Sinckler passes the hemlock
“(Socrates) stoically drank the potion, quite readily and cheerfully. Up till this moment most of us were able with some decency to hold back our tears, but when we saw him drinking the poison to the last drop, we could restrain ourselves no longer.” – Plato’s description of the last moments of Socrates, dramatized through the character of Phaedo. Translated by Hugh Tredennick, in The Last Days Of Socrates.
The whole time Chris Sinckler was delivering his Budget Speech last Tuesday I was waiting for him to drink his political hemlock. Then, I was sure, the tears would have come to my eyes as they did to those of Socrates’ friends in that little Athenian prison cell in 399BC.
His predecessor, Erskine (now Sir Lloyd) Sandiford, then Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, had done so two decades ago in a speech which he maintains to this day cost him the Government, although the direct trigger, the no-confidence motion, had other roots of rebellion. Reducing public servants’ pay across the board by eight per cent still ranks in peaceful Barbados as one of the most traumatic events of modern parliamentary times.
That eight per cent cut, in our current times, seems a rather mild prescription, but its effect was equivalent to falling on your sword for the sake of the country.
The man who profited most from it made sure to knight the fallen warrior, because as time progressed, no matter the dearth of the “good things Sandi do”, he is remembered for making the ultimate sacrifice when the chips were down.
History is unlikely to bathe Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler in the same golden light.
Time and again he metaphorically raised the poisoned chalice to his lips and at the very moments we expected to hear the announcements his own team of civil servants had led us to expect to hear, he put it down again. He went to the edge of the precipice more than a few times, but never stepped over it.
The result was that with one or two notable exceptions – for instance, the announcement that UWI students will have to pay the “tuition” portion of their fees (somewhere around 20 per cent of the total cost of going to Cave Hill) – almost everything else which the Government itself, through its Medium Term Growth and Development Strategy document, said had to be done in order to avoid a foreign exchange shortfall of some $400 million, is going to be phased in over the next several months. Maybe.
Just when we expected to hear which statutory corporations would be merged or excised, we were told the final recommendations had not yet been made.
Just when we expected to hear how Government would cut its wage bill by some $65 million this year, we heard that about half of it would come from phasing out temporary workers as their contracts expired.
At a time when actual results show the law of diminishing returns at work in our taxation system, with consumers clearly showing they had peaked out and therefore had reduced their spending commensurately, we had the announcement of new taxes, in the form of a temporary soak-the-rich tax, but no removal of the punitive excise tax increase of almost three years ago which saw electricity and gasoline bills shoot up for businesses and homes alike.
Mr Sinckler raised the hemlock to his lips when he talked about seeing the light – about the need for economic growth – shining through the window of the economic prison in which he has sentenced himself by his own austerity policies these past three years.
But when it comes to freeing up the consumer and taking less taxes out of his pocket, the hemlock was put aside.
Instead, as we waited to hear what initiatives would be undertaken to achieve growth in the economy, we heard only of concessionary loans coming in for water works upgrades, roads and bridges, schools and tourism refurbishment. And about a massive loan to build an artificial life support system for a sugar industry long past its date with the Grim Reaper, on the grounds that it could produce renewable energy and ethanol on the side.
History may record one of these days that Mr Sinckler, while fully acknowledging the crisis we face in the next few months, simply could not make the decisions required of a real leader, even if it meant possibly falling on his sword or drinking the Socratic poison.
That he simply could not make the announcements that would have restored confidence in the economy, namely, a package of immediate cuts to achieve the urgent goals of his own MGDS document in terms of wages, goods and services and transfers.
Even if such measures had been announced, they might have been a couple of years too late, but would have shown a determination to effect the rescue of the economy so badly needed.
Sidestepping the poisoned chalice time and time again reduced what could have been Mr Sinckler’s greatest intervention in the economy into a mere sideshow of soap opera proportions, ginned up for effect over substance.
Instead of his finest moment, this Budget speech convinced me that Chris Sinckler is not up to the task of being Barbados’ Finance Minister.
I hope for Barbados’ sake that the measures he has announced come to fruition and that the country will recover. At this point, however, I fear that if this does happen, it will be in spite of the Finance Minister’s policies and not because of them.