Notes From a Native Son: Poverty of Ideas is our Greatest Handicap (final part)

Hal Austin

Even though the DLP was as surprised as many when it won the general election and the BLP had spent fourteen years during the greatest spurt in global economic growth in history, the reality is that after nearly five years the government cannot continue to blame the BLP. With a bit of imagination, innovation and a clear vision, the DLP government could have hit the ground running, not by introducing an absolutist austerity policy, which would have been disastrous and lead to social strife, but by a programme of sensible spending and fiscal discipline. Instead, it chose to give Bds$10m to the Barbados Turf Club, a clear abuse of taxpayers’ money, it gave and underwrote $180m for Four Seasons, another abuse, both in policy terms and of the national insurance scheme; it spent $50m ‘perfecting’ the Warren Roundabout, an classic example of the failure of planning.

Here we have a new administrative town without any proper provision for public transport, with more square metres of land allocated to car parking than even office space, emphasising the weakness of our town planning system and of the need for a comprehensive traffic management and land use policy.

Had government used all the above money, in addition to borrowing the $10m in dormant bank accounts, and at least half of the $1.3bn held in reserves, to form a Sovereign Wealth Fund, through which all public sector investments would be directed, that would have been a positive first step. Then with a well worked out programme of infrastructure developments, we would be well ahead of similar small economies to ourselves.

But we failed the test of imagination, of vision. Despite tinkering at the edges, the government’s response to the global economic crisis and the collapse in tourism should have seen a comprehensive regeneration of the City, including Nelson Street and its environs, turning a run-down slum area in to a modern, people-friendly, urban village, complete with a well-designed, well lit public garden, complete with fountains, leisure centre, a national theatre (the Empire building), improvements to Wellington Street going right up to River Road, with restaurants, nightclubs, all blanketed with free broadband – a dynamic and workable night-time economy.

It would have turned Nelson Street, with it sclerotic traffic jams every day, in to a one way street – either from Bay Street to Fairchild Street or the other way – with appropriate feeder streets; and all that area to the back of the Fire Station would be turned in to attractive shops, restaurants and stores. All this would go far beyond the planned Fairchild Street development, which in one of the few conversations I had with the late prime minister David Thompson, he tried to sell to me as a brilliant idea. I told him then it was not, and still think it is not.

A Sovereign Wealth Fund would be an ideal vehicle under which to collate all government public sector property, investments (the Barbados National Bank, LIAT etc), management of land and property, including the National Housing Corporation, and with a statutory mandate of producing an annual six per cent growth, plus the central bank base rate.
Run by professional fund managers, and with a global brief, the SWF would then become the instrument of public sector growth, reporting to parliament annually without any interference by a short-termist finance minister. It would also act as an investment bank for Barbados-domiciled SMEs, for funding a dynamic housing market, for hands-off management of the NIS investments.

Citizenship, Nationality, Residence and Domiciliate:
But the elephant in the room is who should have the right to settle permanently in Barbados? For deep collective psychological reasons, we avoid debating immigration and nationality, and policy weak ministers prefer the easy policy of selling residence and nationality to the highest bidders. If it is not already too late, the crude mix of New Barbadians – cultures, religions, foreign wealth, ethnicities – all of which make Britain the social time bomb it is, will in time do the same for Barbados, even if Barbadians believe they have the magic touch to make these things work. We seem as a nation to allow principals, dependant children, parents, grandparents, and even neighbours to settle in Barbados. This needs to be tightened up, allowing in only principals and partners and children under the age of 18; on reaching the age of adulthood the children must leave – and no dependants parents or grand parents.

