Government like or as a business: Who’s just talking the talk?
It would be hilarious if not for its serious consequences. Every year our governments set aside two or three days for the stated purpose of updating the people on whether money has been expended without due regard to economy or efficiency, and satisfactory procedures have not been established to measure and report on the effectiveness of government programs; how the private sector functioned; payments on bank loans; new loans to be undertaken and how they will be repaid; the extent of the government’s indebtedness; what’s left in the kitty; the condition of government-owned properties including school buildings, hospitals, police stations; roads to be repaired or built from scratch, and so on.
From time to time MPs actually take the opportunity to acknowledge they are mere “servants of the people, always accountable to them.” Or that they are managers of “the people’s business.”
It would appear, however, that since June 2016 the worst sin a politician can commit is to associate government in the slightest way with business. Hardly a week goes by without an opposition reference to the current prime minister’s promise upon taking office to run his government “like a business.” Almost from the moment the words fell out of his mouth the opposition party (mischievously or out of ignorance) took to misquoting him, substituting his “like a business” phrase—by which the prime minister meant to say his government would operate by the tested rules of good business—with their own “as a business”; that the prime minister was hell-bent on operating government as he had his family’s hotel (wink! wink!), concerned only with profit and loss.
By the opposition’s twisted measure, a government that operates as a business cannot be concerned about the poor. But we need not travel from the ridiculous to the sublime. The irony is that if our governments have demonstrated one common characteristic, it is their shared propensity to talk the talk (however ungrammatically) but never to walk the walk. Whether or not they admit it, they take turns pretending to conduct the affairs of state in accordance with good business practices.
Our politicians demonstrably abhor accountability. Audited accounts, which by law must be tabled in parliament within a stated time frame, are customarily presented four or five years late, if at all. Of course that has never prevented the governments of our region—where the ayes always have it—from borrowing and spending as they please, regardless of the wisdom in the opposition’s nays. With nearly every submitted account comes a Pandora’s Box of the disclaimer that for several altogether avoidable reasons the tabled document is “not a true reflection of the state’s finances.”
For countless years now prime minister after prime minister has acknowledged the cost of governance is a burden too heavy for this country to carry. It is no secret that more than half of government revenue is swallowed up by our insatiable public service that few would say delivers value for money. But its numbers continue to swell amidst claims that many carry on as if their job description demanded they do all in their power to frustrate their employer’s best efforts. Still succeeding administrations grin and bare the consequences rather than take remedial action, for reasons that by now are only too obvious. Meanwhile the official underwriting of every mass-audience fete continues unabated, all in the irreproachable name of culture.
There has hardly been a sitting of parliament over the past forty years (say, from 1979 to time of writing) that adjourned without the worst accusations and allegations hurled as in a food fight by MPs on both sides of the table. Not only have MPs publicly accused colleagues of countless criminal offenses, but they also continue to treat the Speaker as if he or she were invisible and inaudible. Documents that merited serious study by the offices of the AG and DPP are instead routinely published on the Internet while the named suspects carry on as usual, not even bothering to offer clarification or defense.
Small wonder the House that should be the nation’s most respected institution has acquired a reputation synonymous with alley-cat shenanigans. No more are criminal allegations cause for shame and embarrassment; not in parliament, consequently not in private life. It would seem the people not only get the government they deserve, they also embrace their elected representatives regardless of how egregious. (See Tennyson Joseph statement on page 13.)
Edmund Burke comes to mind. The British MP and political theorist is credited with saying that “in all forms of government the people are the true legislator”—which message depends for its meaning on the receiver’s mindset. But what if the people don’t know they are the true legislator, don’t care, or have been seduced or coerced into passing on this responsibility to others who by their actions or reputations demonstrate nothing but disregard for common decency, let alone the law?
In Democracy for Realists, published in 2016 by social science professors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, the authors argue that the idea that people make coherent and intelligible policy decisions on which governments then act bears no relationship to how it really works. Or could work.
Voters, the authors contend, cannot possibly live up to these expectations. Most are too busy with jobs and families and troubles of their own. “When we do have time off, not many of us tend to spend it sifting competing claims about the fiscal implications of quantitative easing. Even when we do, we don’t behave as the theory suggests.”
