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Issues of the year

Sanka Price

Issues of the year

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THE MAJOR ISSUES that dominated this year’s headlines were in most cases a continuation of those from 2010.
The unresolved CLICO and British American Insurance quagmire, the controversial Four Seasons project, the rise in the cost of living and the stagnant economy, and concerns over the leadership in both political parties were the most prominent.
Other significant matters included the non-payment of the more than $70 million now owed to contractor Al Barrack by Government, notwithstanding the longstanding court judgment in his favour.
Barrack launched a letter-writing campaign to regional and international organizations calling for a blacklisting of Barbados for violation of his human rights. Through legal manoeuvrings, he managed to have the disputed office building in Warrens put up for sale as well as land in St Philip ceded to him to satisfy payment.
And he even got a promise from Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler that he would be paid, though he is still waiting.
Another burning issue was the traffic congestion and the seeming piecemeal plans to tackle this matter. Work on the Greater Warrens Traffic Safety Improvement Project was begun as a way to ease traffic woes in that bustling town centre, but a more comprehensive, well-articulated plan for the entire country is still pending.
A third important issue, and one that has long-term implications for future development, is the general poor health of the population and the cost in the form of medication, hospitalization and treatment of preventable chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, hypertension and heart diseases.
It was revealed that at least 40 000 Barbadians are not controlling their blood pressure and putting themselves at high risk of a heart attack or stroke. To compound this, Barbados was accorded the unflattering 17th spot in the world’s fattest nations list by the World Health Organization (WHO), with 60.4 per cent of its people recorded as overweight or obese. That is, being too fat for their height, and having a high Body Mass Index (BMI).
Three new issues that caused a stir included the attempted introduction of an Antiquities Bill which would have given Government the right to enter homes and take possession
of personal antiques deemed important to the local culture. This proposed legislation was withdrawn for further consideration.
Second was the introduction of payment of handling fees to private pharmacies for medication under the drug formulary, while those who used the pharmacies at the polyclinics and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) would avoid such charges.
As most Barbadians use the former for convenience and more efficient service, this proved to be an additional cost to bear at a time when other services and utilities were rising.
Along with this was the decision to stop non-nationals’ access for treatment at the polyclinics or QEH unless in emergencies. This applies to all those who are not Barbadian citizens regardless of their years of residence here, and whether they have a work permit or pay taxes.
The third new issue was over education, which is free from nursery to tertiary level. The loud suggestions from within Government insiders were that given the economic circumstances, this freeness – particularly for university education – might have to end, and some sort of payment made.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, however, put paid to such talk by declaring that was not on the cards.
Meantime, the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill campus, disclosed that Government owed the most by regional countries for the education of students.
But as earlier indicated, one of the top four issues was the ongoing CLICO and British American Insurance saga.
With a judicial manager appointed for both companies, positive word has emerged for much of those policyholders associated with British American as Sagicor will be taking over much of that portfolio. However, for CLICO policyholders, especially those who invested in the Executive Flexible Premium Annuities (EFPAs), there is still uncertainty.
Equally unclear is how much late Prime Minister David Thompson knew about the CLICO scandal as he was a witness and a signatory to the job contract for former executive chairman of CLICO Holdings (Barbados) Leroy Parris, which a Thompson-appointed special Oversight Committee said it could not find any evidence of during its investigations.
That contract revealed Parris was paid a salary of $30 000 monthly, $300 000 a year as a bonus payment and another $300 000 yearly for providing management services. It all came to light when Parris’ attorneys filed writs in the High Court, claiming he was owed over $10 million from CLICO Holdings (Barbados) and CLICO International Life Insurance in gratuity.
The stalled Four Seasons project received a loan of $60 million from ANSA McAl bank in Trinidad which was guaranteed by Government to assist in its restart. However, those funds were used to repay creditors.
At year’s end, indications were that the board of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), after some seeming reluctance by its directors, would invest $60 million to kickstart the project.
The issue is not the worthiness of this project, as most acknowledge its benefits to the development of the economy if handled sensibly but would also generate hundreds of jobs when it gets going. The concerns are that Government should not be the lead investor as it was conceived as a private sector-led initiative, and if it were still viable businessmen would be willing to invest, but this was not happening.
This criticism grew even louder because the money to make Four Seasons a reality must come from the NIS board, the trustee of Barbados’ social welfare net. Objectors’ concerns are that Government has been using the NIS inappropriately as it was called upon in Sinckler’s August Budget to provide loans to the UWI, Transport Board and the Barbados Tourism Authority to the tune of $110 million.