This raises other questions of a growing population in an island just over 100000 acres; with the global population set to grow by a third by 2050, and already with a population of about 300000, Barbados can ill afford a rapid rise in population. We need a policy of two children to a family with the social, education and health costs of any additions being met in full by the parents. The reality is that Barbados needs to discuss its immigration, citizenship, nationality and residency policies as a matter of urgency. This came home to me in October of last year (2011) when Barbados played Guyana at football at the national stadium. Watching the game on television, I was shocked to notice that there were more Guyanese flags being flown by spectators than Barbadian; it also reminded me of the 2007 Cricket World Cup when some miscreant got on the roof of Kensington Oval and, victoriously, raised the Guyana flag. It was a moment of cultural/political triumph, when Guyana had registered its presence as a social and cultural force in Barbados

Tougher regulation must follow: the only public language must be English and it must be a criminal offence for businesses to display signs in any other language, or speak to staff or customers in any other language than English. In the final analysis, as an island whose main export since the abolition of slavery has been people – mainly to the neighbouring islands, Cuba, Panama, Brazil, the US, Canada and Britain –  it is morally right that Barbados should have a compassionate immigration policy, and it has throughout its many years. But there is a world of difference between being compassionate in who we welcome to our island home and who seeks to exploit our generosity.

Environment and Energy:
Within days of the first Rio conference in 1992, then prime minister Erskine Sandiford organised a conference in Barbados to discuss the development of a national environmental policy. It was a brave and promising move, but he failed to carry through on this and the subsequent BLP government spent fourteen years in office without giving the matter serious consideration.

The present DLP government, which came to power in the middle of an historic global, regional and local economic crisis, had little time to get round to the matter of the environment. But, some of its policies, and inaction, have combined to worsen the nation’s physical environment and, even more, to make matters some matters irretrievably worse.

In terms of the basics, one only has to walk through St Lawrence Gap or any of the main thoroughfares early on a Sunday morning to see the piles of rubbish and the infestation of rodents that plague people’s lives. All that is needed to eradicate this menace is a shift of night-time street cleaners going through these districts cleaning up so that churchgoers and early-morning risers would find clean streets. Even this seems to be beyond the senior managers of the Sanitation Department.

Household and business energy, including desalination plants, must be maximised through our solar, wave and wind sources, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels to emergencies. Then there is the matter of recycling. From basic metals, paper and glass, government should have sourced competent recycling firms, if necessary incentivised them for the first three or so years, to undertake this task. But the big challenge remains that of energy and the impact on the environment of fossil fuel-burning vehicles. Any energy policy must be linked to a wider transport policy and a strategy for the use of limited land space. It simply is unrealistic for governments to continue allowing the increase in motor vehicles, no matter what form of fuel they use, and to take up invaluable land by constantly extending the road network. There must be a limit to road expansion; equally to the growth of private and commercial motor vehicles piling up the streets.

In the short term, government could tackle road congestion by restricting private vehicles allowed within a certain distance of the City during the rush hour, especially those with single occupants on their way to or from work. But in exchange, government must provide incentives for car-sharing, and for a more comprehensive and safer public transport system. At the same time, government should impose a congestion charge on those vehicles entering the restricted area during rush hour, introduce a network of parking meters, increase the charges for parking in public car parks from the ridiculous Bds$1 an hour to a minimum of $5 an hour, and also introduce speed cameras, especially on the ABC highway. Public transport vehicles should also be given priority over private vehicles at the risk of a penalty.

In the medium to long term, government must think seriously of restricting the ownership of motor vehicles to one per household. The present system of so-called ZR vans, with three hundred and fifty different owners, is a form of organised vandalism. Further, the rules allowing permit owners to sell them on should be repealed, making permits non-transferable. In the medium term, however, government should re-nationalise the public transport system, make it more efficient, with a comprehensive nation-wide coverage, then return it to the ownership of its employees and local investors.

Constitutional Reforms:
To improve the nature of our democracy – rather than play games with the political illiteracy of Barbados being one of the three leading democracies in the world – is widespread constitutional reform. Not the inane discussion about a presidency, with all the democratic conflicts that would lead to, but reforms that would make governing our society that more transparent and equal. We need constitutional reform that will put power in the hands of the people expressed through the executive as an elected collective, and not the prime minister as at present, and most of all return overall power to parliament, as a parliament democracy. Prime ministers must not be allowed to over-ride the collective will of the Cabinet, either in policymaking or in making appointments.

We need to reform the Senate, making it an  Upper Chamber responsible for revising proposed legislation, rather than a chamber with an inbuilt majority for the ruling party and rubber stamping proposals from the Lower Chamber. The Senate must not be seen as a stepping stone to the House of Assembly, since it has a very important role to play in out fledging democratic law-making.

