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ALBERT BRANDFORD: Mia’s budget moment

ALBERT BRANDFORD, [email protected]

ALBERT BRANDFORD: Mia’s budget moment

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THE 2015 BUDGET DEBATE was a defining point in the leadership of Opposition Leader Mia Mottley and possibly the country.

It was the second time in Mottley’s second coming that she had a moment to test the strength of her leadership. The first was the solid waste tax march.

In the case of the march, Mottley needed the numbers and she got them. In fact, the eventual repeal of that tax would have been an attendant victory. Mottley put the entire responsibility for the march on her shoulders and not those of the party.

Last Tuesday, the environment was created for her to prosecute the Government on its economic programme, especially in light of the increased taxation on the already burdened backs of Barbadians.

While doing some of the above, she chose to introduce evidence on the political incompetence of this Government, especially in relation to potential corruption. It is known in politics that matters of the heart are more important than those of the head in gaining the attention and support of the electorate.

While I expected the purely political component of the Budget debate to have come from the ambitious Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, Mottley demonstrated an almost David Thompson-like laser focus on the politics of the moment.

Whenever a Government is placed under pressure by issues that create doubt and have legs, there is a noticeable shift in political momentum. The Cahill matter came on top of some issues of a more domestic nature and painted a picture of doubt. Government spent the rest of the debate having to defend, which is always a positive sign for an opposition.

Apart from the cost of the proposed waste to energy plant, the environmental, health and governance issues associated with the project will be with us for a very long time. In the circumstances, a wide cross-section of interest groups will be attracted to the controversy, giving it a reach beyond narrow partisan politics.     

The refusal of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart to engage Mottley on her prosecution of that project, in particular, represented a case in which his silence seemed to suggest consent. While it has become his acknowledged style to speak only when he sees fit, the allegations levelled especially at his ministers demanded some kind of response.

Stuart’s passive speech, which seemed devoid of emotion and concern, came over as indifference. It is never a good thing to underestimate an opponent, especially when your record is not stellar.  

It was left up to Sinckler to offer some rebuttal which focused on issues from Mottley’s past that did not resonate enough to overshadow the pressing concerns raised about the project.

Notwithstanding his passion for invective and innuendo, Sinckler is not Thompson. While his desire to emulate him is evident, the delivery of such political craft must be cheeky rather than aggressive. It is really not an acquired skill, it is a gift.

In similar vein, there was a feeble attempt by Minister of the Environment Dr Denis Lowe to introduce doubt about Mottley’s ability to practise law here. This was again indicative of the political pressure under which Government was placed.

Another critical factor that was overlooked is the debating position of the Government, not the Opposition, especially after seven years in office. In an environment where Barbadians are being asked to add another layer of sacrifice on what seems never ending, Government is not in the best position to shift blame.

Further, Barbadians seem far more concerned about the future than the past. Promises of recovery and that better will come have taken inordinately long to materialise. Their concerns are real and not imagined and Sinckler is the face of their realty.

It was, therefore, politically naïve for Stuart as head of the Cabinet to leave his identified ministers to fend for themselves. It was arguably the first time that they would have confronted such political adversity.

They needed to use a scalpel rather than a cutlass to extricate themselves for the attacks.    

In politics, as in life, it is prudent, especially in the face of evidence, to accept when the opponent may have the upper hand. The attitude that aggression is the best form of defence is not always the best strategy, especially when the aggressor is on the back foot.   

Timing is everything in politics. This was evident in the Budget debate as Mottley used the opportunity to surprise the Government.

The Prime Minister and his ministers seemed not only surprised but unprepared for the challenge.

Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email [email protected]