Mirror, mirror on the bathroom wall . . . You couldn’t help thinking of Snow White and the Seventeen (Seven?) Dwarfs as our admitted leaders without vision took some of us on a Thursday morning ride, perchance to discover together a way out of the overwhelming mess closely associated with their leadership.
It didn’t happen overnight. Few things do that are bad. Maybe it’s nature’s way of allowing us enough rope to hang ourselves . . . and more often than not it takes a lot of rope before we reach the point of no return.
Take the matter at hand: to put it as simply and succinctly as I can, our national treasury is penniless. So broke that even the most generous of lending agencies can no longer risk loaning us their shareholders’ money, even at Shylock rates.
In consequence, our government cannot properly conduct the people’s business—let alone keep election promises that in the first place were over the top to the point of absurdity.
The people’s business includes caring for the especially poor and deprived sick; providing security for the nation; maintaining our education system and so on.
The fallout from the poor state of the global economy continues to affect us in the worst way. We are ready to sell the nation’s soul in the name of survival—and not necessarily to the highest bidder, since we cannot afford the time to compare bids.
In consequence, we risk losing traditional friends that for many years had financed our police and other security arrangements. Amid horrendous accusations, the United States has ceased supporting our anti-crime endeavors. They suspect some of our law enforcement personnel of murder. A related investigation has been underway for some four months.
Meanwhile hardly a day goes by without news of another horrific killing, barbaric rapes of women, young and geriatric. Arrests are rare. It takes years before cases reach our courts, in some instances eleven years.
More and more people are daily losing hope that things will improve any time soon. Increasingly our politicians are seen as the enemy, which is to say their respective supporters are close to cannibalizing one another. Ours is a nation at war with itself.
Our once-upon-a-time corner of paradise is now a devil’s workshop. Our institutions are altogether dysfunctional. In our quest to make it through the night, we seem prepared to tolerate all varieties of corruption. The collective church has lost its voice; lawmakers casually break the law with impunity; our elected representatives take every opportunity to remind us they were never what we imagined them to be. Recently an MP was arrested outside his own bar and later released without police comment. The public suspects the worst.
Even the most optimistic among us are convinced things will become unimaginably worse. What to do that our elected protectors and providers have not done?
For a start, we might recall the wise words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”—an often misquoted truism.
I should add that Santayana referred to very young children and imbeciles. So, let us take a look in our rear-view mirrors at our situation 22 years ago, when John Compton was under pressure to do something about the overwhelming (we might as well admit it!) selfish demands of public service workers.
Consider the opening lines of the prime minister’s budget address on June 24, 1992: “Since I last had the privilege of addressing this honorable House in presenting the annual Estimates of Expenditure much has happened, not only in Saint Lucia and the region, but in particular the outside world, which of necessity will impact heavily upon our small, fragile and open economy. Therefore, we must take this into consideration in any decision we may wish to take, and in any policy we may wish to devise, to ensure the continued prosperity of our country and the welfare of our people.”
He referred to the end of the Cold War and “the collapse of the Communist system . . .” and the expected concomitant peace dividend bonus that was “not yet available.”
Additionally: “In spite of the end of the arms race, new resources have not yet been diverted to development and the entire world is still in the grip of the longest recession since the Depression of the 1930s. The economies of the two nations, Britain and the USA, with the greatest impact on our economic performance have in fact contracted, and recovery during 1992 appears to be weak and tentative at best.”
He went on to underscore the always sorry state of the nation’s economy, pointing out along the way that Saint Lucia was one of the most heavily urbanized countries of the OECS, with extreme pressure being placed on the services of the Castries Basin.
He said: “The population is young, with 81,000 under the age of 25, and approximately 67,000 under 19. Consequently in the next ten years or so, at the present rate of population increase, Saint Lucia’s economy must be developed and organized to support a population of approximately 175,000.”
More scary statistics followed. Then he said: “To succeed we must, regardless of political affiliation or preferences, all work together towards a common goal?”
Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? And it should. But that’s hardly the end of it. The prime minister went on:
“The 67,000 children and young persons now between ages one to nineteen, who should be our immediate concern, are our own children; our responsibility. We brought them into this world and we must make provision for them, to educate them and employ them.
“This calls, as I have often said, for total mobilization of our people and our resources. It calls for dedication and sacrifice. It calls for restraint all around in our wage and salary demands so that there can be savings for investment in our future.
“We cannot get out of the system more than we put in. Therefore our wage and salary demands must be realistic and geared to the ability to meet these demands, be these demands against the government, industry or business.”
He noted that already “hundreds of businesses, large and small” had retrenched thousands of workers, and not only in the Caribbean. There were “similar manifestations in the countries to whose governments we traditionally looked for aid.”
He said those who had failed to heed pragmatic advice were paying the price of their mule-headedness. Some had fallen “into the cold embrace of the IMF, with thousands of public workers dismissed and the salaries of others either cut or frozen in the process of restructuring, at the behest of the IMF.”
He offered the following advice: “The first step is to recognize a problem exists. There is still too much waste in the system and the cooperation in exercising control that is expected from senior officers is not always forthcoming. A glaring abuse is the way government vehicles are used . . . Steps will be taken this year to control such abuse and this may cause weeping and gnashing of teeth, but unless drastic action is taken the abuse will continue.”
Ring a bell? It should! How about this? “Our revenue base is very narrow. There is little room to maneuver.”
