PETER WICKHAM: Policy discussion
IN RECENT TIMES, it has often been said that one of the Opposition’s shortcomings was its unwillingness or inability to articulate alternative policy options.
This type of discussion appeals to thinkers who are anxious to compare
and contrast approaches and to move away from the current situation where Government is expected to have all the answers. Persons supportive of the Government are making similar comments in reaction to the accusation that their programme has failed and are in effect saying better cannot be done.
I have frequently been asked my opinion on the propriety of the Opposition’s silence on alternative policy options and my response is counterintuitive. I really do enjoy policy debates and moreover believe that this is how mature societies conduct themselves.
We should therefore benefit from proposals from both sides which can be debated, exposing the merits and demerits and allowing for an informed decision.
In this regard; however, I can also see the profound wisdom of the Opposition’s approach which demonstrates that it had taken important lessons arising from the 2013 election. In that instance, I commented that this outcome was surprising and would have implications for our governance that I was already concerned about and four years later the prophetic nature of those comments are being realised.
The absence of policy discussion is one such negative which is grounded in the fact that the Barbados Labour Party took the unprecedented step of identifying (correctly) the major debt problem we faced as a country and moreover presenting plans on how it proposed to deal with this problem.
The proposals were controversial largely because these were likely to be painful and the Democratic Labour Party Government set upon these proposals and associated them with an unkind political party which wanted to inflict economic pain for no good reason.
The result of the 2103 general election, effectively set aside the BLP’s plan to privatise key sectors, with a view to paying down the national debt. Instead, a majority of us voted for the DLP government (again) which promised
that it would not cut the public service, or privatise any entity, or allow our dollar to be devalued.
Within a year, it became clear that the DLP had effectively deceived the electorate since it agreed to sever 3 000 workers and announced private-public sector partnerships elsewhere. Most recently, it has announced the
intention to sell Barbados National Terminal Company Limitied which is not a loss-making entity, or one the BLP considered selling simply because it was profitable/efficient. The aspect of deception noted here is a comparatively smaller issue than the lesson inherent in this election which is curiously similar to a lesson taught by the 2017 US election.
Reflecting on that election, I noted the fact that voters were presented with two opposing messages, one of love and inclusion and one of hate and exclusion and voted for the latter. Certainly, Hillary Clinton was not perfect but her shortcomings pale into insignificance when compared to Donald Trump’s and his election should make analysts and strategists question the logic of their thinking and what people want from politics.
A recent initiative to have Trump release his tax return is one such example where one wonders if proponents of that initiative understand that a significant quantity of Americans are disinterested in Trump’s tax return since they chose him over a candidate who published hers for the last ten years.
In this Barbados case, I cannot deny that it is unfortunate that we are not having more national debate regarding policy options. This is a young and maturing democracy and generally conversations about policy options help us to grow.
Sadly, this has been absent from our political landscape historically and while I considered Owen Arthur’s initiative to discuss privatisation risky, I was happy to participate in the discussion he started by commenting in articles and presenting at their Privatisation Forum.
This perspective also provided a unique platform from which to watch the DLP respond using traditional means which culminated in the notorious advertisement with the woman on the bus. Her impact on our psyche speaks volumes about the extent to which we are a mature society and one that is ready for a sophisticated policy discussion.
The choice between a three-term Prime Minister who is one of the more noted economists in the region and the woman on the bus speaks to both our priorities and our collective intellect.
Therefore, as the BLP continues to be pushed towards policy discussion again, I would continue to argue that we have for the time being surrendered our “right” to adult conversations of this type. Over the next year, the BLP will be continually pressed in this direction and one can only hope that it has learned the most important lesson of 2013 and will respond by asking people to vote first and foremost against the DLP instead of trying to convince people that the BLP policy options are superior.
Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]