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.
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.