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A speech to be remembered

Ezra Alleyne

A speech to be remembered

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There are seminal moments in politics when keen observers recognize a shifting of the political fortunes akin to the movement of the major tectonic plates of the earth.
Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention was one such occasion. Another was the 38-minute Budget Speech by Tom Adams in 1976 when he torpedoed any lingering chance that the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) might have had of winning the election that year. Last Wednesday’s Budget Reply by Mia Mottley was in that mould and of that ilk.  
Speaking for four hours and 15 minutes without a prepared text and making timely, pointed reference to documents at hand, she did what a lead Opposition responder is supposed to do. Without giving any corner, she brilliantly and persuasively put the alternative case for the consideration of the voters.  
Point and counterpoint is the lifeblood of our parliamentary system, and in dissecting and answering every issue thrown up by the Minister of Finance, she showed herself worthy of the task entrusted to her by the Leader of the Opposition. She proved, once again, to be a formidable debater in what was to date her finest moment.
It is now agreed on all sides that this country faces serious economic challenges and in an election which threatens to be a watershed in local politics, a major question is: how did we get here? The Government says the international recession is the culprit but the Opposition says a number of wrong steps and a lack of action worsened any problems caused by the recession.
The present DLP Government knew that a recession was beckoning from the third quarter of 2007. The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) warned the country and we know from Mr Stuart himself (in his Independence Speech in 2010) that this was the position. So a key question was: why in late 2007 were those DLP grandiose (and unfulfilled) promises made?
We may think on those things and move onto the issue of energy and the raising of taxes in the 2008 and 2009 Budgets. A Government has to do what it thinks is right, but sometimes what a Government thinks is right may be dead wrong!
Making diesel more expensive than gasolene by reason of higher taxes thereon was such a “wrong” move. It increased the cost of living at a stroke of the pen because diesel is the fuel of inland transport for imported and distributed food and other goods. That was in 2008.
Ripple effect
That “increase” was a simple move and, like a stone thrown into the sea, it had complex ripple implications. When later there was some correction of the mistake, the damage had already been done. By then anybody could truthfully sing: “Rice gone up, flour gone up.” And prices never came back down!
In 2008 and 2009 Mottley, Owen Arthur and Clyde Mascoll, among others, opposed the DLP’s 2008 and 2009 (austerity) tax-raising Budgets, arguing that policies of stimulus rather than austerity would get the economy growing and that growth was what was required. But the DLP opted for austerity, and hoped for growth. The DLP made its choice.
Shortly after the Estimates in 2010 and before he could deliver any Budget that year, Mr David Thompson fell ill, and while the DLP and all Barbados prayed for his recovery, the party did nothing and the economy marked time until November 2010. All that time, the medicine of the two austerity Budgets worked its way through the body of the economy like a large dose of anaesthetic and, not surprisingly, the economy went to sleep.
With the economy dosing and snoring, economic activity slowed down, and as the value added tax (VAT) is an activity revenue earner, revenues slowed down too. Government was now in a bind and decided to raise the VAT to 17.5 per cent, while (for example) keeping the VAT on electricity bills and annoying some of their most vocal supporters by their choice of policy on energy pricing.
Clearly, there is a battle for the minds of the voters. Nothing is wrong with that. That is the nature of our democracy and long may it remain so, but Barbadians are a perceptive people. Even without exposure to tertiary education, large numbers of Barbadians can always spot a weak argument from afar and are capable of sifting the wheat from the chaff of argument. And Miss Mottley’s speech was pure high-grade wheat.
It was like adding high-octane fuel to an already raging sense of disappointment in the DLP Government and the master class in the political economy given by Mr Arthur completed the case for the Opposition.
With a cache of $2.8 billion in “rainy day” foreign currency reserves left by the BLP in 2008, we ought not to have been so drenched with austerity.
• Ezra Alleyne is an attorney at law and former Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly. Email [email protected]