ONLY HUMAN: Do impressions matter most?
In any relationship, you run the risk of disillusioning those who have great faith in you when you build up their expectations and then disappoint them. That is why it is always better, and honest too, to level with people up front about how much can be possibly achieved, and always seek to surpass that stated goal.
In the cut and thrust of politics, though, truth is often the first casualty; impressions matter most. If people perceive you as being the next messiah, so to speak, they embrace you, shower you with political power and expect that in return you can fix their every problem – however large or small.
This explains why politicians who have poured cold water on their opponent’s promises of a better tomorrow are usually ungraciously dumped. In 1986 Prime Minister Bernard “Bree” St John (the late Sir Harold) said the economic policies proposed by Dr Richie Haynes (the late Sir Richard) of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) could not work. The public savaged St John’s Barbados Labour Party (BLP) at the polls and he himself lost his seat. A few years later – and in spite of statements suggesting “Barbados never had it so good” – a few thousand public servants went home and those remaining on the job had their salaries cut by eight per cent.
In 2008 Prime Minister Owen Arthur said in response to the promises made by a resurgent DLP that “dark clouds were forming” – meaning tough economic times were on the horizon – and the proposals of the then Opposition DLP would lead this country into financial ruin.
The DLP won the election and now Barbadians are anxiously waiting to hear how many people will be going home, if their work week will be reduced or worse in order for Government to shave $400 million in spending.
These thoughts came to my mind last week when the Government held a Press Conference. I believed on first impression that the media conference was a genuine attempt to assure the public that Government had heard their pleas for more information and was responding! But was I wrong?
A few hours after the conclusion of that conference, the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) release came in. It was big news and it was more bad news on the economy. Barbados was downgraded again; this time the outlook went from stable to negative. Now Government knew this was coming that day as they are usually given the information beforehand. So, to influence the conversation for the weekend, Government sent out Richard Sealy and Chris Sinckler, the embattled Ministers of Tourism and Finance, respectively, to bat.
And they did well. Sealy gave us quality quotes and a ready-made headline with his 10-point plan, while Sinckler declared, to everyone’s great relief, that there would be no VAT increase. I was impressed.
Having promised last week to avoid being critical of Government and seek to highlight possible solutions to this country’s crisis, I felt at last I was being given something to work with. How long is too long if it’s good, I mused.
But then S&P hit and I felt deceived. Not a word about the S&P news at the media conference. I realized that I, and the public, had been played. We were told just enough to make us feel something positive was happening amidst the consistent gloomy news – when, in truth, the exercise was meant to divert attention from the further deterioration in our economic profile.
Would it not have been better if after Sealy announced the 10-point plan and Sinckler declared no VAT increase, the S&P revelation was made? It would never have overshadowed their first two points and would have left the public feeling that despite the bad news, Government was fighting back. But to say nothing was inexcusable and could only lead the alert among us to arrive at the conclusion I did.
Such moves undermine confidence because they suggest you’re being toyed with. You’re made to feel that Government cares only about how it is perceived. It’s the same old “impressions matter most” philosophy.
Of course, I’m not so naïve as to discount the importance of a positive image. But what I, and I’m sure all Barbadians, are seeking is to hear of the immediate action that will be taken to save our economy. We don’t want more talk with no seeming follow-up action!
Confidence is the one currency Government can least devalue at this time. Its members need to recognize that Barbadians will support them despite whatever difficult measures need to be taken as long as they have the confidence in the leadership being provided. That means they have to start being frank and fair and stop playing these political image games.
• Sanka Price is an editor at The NATION.