Saturday, February 24, 2018

Barbados’ crisis of governance

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Mark Fraser

 IF either of Caricom’s two women leaders—Trinidad and Tobago’s Kamla Persad-Bissessar or Jamaica’s Portia Simpson-Miller—feel at times, they are under siege from media reports involving social commentators and political opponents, they should pay some attention to the onslaught currently being directed at the prime minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart.

In the political hot seat as leader of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and head of government during his country’s worse economic crisis since independence 48 years ago, Mr Stuart finds his leadership style coming under recurring blistering attack both from his traditional political opponents and now quite openly as well from leading figures in his party and administration. 

Just this past week (last Thursday) there was the unique political development of a former minister of finance and economic affairs, Dr David Estwick, being permitted—as he publicly requested—to make a Power Point presentation with alternative policies and strategies to the already approved 2014 national budget. That budget has resulted in a storm of protests, in the face of 3,000 public sector workers to be retrenched in batches within the first quarter of the year. 

Currently holding the portfolio of minister of agriculture—as he did in Stuart’s first-term DLP administration, as well as previously serving as minister of health—Dr Estwick has, over the years, acquired  a reputation for being loquacious and unpredictable. Nevertheless, to his credit, he has never shied away from articulating alternative policies and initiatives, at times winning applause from sections of the society, across party lines. 

Still, there is no known precedent in post-independence governance within Caricom, or anywhere else in the Commonwealth, for a cabinet minister succeeding in wringing a  concession from a head of government to present a package of alternative policies and strategies for improved fiscal management to steer the country from a deep economic crisis—after parliamentary approval of a budget.

Dr Estwick, after all, had participated in the relevant cabinet meetings that approved the 2014 budget prior to it being debated and passed by the nation’s parliament where the government has a slim two-seat majority.

Further, as I have previously noted, there is the age-old established tradition of “collective cabinet responsibility” rooted in constitutional democratic governance. 

However, now that Dr Estwick has had his day with his presentation at last Thursday’s cabinet meeting, there is speculation about his future in PM Stuart’s cabinet, as well as his continuation as a DLP parliamentarian. 

Should he choose to sit as an independent, or even cross the floor to the opposition, the government would have the tough challenge in functioning, for as long as it is practical, with a one-seat majority.

  For prime minister Stuart the surprises, the agony coming from within the governing DLP, seem to be getting more politically painful. This past Sunday brought a very surprising development from an unexpected source—former DLP leader and two-term prime minister, Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford.

A respected educator and former minister of education as well as the country’s ambassador to China until last year, Sandiford had faced, back in 1991 as prime minister and minister of finance, a very challenging fiscal management problem. He felt compelled to implement a very unpopular across-the-board eight per cent pay cut for public sector workers. He was to survive politically in the face of mass demonstrations organised by trade unions as well as enormous pressure from the then opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP).

Having won that battle, and now in virtual political retirement, Sandiford felt compelled at the weekend to decry what he viewed as lack of leadership by Mr Stuart at a time of spreading social and economic crisis. 

He was blunt when addressing a meeting of the DLP’s St Lucy constituency branch, declaring that a prime minister should be seen as “being in charge”, for example taking over the portfolio of minister of finance and giving direct guidance to pull the country out of its deep economic crisis.

Even some DLP supporters who are not anxious to surrender their party’s control of state power before scheduled general elections—still four years away—have expressed  surprise over the  vehemence with which Sandiford made his angry public intervention with his harsh criticism of prime minister Stuart’s leadership.

There may well be much more in the mortar than the pestle amid multiplying indicators of fading traditional governance in Barbados. The prevailing political status quo cannot be sustained for long. Stay tuned.