The situation is far worse in a country where the alleged best brains are either civil servants, therefore silenced by staff orders and contracts, or they produced the troublesome policy and in consequence are complicit. As for the rest of us, the majority of whom cannot or will not read, we are like programmed robots mindlessly regurgitating party propaganda. The research summarized by Achen and Bartels suggests most people possess almost no useful information about policies and their implications, have little desire to improve their state of knowledge, and have a deep aversion to political disagreement. Our political decisions are based on who we are, not on what we think. Put another way, we act politically, not as individual, rational beings but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity. Did someone say party hacks?
“We seek out the political parties that seem to correspond best to our culture, with little regard to whether their policies support our interests. We remain loyal to political parties long after they have ceased to serve us.”
Recently, the always controversial SLP activist and one-time election candidate Tennyson Joseph (he proved easy meat for the UWP’s Rufus Bousquet) repeated for the umpteenth time his conviction that business people ought to be denied the opportunity to serve their country in government, on the dodgy premise that they care only for the bottom line and the hell with the poor and disfranchised. He cited Trump as proof of the wisdom in his observation, altogether ignoring that it was America’s so-called deprived and ostracized that were largely responsible for Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat. He ignored, too, the popular notion that very rich politicians are unlikely to steal from the people they represent.
Of course Trump was, for Tennyson Joseph, a stepping stone, albeit a slippery one, to where the SLP’s golden boy was headed. Before long he was prating about a burgeoning neo-liberalism movement whose ideology, he said, demanded the removal from office governments
that cared for the poor. That is to say, governments such as Kenny Anthony's, trounced in 2016 by “businessman” Allen Chastanet's United Workers Party—despite that Anthony held all the cards!
The truth is that from its inception in 1964 the United Workers Party had been labeled the businessman's party, comprising as it did such as John Compton, George Mallet, Hunter Francois, Maurice Mason, Henry Giraudy and so on. Actually, the more prominent among the UWP leadership were lawyers.
On the other hand the Labour Party, under its original leader George Charles, proudly described itself as the party of the downtrodden laborer, the relatively uneducated— consequently poorer Saint Lucian. Admittedly, that was a long time ago. Still the SLP's leaders continue to bleed for all it's worth the notion that class separates our two political parties.
Kenny Anthony did little to ameliorate the resultant lose-lose civil war. Neither the Oxford graduate George Odlum before him. For a Labour camper to promote UWP government policy he believes serves the country generally is to risk being labeled a sell-out by the SLP. The reverse is equally true. And so the self-hate prevails.
It must be obvious by now that they will change their counterproductive ways only when we the people adopt a new attitude toward our elected representatives. To borrow a phrase from a most unlikely source, “no more talk, no more talk, no more talk!” We are on the brink of the abyss. It's action time.
As earlier insinuated, of the several seemingly unsolvable problems hanging over Helen's delicate naked neck, the worst is our chronic shortage of funds combined with our addiction to spending borrowed money with no returns. In our government's fiscal circumstances a regular business would long ago have been forced into bankruptcy. But then private sector businesses are not operated by unregulated vampires with over 185,000 exposed jugulars at their disposal.
When a private business finds itself in apparently irreversible financial straits, its bankers demand urgent salutary action, regardless of how disconcerting. Usually, the bank's recommendation is “do more with less.” A distressed private business often is forced to send home cherished, long-serving staff, to make cuts until there is nothing left to cut . . . and then the bank takes over the operation, effectively rendering its owners and skeleton staff bank employees. Yes, the mother of all nightmares!
The International Monetary Fund is equally hard on the people when their government has finally brought their country to its knees. As I say, only the worst cowards go down without a fight. Our country is headed down the toilet. We must not allow it to pick up more speed. I think I may have a possible remedy. Bitter though it may be, what awaits around the corner if we don't act together—and with common purpose—is far worse. Tune in next Saturday. In the meantime read “Massive Cuts in Barbados Government Spending" on page 14!
When it comes to the operations of government, little has changed since Sir John Compton (pictured)—save for the worse.
e the heyday of