Monday, February 19, 2018

Critical time for Barbados

IT’S Carnival bacchanal season here in Trinidad and Tobago but across in Barbados, a major Caricom partner for trade and investment in the eastern Caribbean, it seems to be the time for unprecedented carnival politics.

Unfolding of the precedent is expected at tomorrow’s regular weekly meeting of the cabinet of prime minister Freundel Stuart’s Democratic Labour Party government, set to complete, on February 21, the first year of its second five-year term in office.

It may be an understatement to say that the government seems to be slipping into a political crisis of survival as a direct consequence of worsening economic challenges that require adherence to fiscal management prescriptions by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

At the core of the current political scenario will be a presentation at tomorrow’s cabinet meeting by current agriculture minister, Dr David Estwick, a former minister of finance and economic affairs. He has been facilitated by prime minister Stuart to do so amid his vexatious public disagreements over the government’s current fiscal and economic policies.

His public outbursts—I refer to him in the last Sunday Express as a politician seemingly at war with himself—have included threats to team up with the opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP). Or, to sit as an independent in the 30-member National Assembly where the DLP has a slender majority of two.

The wider national controversies over the government’s economic policies include retrenchment of at least 3,000 public sector workers and avoiding devaluation of the Barbados dollar (50 cents to the USD)—a sacred cow of long standing.

But this concession by the prime minister in allowing one of his ministers to make an alternative presentation to fiscal/economic policies to cabinet—after approval of a budget—is unknown in the post-independence history of Barbados or, as I understand it, anywhere else in the Caribbean.

The end result, some informed political watchers feel, could well be either Dr Estwick’s removal from Mr Stuart’s cabinet, or his stepping down as a DLP parliamentarian.

For starters, it needs to be noted that whatever the virtues of Dr Estwick’s arguments in favour of alternative strategies, including the saving of public sector workers’ jobs, he has continued to function in PM Stuart’s cabinet since last February’s general election and remains very much bound by the principle of collective responsibility associated with constitutional cabinet government.

He participated—whether or not amid disagreements—in the finance committee that addressed the final budget for 2014 by finance minister Chris Sinckler and which was subsequently approved by parliament.

Therefore, for the prime minister to now give him the opportunity of offering an alternative economic strategy to cabinet tomorrow—amid spreading media debate and speculation about the survival of the government, should he cross the floor in parliament, is being viewed as a temporary strategy, to give Estwick have enough political rope to hang himself.

We should know for sure, after tomorrow, what the wily prime minister, who has acquired a reputation for keeping critical decisions close to his chest, is really up to, as his own ultimate survival as leader of the DLP and head of government is involved in this precarious political mix.

In the meantime, as noted yesterday by the St Lucia-born regional political scientist at the UWI’s Cave Hill campus, Dr Denny Joseph, “irrespective of the economic soundness of Dr Estwick’s proposals, there will be internal consequences for the Democratic Labour Party, whether the proposals are accepted or rejected…”

Further, Joseph wrote in yesterday’s Daily Nation, “if the cabinet agrees to Estwick’s proposals it would be admitting failure of its current trajectory, a path, it should be reminded, which has been embarked upon at a very heavy price…And to undertake a volte face after such an advanced stage of political commitment to the original strategy would be to confirm opposition criticism of ineptitude, bungling and uncertainty…”

Clearly, as Barbadians, across the political divide see it, this is a most challenging moment, more for prime minister Stuart than for Dr Estwick. The current political status quo cannot stand for long.