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PEOPLE AND THINGS: Another royal mess

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE AND THINGS: Another royal mess

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Over the course of last week, some Barbadians shifted their preoccupation with Government’s expenditure of $250 000 on a road sign to the estimated cost of a two-day Royal visit of $800 000.  
As was the case with the cost of attendance at the Royal wedding, the cost of the sign in Wildey, the average cost of a roundabout and the now infamous “golden shower”, it is clear there is some distance between what the public believes these things should cost and actual cost to both Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Governments.
This dilemma is quite normal both here and across the world and this would be a good starting point for this reflection on the cost of governance.
Clearly, it is considerably more expensive for Government to do most things than it is for the average individual as the “golden shower” scenario clearly illustrated. Government built a shower for what most people in that time would have built an entire house.
In the United States, the situation is no different as taxpayers there question why it cost their government US$181 757 to fly Air Force One for a single hour while the average airline can deliver the same airplane (full) from London to New York for just US$50 000.
Regardless of the level of security, the comparison here is startling since the commercial cost of just over $7 000 an hour compares most unfavourably with the presidential cost of US$180 000 an hour with just a single occupant.
Various reasons are offered for this type of extreme difference, which range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
In the latter category is the argument that people price their products within the context of a familiarity with the client’s resources and payment practices, hence if one is presenting a bid to Government, one asks for more money since Government seems to like paying heavily for things.
In the sublime category is the argument that every Government contractor is familiar with, and this is the fact that Government pays considerably more slowly than most other clients and this increases the cost of doing business with it, which needs to be passed on.  
There are other arguments as well, such as the fact that Government’s standards tend to be higher than the average individual’s and these are more costly to attain, in addition to the fact that Government often requires products that no one else desires, hence the entire cost of stocking such products will have to be passed on to Government.
Against this background, the cost of the Royal visits seems quite paltry, especially since a considerable part of that amount was spent on repairs to Government House which would presumably have needed such repairs anyhow. The issue therefore turns on the question of necessity and it would perhaps not surprise anyone to know that I considered the visit entirely unnecessary and an unfair imposition at this time.
It matters not that we were able to entertain Her Majesty’s representatives for less than $1 million, since this type of entertainment sends a signal to people who are otherwise being asked to “tighten their belts”, which both sets a bad example and might persuade people that Government can better tend to their comparatively smaller needs.
In an environment that is as economically hostile as this, a Government that entertains at this level essentially exposes its “flank” since our population will remind it of this lavishness at every possible opportunity for some time to come.
There is a view in some quarters that Barbados has an obligation to entertain such Royals on the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. However, I consider this patent nonsense. Certainly, no constitutional document makes this an obligation and one therefore wonders where the assumption about an obligation arises.
In the same way that no Barbadian official was “obligated” to attend the Royal wedding, it can easily be argued that we could have tastefully declined the offer to entertain the Earl and Countess and, frankly, no one at Buckingham Palace would have either cared or noticed. The fact that it is Her Majesty’s desire that a member of her family should visit every country of the Commonwealth during the course of this year is “noble”; however, her nobility need not impose any commensurate obligation on us.
Another argument that will no doubt be thrown about is the suggestion that this type of thing is good for tourism.
I would argue that it could perhaps be, under different circumstances.
At the risk of being rude to our guests, I would argue that there are some Royals who attract global attention and others who people hardly notice.
In the instance that one is visited by Royals in the former category, then the media spectacle draws attention to one’s efforts in a way that makes the entire project worthwhile.
It is also interesting that the schedule of visits demonstrates that Buckingham Palace appreciates that Royals in the former category might be better utilised in the more “first world” ex-colonies.
In these matters, the public often votes with their feet and the little attention that we paid to this past week’s exercise speaks volumes about our level of interest at this time.
This contrasts with our apparent interest in maintaining the monarchy, which my research has demonstrated is as strong now as at any time.
The distinction that was articulated in the last such article, however, is that we appear to desire the benefits of our monarchical attachment but dislike the cost. I am inclined to believe that there is a way to preserve the former while avoiding the latter.
However, it is clear that few Caribbean governments are comfortable with this path.