Is a message only as good as the messenger?

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 job-creating 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-good-to-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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