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PETER WICKHAM: Emblematic political clumsiness

Peter Wickham, [email protected]

PETER WICKHAM: Emblematic political clumsiness

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THE POLITICAL LEXICON often refers to “Teflon leaders” and even “Teflon governments”. However these references are best reserved for governments and leaders whose behaviour makes them highly resistant to damage.

In a related category is the proverbial cat with nine lives which is distinguished from its Teflon political cousin since cats are prone to place themselves in harm’s way repeatedly and survive notwithstanding.

Teflon is arguably a most intelligent material and reflects a triumph of human ingenuity in much the same way that the political variety is characteristic of the shrewdest political intelligence.

As much as I love cats and relish their affection I appreciate that these are not the most intelligent creatures and are therefore prone to make the same potentially fatal mistakes over and over until they exhaust their nine lives.

As one reflects on this introductory paragraph, our collective minds are taken back to Sunday of last week when Barbados was on the brink of a national shutdown and thereafter on Wednesday when workers were back on the job and apparently happy.

This industrial contentment was notwithstanding comments made by our Prime Minister on Monday afternoon which were ill-timed and highly offensive. Naturally supporters of the DLP heralded Stuart’s tough talk as a reflection of his command of the issues and his decisiveness, although at the same time they struggled to explain the true meaning of his reference to Section 48 of the Constitution of Barbados.

Fortuitously the union leaders were demonstrably more mature than the Prime Minister suggested so instead of spending Tuesday responding to his verbal onslaught, they spent the day huddled with the Social Partners demonstrating the extent of their maturity.

There are few objective commentators who would not characterise Tuesday’s outcome as one that was a win for Barbados and indeed also for the Stuart administration, especially as the unions made reference to the lingering wounds inflicted by the deception associated with the termination of 3 000 workers a year before.

This administration still has a considerable distance to travel before the 2018 election and needs to decisively tackle the twin mountains of debt and deficit within the constraints of promises it made not to send home a single worker (initially) and thereafter not to dismiss any more.

The extent to which this administration lacks political capital is well-known by workers, who will naturally exploit every opportunity to preserve their own mortality as fervently as the DLP seeks to preserve itself.

The Prime Minister’s comments were clearly oblivious to these political realities and as the strike loomed, it was fortuitous that the Social Partners injected themselves into the debacle and used their good offices to avert strike action. The union’s spin in the Wednesday Press was neither surprising nor, unreasonable in the context of the battering they took two days before. Like the Government, the union also has a constituency to serve and this community has good reason to be dissatisfied with the level of representation it has been receiving of late.

Since the outbreaks of the 1930s intelligent governments across the Caribbean understood the extent to which a healthy trade union environment contributes to good governance and presumably this one also understands that our unions are at risk of becoming irrelevant or worse yet, collapsing.

The “victory lap” therefore should be seen in the context of the union’s redemption and less so an affront to this Government since the true battle is considerably more long term.

In the context of this longer term scenario, therefore, one has to seriously challenge the logic of Minister Byer’s intervention on Wednesday which challenged the accuracy of the union’s reported position.

As one reads the minister’s statement in the context of the union’s position, the most striking difference relates to the interpretation of the treatment of these termination letters. The union argued that the letters were withdrawn, while the Government apparently agreed not to act on them and to the simplistic among us, the difference seems inconsequential since both agreed that the employees were still employees.

Beyond that, the substantive issue that emerges is the matter of who should speak first on behalf of the Partnership and while few would disagree that the chair is best placed to express the consensus of the meeting, the sight of garbage being collected the morning after should have been sufficient to console the chair whose “thunder” was stolen.

In the most practical of terms, both sides needed to manage their descent from political mountains which entrapped them and in much the same way that Byer’s injection helped to manage the Prime Minister’s descent, the union’s victory lap has helped to assuage their constituency which is still yearning for an opportunity to “teach this government a lesson”.

One can only hope that upon more sober reflection the Government will appreciate the extent to which it has just used up one of its nine lives and continue along graciously instead of turning to run headlong again into oncoming traffic.

Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and director of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).