PURELY POLITICAL: Lack of clarity breeds confusion
“In keeping with our commitments under the Protocol of the Social Partnership and mindful of good industrial relations practice, Government will continue to dialogue and consult with our partners in the labour movement as we seek credible solutions to the challenges we face and explore feasible alternatives to the measures which we have announced.” – Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, Press conference, January 6.
The Minister of Finance went on to caution the media, however, that time was “of the essence in this regard and decisions have to be made now”.
But haven’t we seen and heard that kind of approach before which was celebrated in Serenader’s famous dance invention of one step forward, two steps backwards, while the people stood to one side trembling?
One of the elements of the minister’s presentation that struck me most forcibly was the following statement: “The Barbados economy has been through much worse challenges and has always managed to emerge stronger than ever.”
It took me a little while for the laughter to subside after it had become quite clear that the minister was making fun at the memories of Barbadians.
Prior to this address, Sinckler frequently argued that the current recession was the worst in the history of Barbados. This was supported by the argument that the world economic recession of 2008/2009 was the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
To me, he was obviously trying to apportion the blame for our economic circumstances to the international environment at the time. That spin no longer has any traction.
Now that Sinckler is seeking to offer the Barbadian public some hope, he is changing the language in relation to our economic circumstances. This is seen by some people as the thing to do in politics. Unfortunately, these are the same political tactics that are responsible for the country now having to deal with our economic misery.
And then, he seeks refuge in the vaunted religiosity of the Barbadian people by using the biblical exhortation that we should be our brother’s keeper. But he forgets that such an appeal rests on a foundation of trust. When that trust is compromised, it is extremely difficult to turn it around with the best will in the world.
In the circumstances, the task of holding the hand of your brother and leading him out of darkness, rather than simply being his keeper, is further compounded by a lack of confidence.
When Government members support a Budget laid in Parliament on August 13, and within weeks, offer alternative perspectives on the same measures, then there is confusion. But the confusion becomes incompetence, when less than five months later, the Minister of Finance confesses that the economy has taken a turn for the worst.
Yet, at the Press conference, he suggests that “the fundamentals of the Barbados economy remain intact . . .”.
It does not take an economist to know that one of the fundamentals of the Barbados economy is the foreign reserves. In fact, it has been argued over the years that the foreign reserves are so fundamental that the level determines the safety of our fixed exchange rate – reference to the protection and saving of which was made portentously no fewer than six times by Sinckler in the presentation – and which according to him is now a main concern of economists from inside and outside of Barbados.
In fact, the real reason given for the fiscal adjustment measures is the need to protect the country’s reserves. But even at this, the eleventh hour, it is still evident that the Government is not fully levelling with the people.
On the one hand, the impression is given that the job cuts in the public sector are absolutely necessary. One step forward. Then the unions react and another impression is conveyed that there is room for negotiation with respect to the cuts. Two steps backward.
Further, based on the nature of the Government’s fiscal crisis, it was argued that the size of the public sector is the problem. So large is the magnitude of the problem that the only way out is a reduction in the levels of employment, since a wage cut would mean keeping the size while only temporarily adjusting the cost to Government.
In short, this would be a Band-Aid approach, as the prognosis – so accurately stated by Sinckler above – is that the Government has to take decisions now to address the fiscal problem, with the long term aim of reducing Barbados’ debt.
When the numbers and the analyses are out of the way, the real issue becomes one of leadership. Yet, after one Budget Speech, one Ministerial Statement and one Press conference within the last five months, the public still cannot say with certainty what are the real economic issues confronting Barbados.
There simply is no clarity with respect to the policy.
• Albert Brandford is an independent polical correspondent.