Analysis and Conclusion:
Apart from all the above, government also needs to take a long, hard look at retirement provisions and design a new portable defined contribution pension for all Barbadians aged 16 and over, which would replace the state scheme, which should then be ring-fenced. It is obvious to anyone familiar with tax evasion and illicit cross-border capital flows, that Barbados must in some way be both a key destination and a victim of the multi-billion dollar industry. First, the artificial property prices on the West Coast (the so-called Platinum Coast) suggest that some of those extra-ordinary prices are in fact money-laundering (I will deal with this at any time). We only get glimpses of this when hedge fund managers are accused of offences or over-extending Irish property dealers run in to trouble with their banks back home. More important, the well-connected lawyers and estate agents who work for these property dealers must have their suspicions or are unbelievably trusting.

Then there is the issue of financial regulation. Here is not the place to go in to details, especially for the retail sector, but at the very minimum the Financial Services Commission must put in place rules about the training and competence of financial advisers, product providers, the design of products, how these are distributed, charges and most important of all, professional ethics. Finally, senior politicians and policymakers are not only fooling themselves, but the entire nation, if they continue to believe the economic illiteracy that the problems in Barbados are cyclical, or even the result of poor public sector management. Of course, both these make the problems unnecessarily much worse. The lack of comprehensive public sector-wide technology, is inhibiting efficiency and productivity and this is compounded by poor management (as has been shown by the Alexandra School chaos). In reality, however, the real problem is structural, a top-heavy state, an over-burdened public payroll, and workers who treat working in the public sector as an extended holiday. Barbados has crucial decisions to make and time is running out.

Hal Austin, London (Sept, 2012)

0 thoughts on “Notes From a Native Son: Poverty of Ideas is our Greatest Handicap (final part)

  1. Agree with the point that as a country we need to being some structure to both public and private transportation. It has been allowed over the years – under both parties – to run rampant. The same can be said for the haphazard we plant houses all over the place. Development must be driven by relevant planning. An example of idiotic planning is definitely the West Coast and Warrens.

    Don’t agree that there is a poverty of ideas, lots of ideas abound but the will to implement/execute remains the hindrance.

  2. @Hal
    With a bit of imagination, innovation and a clear vision, the DLP government could have hit the ground running, not by introducing an absolutist austerity policy, which would have been disastrous and lead to social strife, but by a programme of sensible spending and fiscal discipline. Instead, it chose to give Bds$10m to the Barbados Turf Club, a clear abuse of taxpayers’ money, it gave and underwrote $180m for Four Seasons, another abuse, both in policy terms and of the national insurance scheme; it spent $50m ‘perfecting’ the Warren Roundabout, an classic example of the failure of planning.
    Not only did Thompson open the DLP innings with such regretful meagre shots back in 2008, Austin, …but had the audacity to inform (against Mia’s warnings) that ALL WAS WELL on the CLICO front. So much so he took $10 Million of the tax payer’s money …as a show of confidence…and gave CLICO.
    He then asked drivers in Bim to have further confidence in his hand and increased drivers’ registration from $265 to $400…to get the rid of VECO contract (road builders) saying the increase would be revisited affa 18 months..(June 2010).Truly a magician’s hand and farce extraordinaire…. with abetted jingoism by hypnotism.

    Many today still have not gotten over, and still yearn for the return of the jinxed …Wake up…Stuart is who is here..Estwick was overlooked looked for reasons.Chess players should know …the importance of your king and queen’s protection….cherish them at all cost…..your game will depend on it.

  3. @ Hal Austin
    In reality, however, the real problem is structural, a top-heavy state, an over-burdened public payroll, and workers who treat working in the public sector as an extended holiday. Barbados has crucial decisions to make and time is running out.
    You will get the sword for that….watch…..(ac seen running coming)

  4. @David | September 27, 2012 at 10:40 PM |
    “Don’t agree that there is a poverty of ideas, lots of ideas abound but the will to implement/execute remains the hindrance.”

    This is the biggest problem facing Barbados. Even the simplest of doable things are left to deteriorate and reflect so badly on a people who claim to be so well educated to the extent that this excessive education has replaced commonsense.

