Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Barbados' PM speaks with the people

Barbados' PM did what I think is a first, by holding a "press conference" on radio and TV, with three "senior media" persons, helping to set the agenda for the discussion in the studios of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation. The media professionals were quick to jump on the PM not delivering on pre-election promises: "Did you flatter to deceive?" one asked. The PM has not done all that he said his government would in 100 days. Well, surprise! Reality shows that things are not so easy as they seem when you are not responsible when you actually have to do something sensible, workable, and fair.

First, I would applaud the approach of not just giving a stiff speech in a "state of the nation" style. It's not quite like what Jamaica's PM, Bruce Golding, is doing with his weekly "call-in" show, but it suggests a sense of coming down to talk with the people. I would, however, go back to asking why people think that the only worthwhile questions come from the media professionals. There are several learned local analysts who could have made up a panel to pose some very broad and tough questions. Anyway, someone should reflect on that for next time.

Second, in terms of content, I took away several important points:

Cost of living:

Price gouging exists big time in Barbados, and if those enterprises which are protected do not give good service and value for money, the government will remove the protection and open up the market to wider competition. The PM cited how certain basic goods could be landed in other nearby Caribbean islands for much less than in Barbados and the only reason why was that the enterprises concerned were "ripping off" the people. He also mentioned that there was a time when local supermarkets seemed able to provide goods at affordable prices: many of the supermarkets are now gone and prices have become very unaffordable.

A lot of recent price increases are imported, coming largely from the rise of commodities (rice, flour, and crude oil, especially). This has caused food riots in many places, including neighbouring Haiti last weekend. Crude oil price rises have been meteoric recently: prices touched record levels of US$ 112 a barrel, and international traders talk about US$ 120 being "inevitable". There's a double whammy here. The US$ falls on the exchange markets and that raises the price many commodities (including metals like gold, which has already sailed above US$ 1000 an ounce, but since tapered back). People also look for a way to protect themselves from inflation ("hedging") and buy ahead using things like oil futures and their prices also rise.) So, domestic petrol prices need to rise just to reflect the higher world market price.

The price of petroleum products has to increase. Current prices were based on crude oil at US$ 65 a barrel, and carried a subsidy. Do the maths. So, the PM wants people to wake up to the new reality, noting that the subsidies on petroleum products were costing B$8 million per month. So, from midnight Monday gasolene prices would rise by about 25 percent (to B$ 2.67 a litre).
[Diesel would rise from B$1.46 per litre to B$2.57 and kerosene from B$1.37 per litre to $1.51. From today, Liquid Petroleum Gas 100-pound cylinders move from B$144.75 to B$188.15, the 25-pound cylinders increase from B$38.76 to B$49.63, while the widely-used 20-pound cylinders goes from B$31.01 to B$39.70. To soften the blows measures would be introduced in the coming Budget to help manufacturers, farmers, fishermen, public transport operators and the poor.] Despite all the reporting of world events, many people are still "shocked" and "surprised" with such an increase.

The PM also mentioned flour (where local producer prices just went up 30 percent), and cement. Both have become "essentials" in many developing countries. Flour is the input of many basics like bread, and that says it all. Cement goes into buildings and when the country has a boom in construction, both private residential and private commercial, the sting of higher prices is felt quickly.

Governance and accountability:

The PM danced a bit, but essentially said there is a "code of conduct" for MPs and his Cabinet works from the existing "rules book". I think he knows that what he promised ahead of the election is not satisfied by that. He said that there is an independent commission looking at the issues and there will be an obligation for MPs to declare their assets. But....the codes must not discourage people from wanting to participate in public life.

He then turned on the moderators, by asking why the need for such a code should be limited to public officials. Why not a similar code for the private sector? A long silence passed.

He did defend his right to remove the speech writer used by the previous PM. He added that there had been a lost sense of right and wrong under the previous government, and the use of public money for charity (e.g., paying pensions to someone who was not covered) was not defensible. He did not go too deeply into what the new government was unearthing about usses of public funds, but we are hearing rumblings. He also added that courtesy demanded that "political appointees" under a previous administration should tender their resignations when a new administration came into power.

Energy usage:

We need to save energy, but I heard nothing concrete in terms of policy proposals, except that the PM wants inputs from as wide a base as possible so everyone is encouraged to help "brain storm" with each other to come up with ideas on energy saving. I would suggest we do that huddled around a fire, but that is probably energy wasteful and would add carbon emissions.

There was not much real debate during the press conference, but plenty of that will come on the radio, in the streets and homes in coming days. There was also that peculiar sense that the questioners gave that problems were not there before the government was elected after the January 15 election. That is the shallowness that bothers me sometimes, without having any partisan notions. There is the disservice of not properly setting the scene or context. In the end, someone like the PM has to say, the subsidised petrol prices should have risen some time ago, and then it sounds like a defensive comment.

So, a refreshing foray into a new approach to democracy? At first blush, yes. But I wait to see if the strong words on anti-competitive behaviour will really turn into something tangible. The money in many pockets is already stretched. Hopefully, people won't have to go on rampages for the price gouging to stop.

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