All of the above, remember, has been taken from the budget address of 1992. Now let’s revisit 1995, presented on June 14, “later than usual,” as the prime minister himself acknowledged.
“Although the reason for the late presentation is well known to honorable members,” Compton began, “I will nevertheless repeat them here for the record. With the Wages and Salaries Agreement with the Public Services Union for the three-year period 1992-95 coming to an end, government appointed a team of senior public officers to negotiate a new agreement.
“Several meetings which were summoned for this purpose were aborted because of a no-show of some of the unions involved. While these negotiations were proceeding Saint Lucia was struck by Tropical Storm Debby, which destroyed some 45 percent of the vital banana crop . . . Many farmers lost not only bananas and coconuts but also their livestock and vegetable gardens, storage sheds and tools, none of the latter covered by crop insurance.”
He said 145 homes were destroyed, 175 severely damaged and 78 “less seriously.” Three lives were lost and hundreds of home owners lost personal belongings in flood waters. This was particularly severe in the Cul-de-Sac/Bexon area and in the low-lying areas of Vieux Fort. We need not go into the landslips, soil erosion and so on.
Heard that before?
Predictably he arrived at another well known place: “The entire Public Services must be the subject of an in-depth examination to ensure its function of delivering efficiently the government service to the public, and without being such an impediment to the development of the state. We must do this ourselves rather than inviting the assistance of the IMF and paying the enormous social costs of such invitation.”
(Didn’t the current prime minister say something similar this week?)
Famously, Compton added: “The Public Service Unions must be prepared to accept that the days are over when they can make demands far in excess of the growth of the economy. The government cannot print the money it needs . . . The economic principle by which we must be guided is that enunciated in simple terms by Charles Dickens, in his novel Mr. Micawber: “To earn ten dollars and to spend nine dollars the result is happiness. To earn ten dollars and spend eleven, the result is misery.”
He said overseas travel was often nothing more than a holiday for MPs, to say nothing of a waste of money. He planned to curtail such travel and would permit attendance at conferences abroad only when there was obvious related gain.
(Sound familiar? It should. Only this week Kenny Anthony said the same!)
“An increase in salaries and wages must therefore come either from growth in the economy,” said Compton, “which in turn must come either from Public Sector or Private Sector investment or both—and from the reduction of waste or wasteful or unnecessary expenditure and other savings, efficiency and productivity. There is no other way!”
As I write, the following has reached me from a friend via Whatsapp, inspired by my criticism that our government lacks imagination: “Okay, but imagination must be tied to economics. What would you do in the short term if you were in the prime minister’s shoes?”
Imagination must be tied to economics? Well, duh. As for the what would I do part, this is what I wrote back: “Upon taking office in 1997, with a 16-1 mandate and wall-to-wall love from all the people, even from those who had saved Louis George’s political ass, our new prime minister was in a position to move mountains. Instead, he fell victim to the demons that lurked within him or surrounded him, and detonated a cauldron of infectious self-hate.
“His first official act as prime minister was to degrade the office of governor general as it had never before been degraded. He insisted that Sir George Mallet, who had served this country as deputy prime minister for some forty years, use the year’s throne speech to indict—without evidence—his own government. As if indeed what had happened on a particular night in 1979 had never happened at all.”
The beleaguered 2014 prime minister is a consequence of the actions of his 1997 predecessor, I told my friend. Therefore, her question was not only pointless, it was altogether unanswerable, save that in Kenny Anthony’s boots I would try to appear in the public eye as I had in 1997, then start all over again. But then again, how would I undo Rochamel, Frenwell, NCA and Grynberg? How would I reprogram the abused Saint Lucian psyche?
Now consider the following: “The former government monopolized the investment agenda, undertaking ill-conceived and ill-advised projects in the private domain. Many of these projects were undertaken without appropriate dialogue or discussion, drawing down indiscriminately on financial resources which should have been available to other sectors in the economy. Such action has the effect of crowding out private initiative and setting up all sorts of nefarious bodies in areas where government has little commercial advantage and even less chance of financial viability.
“The chronic lack of information regarding government policy and priorities must be reversed. The lack of confidence which inevitably follows highly autocratic decision-making must be redressed.”
Could the utterer of the above-quoted statement be the same man whose legend is umbilically connected to the secrets of Rochamel, Frenwell and Grynberg?
And might the “ill-conceived and ill-advised projects” hinted at be the same projects applauded by Prime Minister Kenny Anthony at the recent unveiling of the Constitution Park statue? In any event the quoted words are taken from Kenny Anthony’s 1998 budget.
And now, dear reader, you may well be asking, what does any of the above have to do with the present? May I again remind you of George Santayana’s lesson?
And how about the truism that problems cannot be solved by the same thinking that created them?
The main problem for Compton, Allan Louisy, Vaughan Lewis and Kenny Anthony was never so much lack of resources as a common lack of balls. They lacked the courage to do what needed to be done in the public interest.
If in 1991 the operating costs of government were already too high, and if the obvious remedies were ignored in the selfish interest of political survival, why should we be surprised to discover ourselves where we are today?
What difference does it make who borrowed what? They all chose to borrow rather than take their own advice. And that’s not about to change, so long as the people continue to suffer the consequences without question.
Richard Frederick deserves the final word: “Sometimes, when I look into my mirror, I say: ‘Boy why did you leave what you were doing to jump into this foolishness called politics?”
Who knew the Central MP was so insightful?