The other significant issue which caused much of public outcry was the rising cost of living as experienced through increased prices of food, petrol, utility bills and some services. Much criticism fell on light bills as their charges seemed to increase each month.
Responding to the many complaints, Stephen Worme, chief operating officer of the Barbados Light & Power (BL&P), said the increases in the cost of electricity resulted from several factors, including the fuel price and VAT hike (from 15 per cent to 17.5 per cent in December 2010), and “did not benefit” the power company “in any way”.
BL&P made a profit of about $45.6 million in 2010, its highest in four years.
With the cost of commodities and oil continually rising on the international market, the outcry against prices is certainly likely to continue in 2012. What is clear is that the effects of these high bills and Government’s inability to lower the cost of living after declaring it to be job No. 1, 2 and 3, has given this issue a distinct political flavour.
What’s more, the glaring failure of certain statutory boards points to the reasons for the continuing high subsidies and transfers. This goes to the root of the unsustainable fiscal deficits about which the international ratings agencies as well as the International Monetary Fund have expressed concerns.
For example, this year, the Transport Board had to be bailed out after suffering another massive loss, because though it earned $46 million, it spent $94 million, while the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) received $40 million.
Added to this, the stagnation in the economy with businesses complaining about poor sales and unemployment rising to 12.1 per cent, as recorded by the Barbados Statistical Service, with forecasts suggesting things will worsen, largely impacted on people to cause most disquiet on the direction of the country.
As economic performance and political leadership are inextricably linked, that was largely responsible for the issue of this year: concerns about leadership.
Both the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) for differing reasons caused the populace some disquiet on this issue.
In the case of the BLP, though its leadership is settled with the re-emergence of former Prime Minister Owen Arthur over Mia Mottley last October, the visible distance she maintains in dealing with her colleagues suggests a rift. This was at times made more pronounced in her very public fraternization with key members of the DLP.
But the real concerns about leadership centred around Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
Having fully taken over late last year after the death of David Thompson, people were looking for him to stamp his style on his administration. The jury may still be out on this as he tended to be silent most of the time and allowed his ministers to take the lead on discussing matters of concern. And when he did speak, he tended to be philosophical in analyzing issues.
In addressing the economy directly, he admitted it was a challenge to find steady work for all those seeking employment, and he stressed that in these hard times people needed to separate their wants from their needs.
Stuart blamed the international recession for much of the problems affecting the economy, and in the face of a downgrade of this country’s rating from Baa2 to Baa3 by Moody’s Investors Service – because of its projections that Government debt was likely to reach too high a level in the next 12 to 18 months – said it was no cause for alarm given the economic turbulence experienced in Europe, namely Spain, Portugal and Greece, and that Barbados had done well under the circumstances.
The Prime Minister’s general silence led to speculation of unease in his Cabinet for some months but these were always dismissed, particularly by Sinckler, who was cast by some analysts as Thompson’s real heir apparent.
And Stuart’s only Cabinet appointments to date were to make room for both Denis Kellman and Denis Lowe, without fundamentally touching any of those appointed by Thompson in his deathbed Cabinet reshuffle.
By December, there was a letter drafted with the names of 11 MPs, eight of them in Cabinet, seeking an “urgent audience” with Stuart to discuss issues of leadership.
Sinckler explained that the talks were “to discuss our leadership; so therefore it was not an issue of the Prime Minister and his leadership per se. It was the leadership of everybody, both in the party and Government context”.
The Prime Minister, in his first public response to the letter, stated if there was an attempt to derail his Government, it clearly had not worked and “certain consequences will have to follow”.
Waxing philosophical, Stuart said “if a coup is attempted and it succeeds, the person against whom the coup was aimed usually pays for it with his neck. If the coup fails, the plotters and those who were trying to execute it pay for it with their necks . . . . So, let’s wait and see”.
At the time of writing, Barbados is still waiting.
Strong political leadership with solid communication between the Prime Minister and his ministers is vital in building confidence in any Government’s programme.
As leader, the Prime Minister’s policy perspective matters because though voters elect a team, they look to him and his views as to what his team will seek to pursue on their behalf. The leader needs to be able to articulate this to his colleagues and convince them of it before sharing his vision with the public. At the same time, after discussion, he and his colleagues must be in sync and should all speak from the same script.
This show of solidarity is even more critical in an economic recession where a Government must ask the public to buy into belt-tightening policies in order to ride out the storm.
The action by the Eager 11 demonstrates that the level of communication between Stuart and his team is not what it should be. How wide the rift is, and how deep seated, is unclear.
What is certain though is that before the DLP leadership can convince the country that their policy direction is the way to best manage this crisis, they must first settle their differences.