Notes From a Native Son: Mottley Can Make History – Cometh the Moment, Cometh the Woman
The newly elected DLP government has now spelt out its programme for this parliamentary session and, it is fair to say, it must be seen as the best shot this government has in its armoury. In the Queen’s Speech, the nation was told: “The centre piece of Barbados’ economic strategy will be the creation of a Renewable Energy Revolution which will enhance the competitiveness of the productive sectors by reducing energy costs, reducing the fuel import bill, creating new jobs and helping to lower the cost of living.” It continues: “My government will therefore immediately prepare a Renewable Energy Bill to bring in to effect the relevant budgetary measures of 2012, and establish a Bds$15m “Hotel Refurbishment, Energy Efficiency and Food Production Fund” within the National Insurance Scheme investment portfolio….” This is waffle. Does it mean that the objective to to provide wind, solar and wave energy within the next five years? Does it mean that privately-owned run-down hotels badly in need of refurbishment can now depend on taxpayers’ pensions contribution to be refurbished? Does it mean the government now has a food security policy, if so what is it?
The other important reference is that on technology. It states: “To further drive economic growth and social development, it is important that Barbados be at the cutting edge of the new information technology.” How does it plan to do this? Not by training young people in the various aspects of the new technology; not by introducing technology across the entirety of the public sector; but by reducing the cost of the internet and broadband to households with a tax reduction.
Nothing about the delaying in naming his Cabinet, nor in the 16-page Throne Speech indicates that Stuart and his advisers understand fully the depth of the crisis. An example of this is the quote: “Our nation has successfully weathered the greatest economic turbulence since independence. The resourcefulness and common sense of our people have been central to this success.” This is not just an untruth, it is insanity to believe that Barbados has successfully weathered the economic storm. This fiction is the work of a demented mind. There is no evidence that the central bank officials fully appreciate the dynamics of global economic change and the implications of this for small economies like Barbados. Although in principle a reshuffle is to be applauded, this one must be seen as shifting chairs on the Titanic; the ministers moved can be seen as failures, even by Stuart’s myopic vision.
In particular, many of these are the very people rejected by the electorate. It is either a case of stifling conservatism, which means in policy terms no great reforms, or mind-boggling political ignorance. It was a good opportunity to introduce young blood to the Senate and thank some of the old hands for services rendered. So far, Stuart has not shown any confidence in his ability to manage, his team. In fact, if anything, what we have seen so far is uncertain: it took him a week to appoint his new Cabinet and then most of the old ministers were simply re-inserted in to their old jobs. The implication of this is that he was happy with what they had done and would be prepared to let them carry on. Does this apply to Chris Sinckler?
Second, and this has wider political implications, he extended this uncertainty by backing the appointing of former ministers to the Senate and re-appointed them as ministers, after the electorate had rejected them. So, one can only assume, he is not a democrat. But the coup de grace is his 16-page Queen’s Speech, his programme for this parliament.
Mia Mottley, the re-installed leader of the official Opposition, can count herself lucky in part. By any reckoning, she would have returned the BLP to government had she been the captain of the ship during the last general election, no doubt with a substantial popular mandate. But time and a government not sure of itself are on her side: she is still in the prime of her youth, she stands head and shoulders above this generation of parliamentarians, and she is hugely intelligent. What is more, although not a trained economist, she demonstrates an awareness that is far more sophisticated than many of those who are trained on her side of the House, and than all on the government’s side.
In short, this is now her time and she alone can throw it away; but first she must get rid of some bad habits and one or two of her pet loves. First, she must discard the populist, but politically dangerous habit of speaking without notes. It does not prove anything, far less brilliance, and leaves her exposed to repetition, factual error and rhetorical gobbledegook. As Official leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, what she says at official gatherings will now be regarded as of historical and political importance. She must use notes, at the very least, and fully written speeches, at best.
She must also demonstrate a hold on her Shadow Cabinet, keeping close control on the ones likely to stray. If they do, sack them.
As leader, Mottley must have an iron hand in a velvet glove. She must not allow her Shadow team, under any condition, to undermine her, and I know how difficult it can be at times to manage aggressive, stubborn, hard-headed, know-all Barbadians. While giving her team a full hand at developing policy and participating in discussions, she must remind them that she is the first among equals – they have the freedom to speak, she has the authority to decide. Above all she must not repeat the mistake Arthur made during the election campaign, turning Clico from a regulatory and political issue in to one about dishonesty and fraud. We are going over the same old ground of the Mutual debate, when we allowed people not sophisticated about insurance to shift the debate to one about board room representation, which is important, rather than the actuarial valuation of the society and its legacy wealth. The result, in my view, is that the Mutual’s members virtually gave away their investments.
With Clico, we should have called in the police if there was a prima facie case of fraud; the regulator should have moved in and taken over the day to day management while freezing assets; and the silly idea of a judicial management review was wrong in two key ways: judges do not know about finance and almost certainly about insurance companies. What they did was to legalise the Clico crisis; the other mistake was to get accountants to carry out the review, rather than actuaries. Actuaries run insurance companies, accountants play around with numbers for the tax man. It is like getting a motor mechanic to carry out repairs on a plane. Would you ride in such an aircraft?
