WHAT MATTERS MOST: PM’s tactics disturbing
Having served for admittedly a short time in a Cabinet, I am still baffled by the public differences in policy positions between the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
It is now expected that every time the latter makes a pronouncement on fiscal policy, the former is going to ride into town on his horse of innocence and plead no knowledge of the policy.
The formulation of public policy is a serious matter that requires information, analysis and courage. Information provides a perspective of the past behaviour of the various agents such as households, businesses and government to similar type policies being proposed.
This takes time and is really the responsibility of the technocrats who must do the necessary research to be able to inform the policymakers. Of course, the technocrats are not magicians and do not have silver bullets, but they must use the past to make sound judgments about the future.
Apart from the technical analysis, politicians have to engage in their own analysis about the incidence of the proposed policies. Their concern has more to do with the politics of the policy with respect to who bears the burden and where are the potential benefits.
It is clear that such analysis has to be the collective responsibility of Cabinet. It is therefore impossible for the Prime Minister to plead innocence on every occasion since it suggests that either he is not in charge or his memory is short. The latter is highly unlikely for a man who takes great pleasure in knowing about the past.
The issue of courage in decision-making has more to do with self-interest. Clearly, most decisions are taken to advance the cause of the individual or institution. In politics, the two are typically inextricably linked.
In our political system, survival of self is paramount. In the current Parliament, given the numbers, survival of self is the same as survival of institution. This presents a fascinating game for the Government which raises the stakes of courage in the public policy matrix.
In these circumstances, it is even more difficult to “outsource” leadership. Therefore, when there are obvious divisions between the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, one is left to believe that the Minister of Finance is a “lame duck” minister. If he is, then it begs the question: Why is he holding on and, furthermore, why is he being allowed to hold on? The answer is simple: self-interest, which in this case is both self and institutional.
The differences started with the issue of privatization that was first raised by the Minister of Finance, subsequently denied and later admitted. In a move of political survival, the Prime Minister pushed his minister under the bus when privatization became a contentious issue in the last general election campaign.
Unfortunately, this is seen as good politics among the people who must by now recognize that it is a questionable pattern of behaviour.
Once the issue becomes problematic for the ruling party, the Prime Minister distances his Cabinet from it. It happened again with the temporary workers and more recently with the potential lay-off of thousands of public servants. Furthermore, it is not forgotten that the Government side framed the last campaign in terms of job losses versus not one job loss in the public sector.
In an environment where pride and industry did not have a price tag or self-tag attached to it, the honourable action for the Minister of Finance would be to resign. In the circumstances, there is obviously a lack of pride. This brings me to industry.
The country’s fiscal circumstances have been known since 2010 for sure. Yet every effort has been made to avoid taking action that makes sense. Having diagnosed that the Government was spending excessively, a deliberate decision was taken for the Government to tax its way out. This was never possible as it contributed to a declining economy.
It is self-evident that the Cabinet of Barbados is the least productive institution in the economy. By the way, the assertion is not difficult to make or even to prove, given the abundance of information that is before the public. This unfortunate observation, true as it is, contradicts a widespread mantra for productivity to be one of the saviours to bring the economy back on track. It’s overrated.
The real issue now is credibility, the thing on which leadership must rest.
Viva Madiba, the king of credibility.
• Clyde Mascoll is an economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party adviser on the economy.