Is a mes­sage only as good as the mes­sen­ger?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Rick Wayne

Re­mem­ber Prime Min­is­ter Stephen­son King’s April 2011 an­nounce­ment, that Saint Lu­cia had ex­pe­ri­enced GDP growth of 4.4 per­cent? Those of us with less than ex­cel­lent re­call were just three weeks ago re­minded of King’s ex­u­ber­ance on the oc­ca­sion.

The up­date re­turned to the front of the pub­lic mind all the as­so­ci­ated bad mem­o­ries, es­pe­cially the wall-to-wall crit­i­cism of the day’s prime min­is­ter by the leader of the op­po­si­tion and his sur­ro­gates, much of it wild spec­u­la­tion. “How could it be that all the other is­lands of the OECS had suf­fered zero growth, save Saint Lu­cia?” they sniffed. The re­lated al­le­ga­tions went so far as to hint at co-con­spir­a­tors in high places.

There was also much talk about a new ECCB yard­stick that may have en­cour­aged the whis­pered sug­ges­tions of col­lu­sion. Oh, but the cur­rent prime min­is­ter in­sisted the fig­ure pre­sented by his pre­de­ces­sor was plain and sim­ple self-serv­ing ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

It soon emerged that the now leader of the op­po­si­tion had for the first time heard of the dis­crep­ancy dur­ing the cur­rent prime min­is­ter’s 2012 bud­get pre­sen­ta­tion, when he gloated: “Mr. Speaker, the per­for­mance of Saint Lu­cia’s econ­omy has at best been ane­mic. In his bud­get pre­sen­ta­tion of 2010 the for­mer min­is­ter threw cau­tion to the winds and de­clared thus: ‘While the re­ces­sion was still strong in the rest of the OECS mem­ber states, all of which ex­pe­ri­enced neg­a­tive growth in 2010, the econ­omy of Saint Lu­cia grew by 4.4 per­cent in 2010, com­pared to an av­er­age mi­nus 3.2 for the OECS as a whole. The East­ern Caribbean Bank es­ti­mates that Saint Lu­cia will grow by 5.4 per­cent this year. Our own fore­cast is a more mod­est 4.5 per­cent as we con­cen­trate on the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a jobcre­at­ing growth strat­egy.’ ’’

The sit­ting prime min­is­ter, as if he were a ful­mi­nat­ing right-to-lifer hold­ing forth on the wicked­ness of abor­tion ad­vo­cates: “Mr. Speaker, the econ­omy did not grow by 4.4 per­cent in 2010 as proudly an­nounced by the for­mer min­is­ter of fi­nance. The growth rate was no more than 0.6 per­cent.”

The for­mer prime min­is­ter Stephen­son King could hardly con­tain him­self. When he had the op­por­tu­nity to set the record straight, he be­gan his pre­sen­ta­tion by up­braid­ing his suc­ces­sor for at­tempt­ing to make him look like a low­down good-for-noth­ing be­trayer of the pub­lic trust; a mis­leader of par­lia­ment and the peo­ple—a damn liar—when the prime min­is­ter knew full well that tech­nocrats pro­vide the fig­ures that a fi­nance min­is­ter re­leases to the na­tion, whether or not “proudly.”

The prime min­is­ter was not about to let the leader of the op­po­si­tion off the hook. Once the fi­nance min­is­ter an­nounces the fig­ure tech­nocrats pro­vide, he said, “he owns it; it be­comes your re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

But then the tech­no­crat who had handed then fi­nance min­is­ter King the too-goodto-be-true fig­ures also had his own truth to tell. And it hardly jus­ti­fied King’s elec­tion-time, Labour Party-man­u­fac­tured, rep­u­ta­tion as “de lyin’ King.”

In an in­ter­view fea­tured in last Satur­day’s edi­tion of this news­pa­per the statis­tics di­rec­tor re­called the fol­low­ing de­tails: “It was quite an un­usual sit­u­a­tion where we had to pro­duce a fig­ure by the end of Fe­bru­ary, our usual dead­line. I wrote the spe­cific let­ter read by the prime min­is­ter in par­lia­ment some time in the mid­dle of April or so last year. That let­ter in­di­cated we were hav­ing prob­lems with the data source and so we could not de­cide with con­fi­dence that it was cor­rect. If we can­not val­i­date the in­put then we have no other choice but to re­spect the process and go ahead with the num­ber. That is what hap­pened.”

The statis­tics blamed flawed cus­toms records for the ex­ag­ger­ated fig­ure on the im­port of con­struc­tion sup­plies and whole­sale and re­tail goods that had con­trib­uted to the 4.4 per­cent growth in the econ­omy. They were re­vised down from 4.4 to 2.59 per­cent, he said. He had no way of know­ing whether his warn­ing let­ter ever reached King when he was prime min­is­ter and min­is­ter of fi­nance. He knew only that his let­ter was sent to the tech­nocrats in the then prime min­is­ter’s of­fice, ad­dressed to the per­ma­nent sec­re­tary in the Min­istry of Fi­nance. In any event the statis­tics di­rec­tor re­vealed the fi­nal con­fir­ma­tion process be­fore the statis­tics depart­ment can re­lease de­fin­i­tive fig­ures took place in March this year—by which time King was no longer the leader of gov­ern­ment.

So how should King have han­dled the fig­ures given him in 2011? Tell the na­tion they re­mained to be proved? “If we can­not val­i­date the in­put,” the statis­tics di­rec­tor told the STAR in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, “then we have no other choice but to re­spect the process and go ahead with the num­ber!”

How jus­ti­fied, then, were the cur­rent prime min­is­ter’s re­marks by which he painted his pre­de­ces­sor as un­wor­thy of pub­lic trust? The prime min­is­ter had am­ple time to in­form his pre­de­ces­sor be­fore his bud­get pre­sen­ta­tion of the facts that had come to light since he left of­fice. Why didn’t he? It’s not as if he him­self had never an­nounced growth fig­ures that sounded im­pos­si­ble. Re­mem­ber 2005, when the growth fig­ure was an un­be­liev­able 3.5?

By the way: a re­cent HTS poll re­vealed the majority of ques­tioned Saint Lu­cians saw no rea­son for King to apol­o­gize to the di­rec­tor of statis­tics, a sug­ges­tion twice prof­fered by the cur­rent prime min­is­ter, not once de­manded by the di­rec­tor him­self.

Re­gard­less of how we feel about the present sit­u­a­tion, one point is in­dis­putable: the peo­ple now have more rea­son than ever not to trust gov­ern­ment dec­la­ra­tions and their mo­ti­va­tions. Ditto such bod­ies as the IMF and the World Bank that de­pend on gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion for their quar­terly out­puts. The gov­ern­ment is duty-bound to re­store faith in our pub­lic sec­tor de­part­ments. The prime min­is­ter might start the process by re­quir­ing his per­ma­nent sec­re­tary to ex­plain why it took more than a year to con­firm the 2011 GDP and why upon re­ceipt in March he did not re­lease the in­for­ma­tion to the gen­eral pub­lic.

Some things are bet­ter left un­said, es­pe­cially when the only pos­si­ble re­sult is more dev­as­tat­ing divisiveness. The prime min­is­ter might eas­ily have prof­fered the cor­rect growth fig­ures with­out point­ing an ac­cusatory fin­ger at his pre­de­ces­sor. He cer­tainly could have re­strained him­self from say­ing on the oc­ca­sion that ex­pe­ri­ence had taught him not to trust the word of pub­lic ser­vants! ED­I­TOR’S NOTE: The pre­ced­ing first ap­peared in the STAR on

29 May, 2012

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