own Government agency but it was not remitted to the Government. What has become of that gentleman? He is still in charge of the same Government agency. And that generally is the story of Barbados.
The Office of the Auditor General needs to be given prosecutorial teeth. What is the point of these annual reports of mismanagement, corruption, all manner of dubious activity, and the status quo not only remains the same but no Government appears willing to make the necessary legislative adjustments to empower the Auditor General to take decisive action beyond mere ventilation of information? What are our political leaders so afraid of? The answer should be quite obvious to those not marooned on Roebuck Street or George Street with empty tots in hand.
Though we cast no aspersions on the present Government of Barbados, questions raised by the Auditor General recently of a $124 million write-off of investments into the Four Seasons Hotel, necessitate full explanation.
Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance Ryan Straughn attempted to speak for the Prime Minister on an issue for which he was not a party to. Indeed, one could not determine whether one had fallen through Alice’s rabbit hole into Wonderland or washed ashore on Gulliver’s Lilliput after absorbing Straughn’s explanation about Cabinet decisions and recusal from decision-making.
In response to a query from a former Government minister about the writing- off of the taxpayers’ $124 million, Straughn noted: “I knew that Ms [Maxine] McClean was trying to suggest that because there was a conflict of interest that somehow the participation in the decision-making was somehow untoward. I can give the public the full assurance that not just in relation to this matter, but any other matter that relates to any member of Cabinet to my certain knowledge, anytime there has been a conflict, persons recuse themselves from any decision-making and allow the remainder of the Cabinet to make the decision.”
But Cabinet does not operate like a court of law where a magistrate or judge voluntarily replaces himself or herself in a specific case because of conflict of interest. Cabinet is not merely about a meeting from which you vacate a chair. Cabinet is about collective responsibility and all members of Cabinet are responsible at the national level for all decisions made.
Governments past and present have proved to be somewhat functioning conundrums. Certain fundamental decisions are only brought to the attention of the Barbadian public if leaked, contained in some official report or exposed on the floor of Parliament.
On the other hand, in a public show of inclusiveness, some Barbadians are being crowded into committees to deliberate on issues for which technocrats, experts and other functionaries already exist or have long outlined solutions. Barbadians would do well to observe the make-up of the Water Committee which contains individuals with vested interests in desalination. We will watch closely to see who wins bids for any major projects suggested by this grouping.
Mr Straughn used terms such as “giving the public full assurance”. Others before him have let words such as “accountability”, “transparency” and “integrity” slip smoothly from their lips. These are feel-good bromides Barbadians like to hear. But if the complete hash made of the last attempt to pass related legislation through Parliament can be used as a guide, then scenarios such as the seeming irrelevance of Auditor General reports, manna-like committees everywhere, state funds wasted on ‘copied original’ slogans and verbal political poo, become quite palatable in today’s Barbados.
Barbadians demand better from those elected to run the affairs of this country, regardless of the political stripes they wear.