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PURELY POLITICAL: Budget to prime election pump?

Albert Brandford

PURELY POLITICAL: Budget to prime election pump?

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Economic policy is not like a barbecued pigtail. You don’t put it on at 11 o’clock and take it off at 11:30 ready to eat. It takes time for policies to work. – Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler announcing June would be the month for delivery of the 2012 Budget. DAILY NATION, April 30.
Most often, when a Government finds itself in the politically favourable position of being able to present a Budget just before a general election, it tries to grab the opportunity the way a batsman’s eyes light up on getting a full toss.
The feeling is: this one goes out of the grounds!
Unfortunately for the Stuart administration, the full toss of a general election mandated within the next 12 months may put all of its batting skills to perhaps its severest test yet.
The choices facing this administration, more specifically, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, ostensibly seem quite clear.
Should I hit this ball for six, with a full swing of the election pump-priming bat?
Or, should the best bet be to hedge with a cautious ground stroke for a safer boundary?
Maybe, this full toss could be patted away for a careful two runs, to try to persuade the long-suffering electorate to see that the batsman is not taking any chances, while hoping that the voters will allow him to keep the strike because his consolidating at the wicket is the more prudent approach in these tough times?
There are essentially two schools of thought on the likely impact of the announced June Budget on the timing of the next general election and how it might affect the Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) chances of regaining the reins of Government.
One view is that, even though Prime Minister Freundel Stuart might have hinted that he is planning to run out the clock, through his reference to the outer limit of the legal time frame for calling the poll to April next year, the discontent among Barbadians over the DLP’s handling of the country’s affairs and the party’s own frazzled internal dynamics, do not really afford him such a luxury.
The suggestion being canvassed in some circles by people who may be privy to Stuart’s thinking on this matter is that the general election date is much closer than many of us believe, possibly as early as September.
Such people who are calling for a so-called “snap poll” would be asking Stuart to go against his very nature which seems to favour “deliberate speed” and procrastination.
Their view, however, is apparently based on the rationale that Stuart cannot afford to have the myriad difficulties facing the country, and over which he appears to be dithering – from CLICO through Four Seasons down to the unfinished Alexandra School business, and especially the rising job losses – drag on into the election year proper.
The feeling is that Stuart has to move with dispatch before yearend to seek his own mandate from the people and try to mitigate the negative impact of those problems on the DLP’s re-election chances.
By this reasoning, 12 more months – at the outside – of this continuing uncertainty over the economy and general disaffection among DLP members and supporters, including the so-called Eager Eleven, would make the task of securing the Government infinitely more exacerbated.
But the other view, and this is the one that seems to hold sway among the Eager Eleven, is that the administration needs all the time – and more – it can get to show that its master plan for the recovery of the economy, as enunciated by the chief spokesman of that group, has been working and will eventually bear fruit.
Indeed, Minister Sinckler, when he announced the timing of his next budgetary proposals, referred to the fiscal consolidation programme he set out in the 2010 Budget that also covered the last 18 months or so.
He exhorted Barbadians to be patient and not to panic, but stressed that the economy could not be dramatically changed overnight.
“We can work together to achieve results,” Sinckler said, “but it is going to take time. It didn’t happen overnight that the world economy ran into the difficulties that it is in, but it is not going to happen overnight that it is going to recover. The same goes for Barbados.”
Plainly stated, the Government – at least the Sinckler section of it – needs more time for his fiscal consolidation programme to be seen to be working before it can be presented to an increasing querulous and demanding public as a compelling reason why the DLP should be returned to office.
But it is quite clear that whatever Sinckler’s time frame might be for that to happen – and he has not so far said – it might not gybe with the Stuart supporters’ thinking on the most propitious time to call the general election.
So whatever choice that Sinckler, the batsman, elects to make on how to play this juicy June full toss may really be of little electoral benefit to his team whether Stuart decides to draw stumps this year or to bat through the innings down to April 2013.
Given the parlous state of the country’s finances – which even the contentious, baying Opposition hounds, who obviously smell the blood of a fractious, wounded administration, understand – there can hardly be a June Budget of “goodies” to attempt a lessening of the pain of those still hurting from the ill-advised punitive imposts of the 2008 Budget.
Indeed, Sinckler himself seems lukewarm to the very idea of putting the people’s hard-earned money back into their own hands and he wants to continue to “stabilize” and “manage” the economy while the cries of the suffering reach “even unto Bay Street”.
But there may be room for at least a “little” easement, if a careful reading of his latest comments is correct.
“We can’t overstimulate [my emphasis] the local economy,” he told the DAILY NATION last Monday, “because there will be a reduction in our foreign reserves stock; so we have to balance and that is what we are doing, but we believe that from 2013 on we should have an increase – moderate growth may be two per cent.”
Still, to anticipate that the DLP will offer up a Budget of election “giveaways” at this time would be to ask the administration to go against everything it has preached for the past three years.
So, the batsman will certainly not attempt any Chris Gayle six-hitting heroics with this June Budget, and possibly not even play the cautious groundstroke, but could be signalling his intent to take the cautious two runs and consolidate at the wicket – while there is still time.
What it comes down to is that if there is one element in this mix of the economics and the politics – on which both Stuart and Sinckler can agree – it is that they both need time: Sinckler, for his economic policies to work, and Stuart, to resolve his political troubles.