Last week’s budget was essentially the first debate in which there was a face-off between Minister of Finance Christopher Sinckler and former Opposition Leader Mia Mottley.
This is of political significance as the most recent CADRES poll has revealed the extent to which these two individuals are central to the outcome of the next general election.
As such, a political “showdown” was anticipated which shifted attention away from the leaders on both sides of the house. Neither Sinckler nor Mottley can be said to be short on intellect or political energy and, while Mottley is more experienced, Sinckler is currently more powerful. The fact that both of these politicians are presumed to be future leaders also meant that this face-off was to some extent an audition for leadership roles which will be assumed at a date which is yet to be announced.
Since Sinckler “bowled the first ball”, it is appropriate to comment first on his strategy. His presentation was entirely too long. Not being au fait with budgetary speech statistics, I can only note that Sinckler’s four-hour presentation was his longest to date and adequately demonstrated his political stamina, but was to some extent a strategic blunder.
Although I have a bias towards short Budget speeches, on this occasion a short speech would have been more strategically advantageous to Sinckler since it would have forced Mottley to “un-pick” his presentation and present an alternative statement in a relatively short time.
It is relatively easy to attack the Budget, but the challenge would have been to present alternative proposals as well in that time. Sinckler therefore gave Mottley ample time to dissect, destroy and reconstruct his economic proposals.
Sincker’s decision to go for the marathon presentation was curious since he really has little to prove. To be sure, he is already the most popular Dem and the vast majority of “us” see him as intelligent, competent and eloquent. Moreover, “we” are familiar with the challenges imposed by the global economic crisis and after two Budget presentations, we are also aware of the Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) overall developmental thrust.
Strategically speaking, therefore, if the extra time does not satisfy any of these objectives, that time is nothing but a gift to the Opposition’s main speaker.
Mottley’s strategic approach was predictable and she preceded her alternative proposals with a detailed explanation of what was wrong with Sinckler’s presentation and approach to economic management. Her speech appears not to have been written and the lack of structure impacted on the delivery, to the extent that the point at which alternative proposals were articulated could easily have been missed (I am also not a fan of long Budget responses).
The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) compensated for this by the simultaneous release of a document outlining the “key” proposals which was considerably more digestible.
The content of both the substantive and alternative Budget was to some extent surprising and, while many would have been disappointed, I was impressed by the extent to which both Sinckler and Mottley were responsible.
The challenges faced by Sinckler’s DLP are well known and he would perhaps have been forgiven if he was less responsible and tried to recoup the DLP’s support by playing Santa Claus. Particular attention was paid to his treatment of VAT and the infamous allowances that have cumulatively assaulted the middle classes, and Sinckler’s adherence to previous policies and the associated philosophical objectives is commendable. He could easily have attempted to “buy votes” by returning the allowances and adjusting the VAT downward or removing it from electricity, but he resisted those temptations to his credit.
Across the floor, Mottley was equally responsible, although I would be quick to argue that governments and oppositions are held to different standards regarding expectations. Certainly, she could have been more generous regarding her future promises, mindful of the fact that few among us would attempt to match her Budget response to the BLP’s manifesto for the 2013 election. Fewer would do a comparison if her party were elected and neglected to fulfil all promises by 2018.
The obvious absence of extravagance is perhaps most glaring as it relates to the notorious allowances which Sinckler did not reinstate and Mottley made no mention of either. The vexed issue of allowances and indeed the now permanent VAT rate of 17.5 per cent, amount to the DLP’s lowest hanging fruit which Mottley conspicuously did not pick (to her credit).
One notable exception would have been her promise to reinstate the second pension to those unfortunate individuals who fell victim to this administrative blunder. There are mixed views on the prudence of this “remedy” and similarly mixed views on whose fault it was that the error occurred. At any rate, by promising to return both by route of a “grandfather clause”, Mottley has essentially garnered the support of those affected, along with those among us who empathize, and also created the unmistakable impression that the DLP is responsible for this mistake.
In reality, that issue is like the matter of free drugs to longstanding residents who are not citizens, since the economic cost is relatively minor compared to the political fallout that is caused and one would have thought that the DLP would appreciate this.
Since we have become accustomed to the rather caustic closing sessions involving both Leader of the Opposition Owen Arthur and Sinckler, the presentation by Arthur was delightful to some and disappointing to those of us expecting a showdown. Arthur appeared to stay on message and out of the proverbial gutter, which meant that Sinckler was forced to speak to substantive issues in his response.
Ironically, it was Prime Minister Freundel Stuart who appeared out of character by foraging into historic issues of FBI reports that had little to do with Sinckler’s Budget and distracted us well past midnight.
As one reflects on the week of debate, it is difficult not to notice the most enduring feature of the Budget and Reply, which was philosophical harmony camouflaged by petty arguments over “style”.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).