Submitted by Doc Martin
Once again, the occasion of a general election has surfaced the abysmal ignorance of the electorate about the workings of government. Indeed, if one stands back far enough, one will see that practical government and the perceptions and aspirations of the so-called “masses” operate in parallel universes, the two colliding every five years, for five minutes, in a polling booth. From this perspective, I submit, once again, that the first-level answer to the problems facing Barbados is a change in the character of the incoming government as I argued elsewhere.
The DLP administration can justifiably be chastised for being slow off the bat to make so-called structural changes to the economy. Most of their first five years were spent apparently “relearning” the inner workings of the “modern” Barbados economy having been away from the seat of power for fifteen years. In their play for time, they were aided by their constant references to the truckload of debt left by the BLP and the worldwide, manmade recession which began around 2007.
In the last three years or so the Government did come up with embryonic plans (predicated on free IMF advice) to stabilize the economy but, as the IMF itself has well documented, lack of timely implementation has stymied the efforts and put the economy in further jeopardy. Perhaps, one of the greatest shortcomings of the DLP administration has been its inability to communicate with the population in terms that can be understood. There was also the ever-present temptation of nepotism, cronyism and sheer corruption which the administration could not resist. Of course, they do not have any monopoly on these sins, as the BLP would have us believe!
On page 61 of the 2015 budget, Chris Sinckler, the DLP’s Minister of Finance, made a very serious statement which, because of its importance and relevance, I reproduce here.
Mr. Speaker at present we seem to be caught in a vortex where we have a “Scandinavian” approach to the delivery of social services, where they generally are provided free at the point of delivery to all (universal access), while on the other hand, we appear to desire an Anglo-American approach to the issue of taxation where taxes are relatively low, and citizens clamour for ever lower taxes and tax exemptions.
It is in that dialectic: the aspirations of the masses vs. the penchant for unlimited freeness; the quest for benefits without bearing the fiscal costs; the clamour for rights vs. the willingness to bear the attendant responsibilities, that we find the parallel universe phenomenon which is at the root of the problems in Barbados and perhaps similar countries. And it is against this parallel universe concept that we should examine the sale of the Barbados Hilton.
Hilton on the Block
The BLP has made an election issue out of the sale and claimed that its plan to protest right outside the hotel has caused a halt to the negotiations on the sale. It claims this is a victory for the party; the naïve and the yard fowls will easily concur.
Successive Barbadian governments have failed to make the populace understand that the economic and financial principles of running a government are fundamentally the same as running a household. If a household’s earnings are less than what it spends it will have a “deficit” and have to borrow and if it over-extends itself in borrowing, it is only a short time before the debt collectors are knocking on its door! The fact that this is not understood is partly responsible for the parallel universe phenomenon.
A household can find financial ease if it has assets that can be used to generate income or sold to bring cash or, less preferably, used as collateral to obtain further credit. The sale of the Hilton should be viewed from this perspective.
Government is not, and should not be, in the business of running hotels per se. The Hilton is an asset held by government for the purpose of earning revenue; it is not a family heirloom that is inviolable. Given the dire straits in which it finds itself, the Government has chosen to sell the Hilton to bring much needed cash and possibly foreign exchange. At least this is the prima facie situation.
We can speculate or form conspiracy theories as to what else is going on. However, the objective fact is that the government needs the money. We might object to the price or even the terms of sale. If this is Ms. Mottley’s position, then we can support it. But there is always more in the mortar than the pestle! In this case, we suspect that Ms. Mottley is trying to earn political points and retaliate for the tax expose wrought upon her family by the DLP-Owen Arthur consortium; even that is understandable…to a point.
But, if the prima facie situation is what it is, then Ms. Mottley is being hypocritical because Bajan memories are not so short as not to remember the sale of the BNB (Barbados National Bank) to Trinidad by the last BLP administration of which she was a member.
Sale of government assets, when done for the right reason and in the right manner, is no more unethical or financially unsound than a household going about the sale of family assets, even heirlooms, to avoid bankruptcy or financial ruin. It is principled financial management and plain common sense!
Standby to Transport Aliens
It is time the masses started behaving like citizens rather than aliens, learn how government works and stop letting political parties exploit them because they are so naïve as to expect that government works any differently, fundamentally, from how they run (or should run!) their households. Then they will be in a position to critically evaluate the promises being made in this and any future election. But alas, this appears to be asking too much of a highly certificated but “uneducated” and alienated electorate. In that case the beam up is aborted!
Towards Proportional Representation
The foregoing should not be construed as an attempt to apologize for the DLP. On the contrary! In fact, I am not at all comfortable with a government made up solely of members of any one party be it BLP or DLP.
The moment is right in history for a government by coalition. To this end, the best thing the Barbados electorate can do at this time, is to ensure, in the absence of a system of proportional representation, that no one party makes up the incoming government of 2018. This it can do if a substantial portion of the electorate votes for members of a third party they feel have something worthwhile to contribute and at the same time, reject those of the major parties who have demonstrated incompetence, corruption or other malfeasances. I can think of at least three or four individuals across the current DLP administration and the BLP whom the electorate should sanction for these reasons.
Finally, if the electorate is so unhappy with how the older parties have been managing the people’s business in recent times, once this election is over, it needs to demand, by referendum, a change in the electoral system from the current first-past-the-post method to one based on proportional representation (with the added feature of recall!) which, all other things being equal, will always yield a coalition government.