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PURELY POLITICAL: Stuart backin’ back!

Albert Brandford

PURELY POLITICAL: Stuart backin’ back!

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“. . .(C)an the State in the year 2014 and beyond pursue its social democratic agenda in the same way in which it pursued it in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80, ’90s and in the first decade of the 21st century? – Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, August 17, Democratic Labour Party’s  (DLP) 59th annual conference.

AS IS HIS WONT, Stuart sought to emphasise the past in bringing perspective to the DLP’s new social agenda within the constraints of Government’s depressing financial resources.

In some respects, the speech attempted to justify the party’s abandoning its democratic socialist path that rested upon the principal pillars of health and education with which the DLP had become synonymous.

The new socialist agenda was identified as a necessary component of a 19-month stabilisation programme designed to bring the external and fiscal accounts into balance. While these accounts are seen as economic concerns, the underlying issue was posed within the role of the state in today’s Barbados.

In essence, does the state owe the same duty to its people when compared with the period immediately following the social disturbances of the 1930s? Further, can the state afford to pursue the same social agenda?

These two questions laid the foundation for Stuart’s assault on his issues of the day: funding university education, financing health care and the solid waste tax. At their core was that “burdens are more equitably shared” and “those who can afford to pay are made to do so”.

He said the paradigm shift constituted, in the minds of some, a repudiation of Errol Barrow’s legacy, a violation of the poor and a kicking down of the ladder. He, however, maintained that the issue was one of affordability without at any stage stating that the lack of affordability coincided with the beginning of the new DLP administration.

In fact, it may be argued that all programmes of social engineering have raised concerns of affordability.

It must be a major ideological hurdle for Stuart, who preached a political sermon of capital versus labour in his formative years on the platforms. The imbalance between these two elements of production was always thought to be a struggle of physical versus human capital, in which the latter was not being fairly compensated for its knowledge.

Social disturbances

The new emphasis on education in the aftermath of the social disturbances had more to do with repositioning the masses economically through greater exposure to knowledge. The evidence of the quiet revolution is in the contribution of the professional classes to economic growth and development. The indicators of progress are in the housing stock, universal access to education and several health barometers.

The question is why has university education become so unaffordable? The answer cannot be seen strictly in terms of economics but within the priority of interests. Education was always recognised as a major pillar of development. To come this far and simply abandon the pillar without sufficient reference to its consequences for Barbados’ global competitiveness is an act of cowardice.        

Ironically, the theme of the conference was Achieving Global Competitiveness.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the principles of “burdens are more equitably shared” and “those who can afford to pay are made to do so” were abandoned in the imposition of the solid waste tax. This was achieved by imposing the tax on the property owner rather than on those who generate the waste.

During debate on the tax, the incidence of the tax on people in Government units was not thoroughly ventilated. Since the National Housing Corporation owns the land in these housing areas, it is evident that the occupants have not been called upon to make a contribution to the tax. Is this in consonance with Stuart’s assertion that “burdens are more equitably shared”? The answer is no.

Only the naïve would believe that Government did not deliberately calculate the possible political effects of imposing the tax on occupants of Government units. Across some constituencies in St Michael and Christ Church, there are pockets of units that could have a significant effect at election time.  

Further, do the occupants of these units own cars? Do they go to work in crocus bags? Do they have pit toilets? The answers would help to put in context that Barbados has made considerable strides socially since the 1930s but does this mean that the mission of economic enfranchisement, which was not so long ago the mantra of the two major political parties, has been accomplished?             

The abandonment of the democratic socialist agenda is an admission that the DLP has lost its way. The party has become obsessed with numbers, which reflects poorly on the rhetoric spouted not so long ago that Barbados is more than just an economy, it is a society.

Removal of the flagship social programmes of the DLP is an indicator of its failure to be the party of yesteryear.  

• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.