    Just two examples:
    The totally inefficient and environmentally disgusting way we remove bush and debris from the verges and gutters and generally take care of our streets. Why can’t we have an on-going programme to keep the roads and verges well presented and have the detritus removed within 24 hours instead of leaving it piled up on the pavements or left in the said gutters for weeks on end much of which ends up in the wells and water courses only to exacerbate flooding?

    When is the government going to tackle the problem of toxic fumes and black smoke emitted by the diesel powered vehicles? Driving behind the PSVs and other commercial vehicles is like dancing with death. What about the pedestrians who have to put up with inhaling the toxins and carcinogens especially the asthmatics. Are we faced with an unsolvable or insurmountable problem because of the quality of fuel we import and the players involved or it is an endemic case of poor maintenance of these vehicles by owners with big political clout and connections?

  5. @Miller

    Did we not create a whole ministry to deal with drainage? Sure a requirement is for the Drainage Unit and the MTW to cooperate/collaborate on the matter of leaving debris on the verges/side of road.

    Another issue which speaks to execution is our inability to implement a system which exposes those who steal farmer’s crops. How hard can it be to slam the door on this matter.

  6. @ David | September 28, 2012 at 9:43 AM |

    I believe the authorities’ attitude to this whole praedial larceny matter is a deliberate attempt to stifle or even destroy local production of food.
    By frustrating the farmers it would force many of them out of business and make the road clear for the merchants to import food to hold consumers by the short n’ curlies.
    The law enforcement agencies see these cases as nuisances and not really as crimes since property like cars, TV’s, dope or jewellery are not involved only just animals and crops.

  7. Square pegs in round holes will never be able to implement.

    If managers, leaders and senior staff are given posts as a reward for political brown nosing – how will we EVER be able to implement?

    The price of politics of inclusion!

    Needed….. A Bajan Meritocracy.

  8. @ Bush Tea | September 28, 2012 at 10:12 AM |
    “The price of politics of inclusion!”

    Are you implying here that the present DLP administration is continuing the practice of the politics of inclusion?

    Barbados is too incestuous a plantation based society to be a meritocracy? It’s a dream of Wynter Crawford, EBW and J C Tudor through the broadening of education experiment. We are still awaiting the outcome but it seems we are still having a nightmare.

  9. govt should allowed farmers to build an electrical fence as protection for their valuable livestock and agricultural produce a fast solution to an ongoing problem which is out of control

    • The state of agriculture/farming in Barbados beg the question what influence or lack of has Benn and Paul have from within the bowels of the parliamentary group.

  10. @ac
    No disrespect intended, but I am always living in hope that the education and intelligence most Barbadians claim to possess will someday express itself in public discussion.
    Sometime ago I pointed out in another place that with the government selling gilts to retail investors at an annual yield of seven per cent, alarm bells should ring.
    It was ignored by by academic economists, and journalists. However, we now find that the government is proposing, in all seriousness, that Mr Barrack should accept Bds$60m in full and final settlement of the debt owing, estimated at over $70m.
    This is the kind of barbaric behaviour that one finds in Middle Eastern bazaars, not with civilised, modern, democratic governments which are expected to meet their legal obligations.
    But this gangster capitalism goes beyond the mere robbing of Mr Barrack. What we are witnessing is the government defaulting on a debt, which should be of interest to the rating agencies and other lending institutions.
    Which brings me to the point I made about retail gilts. If the government is passing its debt on to retail investors, who in all innocence believe they are securing long-term income, it is reasonable to assume that if the economy is not in better shape the government would default on those obligations.
    The minister of finance, his senior policy advisers and the governor of the central bank must know this. If they do, and are continuing to poke ordinary people in the eye, it is dishonesty; if they do not, then they should not be in the positions they are in.
    This also raises another issue, the investment strategy of the national insurance scheme. If the NIS wrongly invests in high-rise office blocks in Warrens, the only likely occupants would be the government.
    If the government finds it is low in cash flow, again it would default on paying its rent. Again ordinary taxpayers would suffer.
    This government is bankrupt of ideas and is out of its depth. It is mortgaging the future of Barbados.

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