As we recover from the exuberance of the seasonal celebrations, we still have to face the reality of tough decisions as a nation. There is no hiding place, it is as Frank Sinatra said, the end is near and we are facing the final curtain. So far, predictably, neither our political leaders nor policymakers have indicated that the urgency of the situation has struck home. They are behaving as if time waits on the slothful, Barbadian workers and their arrogant and obstinate representatives before moving on. We only have to read the nonsense talked by the general secretary of the National Union of Public Workers (didn’t they get a Bds$6m loan from government? If so, why?)
Of the workers sent home from the drainage department, he is reported as saying: “They would have been given fixed term contracts and in a lot of cases with the people from Drainage, their fixed term contracts would have come to an end on the 31st day of December. “Nobody is looking at the fact that these are persons who would have been on four, sometimes five years, in a temporary situation, who, in my view, should have been appointed to the post that they were in.” What an admission of incompetence, of poor leadership, of betrayal of his own members. When did he realise that these temporary workers were in such contracts? Why, as union leader, did he not resolve this matter, and forcefully?
Of course the workers should not be on such long-term contracts. More than six months in an acting position should be confirmed as a permanent job. We now have a society in which even those in good, secure public sector jobs, with ‘guaranteed’ salaries live in fear of the sack, traumatised by the reality that they are only two or three pay packets away from destitution. A society in which envy, greed, bitterness have replaced dynamism and talent; one in which more energy is expended on being resentful of one’s neighbours’ material possession than in trying to improve one’s own intellectual and career prospects.
We now have a government, a nation, without any real leadership. The prime minister, by far the worst we have had since constitutional independence, and indeed of all out post-wear premiers and prime ministers, remains silent, while Donville Inniss takes the platform. His recent call for a reduction in the size of the state was, apart from other things, an invitation for a national debate. But, in typical Barbadian debating tradition, most commentators preferred to concentrate on Mr Inniss as a personality than of what he actually said. Quite often Mr Inniss shoots from the lip, but his regular intervention in public discussion – ignoring the traditional Cabinet portfolio responsibilities – showed that there is a vacuum at the very top of government and nature abhors a vacuum, and at least he is thinking about his role as an elected representative.
In the absence of much-needed dynamic there is therefore no programme for restructuring the public sector, nor indeed for rebalancing the economy. But the bandits are coming out of the woodwork, with some of the more unscrupulous employers threatening that if they do not get new (and obviously bigger) state contracts they too will have to offload some of their workers. In simple terms, these bandits are prepared to blackmail the government when it is at its weakness. Some of may like to think that consecutive BLP and DLP governments have brought this industrial relations thuggery on themselves, but it is ordinary people who suffer and that is of concern.What is needed in the early part of Q1 is a proper grown-up analysis if the local, regional and global economies and our place in this new picture.
Despite what party-supporting fanatics may think (my wife is an Arsenal supporter I know about fanaticism), the brutal truth is that we need an intelligent, secular analysis out of which policies must be drawn. Instead of rhetoric about a ‘green economy’ a competent and dynamic leader would have introduced the broad outlines for a green economy within 100 days with a broader and more detailed programme for this session of parliament. It does not take a genius to work out our environmental needs: waste recycling, coastal fish stock, energy needs, and so on.
In the absence of progressive monetary and fiscal policies from the authorities ordinary Barbadians have stayed rooted in the middle of the road as this uncontrollable financial crisis descends on them like an avalanche. There have been no attempts to form social enterprises, no entrepreneurial individuals have seen it necessary to small businesses to replace some of the imported goods and services, consumers are still addicted to buying expensive, imported produce rather than form local farmers’ markets. Those of us who prefer to go shopping in the markets rather than in the supermarkets get the impression that local consumers perceive market shopping – other than for fish – as second rate, inferior, to the supermarkets. Are you suggesting to me that a security firm formed of former police and Defence Force staff cannot be given the contract for the Grantley Adams International Airport instead of G4S, a British companies with a sticky record against black deportees?
Analysis and Conclusion:
We have failed even to develop our only world-class product, rum; concentrating on so-called tourism, which is the addiction of policy-free politicians and senior civil servants. It is an intellectually easy option. Typically, there has been much rhetoric, loads of promises, but in the end nothing has been done. One course of action the ministry of finance should urgently consider is imposing a windfall tax on all foreign-owned banks based in Barbados, with the size of the tax based on annual turnover, rather than declared profits. If these banks are prepared to extract maximum profits from Barbadian savers without making any real contribution to the financing of small and medium enterprises, then government has a moral duty to compel them to pay a one-off levy. This should be followed with the imposition of tough new restrictions on what these institutions could claim as exemptions in future. This tax can then be used to fund a retail balance sheet bank, which would provide the financialisation that is so badly needed.
Of course, our academic economists, who act as advisers and party apparatchiks, still have a resistance to specialising, especially in areas such as housing and tourism, which are central to social and economic development. So, once more, the urgent need for widespread urban development is not even on the agenda – or either party. There is no discussion of inflationary expectations or of inflation targeting, so very little evidence of the assumptions underlying our economic forecasting. So far the DLP government, the BLP opposition and the Social Partnership have failed to come up with positive ideas. The crisis facing the nation is not the result of any global economic problems, but the flaws in our parliamentary democracy which are some of the biggest hindrances, not only to the quality of public debate, but to the overall development of our democracy. Every week members of parliament meet and what passes for debate is the usual ping-pong of personal abuse and yaboo shouting. And, they get away with it because the nation is anaethetised to the poor quality discussions in what should be the nation’s premier debating chamber.
Let me end by quoting David Cameron, the British prime minister, who said in his parliamentary tribute to Nelson Mandela: “Progress is not just handed down as a gift; it is won through struggle of men and women who refuse to accept the world as it is, but dream of what it can be.” For prudent and responsible families, this is a time to batten down the hatches and prepare for rough seas, no matter how much money you have in your safe. There are stormy seas ahead. In the final analysis, ordinary voters must make their feelings felt, they must demand more from their elected officials and public servants. If they do not, then the bell will toll for all of us as a nation.
In the meantime, have a happy and wonderful new year.