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NEW YORK NEW YORK: Time for the PM’s address

Tony Best

NEW YORK NEW YORK: Time for the PM’s address

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REFLECTING on United States President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in Washington last month, a Barbadian in New York remarked about a somewhat similar tactic by Barbados’ Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
“We don’t have a State of the Union requirement at home but the Barbados leader can and should give people a state of the nation address to let people at home and abroad hear from him how he sees things and where he wants to take the nation,” said a resident of Queens. “It’s time for us to hear from the Prime Minister himself about conditions at home.”
Many Brbadians across America and Canada share that view. Informal gatherings in Toronto, Miami, Boston and elsewhere often begin or end with the question “when are we going to hear from the Prime Minister about the state of the country?”
Stuart should listen to the calls for a comprehensive statement about the challenges confronting the country and how his Government plans to meet them. He is no longer acting Prime Minister but a leader in his own right.
“We knew where Owen Arthur stood and where David Thompson stood and there is good reason for the country to be told by Stuart where he stands,” asserted a man who lives in Toronto.
“One gets a sense of drift in Barbados, a lack of decisive decision-making by the Government even before David Thompson’s death. That situation should be met head-on by Stuart; if not, he would be seen as a caretaker.”
Look at the way Obama played the hand that was dealt him. Faced with declining popularity, a lost majority in the House of Representatives and threats of congressional deadlock from emboldened Republicans and their Tea Party allies, Obama went to a joint session of the House and Senate and laid out his comprehensive plan for economic and social resurgence in America.
His eloquence, far-reaching programme and the appearance of bi-partisanship sent his approval rating to its highest point in about a year, up from the lower 40s to 50 per cent.
Obama’s “sputnik moment” and his declaration that “as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth” were applause lines that triggered roars.
Stuart doesn’t have a state-of-the-union ritual and he isn’t facing the kind of opposition that confronts Obama. The Prime Minister’s party has solid control of Government and recently won the St John by-election by a wide margin. However, it’s in the public domain that he is facing his strongest challenge.
Hence, the need to turn to a little-used device, prorogation of parliament, to kick-start his Government and start with a clean slate, one that would show he is in the driver’s seat. As in other parts of the Commonwealth, prorogation of Barbados’ Parliament, as distinct from dissolution, gives the Government a chance to do exactly what Obama did. It would cleanse the order paper of the bills, resolutions and questions that are going nowhere.
But the key would be the equivalent of a Throne Speech, with all or some of the trappings of an official opening after a general election. Should he get the green light from the Governor General and prorogue Parliament, Stuart would have time between the old and the new sessions of the House and Senate to reshuffle Cabinet, something many Barbadians are urging him to do in order to put his own team of ministers in place.
He could then use the reopening of Parliament to outline his agenda for the economy, transportation, crime, housing, education, regional integration, immigration and a host of other issues on people’s minds. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued parliament in Ottawa on December 30, 2009, in order to forestall a combined effort by three opposition parties to bring down his minority government.
Canadians weren’t in a mood to go back to the polls for the fourth time since 2004 and the prime minister’s manoeuvre worked. Harper, who has a reputation for being a competent tactician with a ruthless streak, won the day. The prorogation gave him some breathing room to lay out his agenda and he is now gearing up for an election expected to result in yet another minority government.
Stuart doesn’t have Harper’s problems. Every week or so it seems the Prime Minister is portrayed in commentaries, cartoons and newspaper editorials as being too laid back and that sentiment is resonating in the Diaspora.
He may be coming to New York this month to meet Barbadians here and may hear that sentiment, however muted, as well.