Prior to the presentation by the Minister of Finance of Barbados of the 2017/18 Budget estimates, I was pressed by journalist Stetson Babb for a comment on the likelihood of an “election budget”. My response might have been disappointing since I expressed strong doubts that the government could adopt an approach nine months before an election, which they had avoided in the previous nine years. Past experience of the government had shown it capable of only one measure – taxing the small, easily taxable segment of the population.
Perhaps finding my answer too evasive of his intent, I was asked what would be the likely thrust of the budget. My response was that they would not re-instate free tertiary education, they would not re-hire laid off workers, they would not agree to wage increases, and they would not reverse the decision on the taxation of allowances.
My “common-sense” expectation was that the nearest to an “election budget” would be an attempt to “prime the pump” by investing in road repairs, short term employment projects, announcing the end of “temporary” tax measures, or announcing policies related to tourism and financial services or the continuation of government-inspired investments like Sam Lord’s Castle, designed to grow the economy.
However, the government’s past policies had so backed it into a corner that its budgetary proposals fell even below common-sense.
One major revelation of the budget is that the country’s economic difficulties are far more acute than is being admitted, since the government found itself so constrained, that it could not undertake the widely expected common-sense political responses, even in their mildest expressions.
A second lesson is the confirmation of the intellectual bankruptcy of the government. Its singular approach has been to tax and tax, and to persist in doing so despite the evidence of greater deeper failure.
Another is that the government has abandoned the “economy” as an election platform in terms of satisfying popular or local interests, and has decided to fight the election on other grounds. Instead, it has prioritised the pleasing of external creditors, to stave off further downgrades. What remains is a false narrative about defending social-democracy which it has single-handedly destroyed.
The evidence points to a government trapped by an inevitable electoral deadline. The real challenge is its horrific economic failures. The 2017/18 budget represents an act of desperation in which the government is trying to solve a problem in a nine months that it failed to do in nine years. It has intellectually conceded defeat, but will fight hard on the ground, just in case, given the surprise of 2013.
As a result, it will hold on to office until the last day, pursue its external creditor-pleasing policies, and fight the election by the same proven methods.
There is only one certainty: the poor people will suffer more.
By Dr Tennyson S. D. Joseph