After her unfortunate sacking as party leader, Mottley needs to rebuild her credibility, and she must look forward, remembering that the past is a foreign country. But there are one or two other populist housekeeping things she must do: avoid going on television cookery programmes; avoid trying to be actively involved in sports, although she must vigorously support her constituency teams; she must avoid being seen as a big player in the music industry, although she must be an ambassador for Barbadian popular culture. Her priority now are the bread and butter of Opposition politics: speeches, responding to government, political calculation, reassuring her party and reenergising her supporters, keeping the media and business leaders on side, all that while flying the flag for a better tomorrow under her leadership. She must surround herself with advisers who would not just tell her what she wants to hear, but the truth, however painful. Above all, she must not try to be an academic economist, but must dominate that juncture where economics meet politics, she can be the mistress of that space.
Modern politics is the art of weaving a political narrative with an economic storyline and social policy objectives, blending them all in to a potpourri which appeals to the hearts and minds of voters. She must remind herself that at the height of the 2007/8 crisis, the Bretton Woods organisation had 20000 economists all with blue chip PhDs and all saying how wonderful the global economy was. They all failed. She only has to read Ben Bernanke’s speeches leading up to the crisis, the global expert on the 1930s recession, he too failed to spot the emerging crisis. There are no experts. Mottley must remember that the mark of a good leader is not to know everything about government, but to know people who have the expertise and ability to guide her on the right path. She must take the fight to every single minister, making him or her account for policy. There is a popular English saying: Stuart may be in office, but he is not in power.
Analysis and Conclusion:
By any reckoning, the BLP has got the pick of the litter. Mia Mottley is by far a more politically intelligent and astute politician than Stuart and is generally seen by the public as such. Her one problem, and it is a big one, is that she is perceived as someone who is capable of saying the right thing in public and something else in private. It is an image problem she must deal with over the next five years. One way of dealing with this is by encouraging people who will speak the truth to her in to her inner cabinet of advisers. Her real enemies are the people who keep telling her how wonderful she is.
One of her strengths is that she understands macro-economics, in fact more so than Chris Sinckler, and she should shadow the finance brief. She comes from a long tradition of politicians and those of us old enough to remember her grand father often remembers a man who was not above doing deals, but who also had a magnificent record of social welfare policies, from the Queen’s Park food kitchens, to clothing the poor and handing out cash to help poverty-stricken families in the Lower Green to make ends meet. But doing good is not all, as Barrow showed when he got rid of local government just to spite Ernest Deighton, her grand father.
So, Mia Mottley must watch her back, build bridges, cultivate friends in strange places, and, above all, be a woman of integrity. If she wants an example of how a small island state can be captured by criminals and oligarchs, she just has to look at Cyprus.
We must stop seeing the colour of money and learn the value of taking precautionary steps before we sell every last inch of land to vultures – and some well-intentioned people – from Europe and North America.
We allowed, for example, a failed kitchen and bathroom manufacturer from Yorkshire to come to Barbados, buy an entire plantation and turn it in to a massively expensive upmarket gated community complete with golf course. We also allowed a caravan park owner to turn up and buy huge amounts of land to turn in to expensive apartments and houses. And, in all this, the obvious question: what is in this for us seemed to have passed our policymakers, planners and politicians by.
This is what the new politics are about: thinking globally, while acting locally. If she does not know yet, this is what Mottley must learn, and fast.
Mottley now has an opportunity to re-write our recent history, not through implementation of policy, but by framing her politics in a grown up way, away from personalities to policy. In the end, by whatever measure, we must see prime minister Stuart as a failure at the top job: he failed to call a general election in the wake of the late David Thompson’s death; he failed to take control of economic strategy when Chris Sinckler and De Lisle Worrell were obviously messing up things; he failed to intervene when Ronald Jones was like a captain on a rudderless ship with the crisis at Alexandra, and the continuing failure of school leavers to gain reasonable CXCs; Stuart also lost control of the criminal justice system.
Mottley can now put pressure on Stuart since she has less to lose. Stuart is managing a team which includes many mavericks one of whom would likely walk out if s/he does not get his own way.
Further, the central bank should not be allowed to function without accountability, a message that must be driven home to the governor and his supporters. And, under Sinckler, the ministry of finance has lost control of tax policy, policy coherence and, in fact, all fiscal credibility and not even parliament can control its wild public expenditure. As the economic ministry, over the last five years has not introduced any innovation, has no authority over policy, and no obvious experts on its staff to lead the national discussion.
In general, there is no evidence of any intellectual understanding of supply side economics and, overall, along with the central bank, lacks proof of capability. If this is the success the Queen’s Speech is referring to then we are all living in a dream world. One necessary change is to make it illegal for the ministry or central bank to spend money without parliamentary approval. This will be a good start.