Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

Tourism near standstill? GDP down 27 per cent? Knocking on for half the workforce unemployed? No problem. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley seems bursting with confidence as she approaches half-way through her first parliamentary term.

Having a comfortable parliamentary majority helps. I’d guess you could call 29 out of 30 seats fairly comfortable, with a prickly floor-crossing evangelical bishop the sole member on the opposition side.

The Barbadian governor-general Dame Sandra Mason opened the new session of parliament on Tuesday, with a throne speech brimful of ideas. They weren’t Dame Sandra’s ideas—though she may have agreed with every word she spoke. She was acting as a double stand-in.

She was stand-in for Mia Mottley, whose close-knit team set the political agenda and fine-tuned the speech. And she was stand-in for Elizabeth II, Queen of Barbados, Britain, Belize, the Bahamas and a string of other Commonwealth realms.

That’s all about to change. “Barbadians want a Barbadian Head of State,” said Dame Sandra in her role as double mouthpiece. By Independence Day next year—that’s November 30—Barbados will be a republic. It’s already, she claims in her current role, “the best governed black society in the world”.

Proposing a republic is not new. A constitutional commission recommended the switch back in 1998. Since then, successive governments have dithered, reluctant to make the change without a referendum – for which it has never been quite the right moment. Constitutionally, there’s no need for a public vote. A two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament can do it, and 29 out of 30 seats, if my maths is right, easily crosses the two-thirds. Mia is determined to move.

Nine Caribbean countries still have the Queen. Since 1998, each of them has floated the idea of a republic. But none has seen it through since the 1970s, when Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Dominica made the break. St Vincent’s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves lost a referendum on the issue in 2009.

Neither Mia nor Dame Sandra has said how Barbados will elect its president, or what powers the post will carry. At a guess, it may not be so far from the T&T model, which works fairly well.

And the Queen? I’d suspect she can take the break with “Little England” on board. India went republic in 1950, before she took the throne, and a string of others have followed. Barbados is trouble-free—but elsewhere, her role as a non-resident head of state is a potential headache. If she were still Queen of Guyana, the recent 20-month roller coaster of disputed no-confidence votes and mis-counted elections would have been a minefield.

Dumping the Queen will make little difference to how Barbados is run. The throne speech signalled other changes.

There were two social policy initiatives, though neither was full-throated. Possession of up to half an ounce of ganja will now be a ticketable offence. That will free up court time—almost one-third of criminal charges last year were minor drug cases. But there was no date set for the decriminalisation referendum for recreational marijuana proposed in Mia’s 2018 election manifesto.

The government also proposes to recognise same-sex civil unions—but there was no proposal to junk the colonial-era buggery laws which threaten lifelong imprisonment for male same-sex partners, whether they’re in civil unions or not. Even with a 29-to-one majority, Caribbean politicians are still scared witless by the issue.

And the economy? The big one here is a US$150 million Barbados Employment and Sustainable Transformation plan—aka BEST.

Tourism has reopened, up to a point. But compared to normal levels, visitor numbers are a mere trickle. And Barbados employment law contains a ticking time-bomb.

Staff who were laid off in March are nearing the end of their six months’ unemployment pay. After 22 weeks without work, they are entitled to severance payments, starting at 2.5 weeks’ pay for each year of service. With hotel finances in their current state, that could bankrupt the tourism industry.

It’s way better to keep people in work. With BEST, the government will invest in tourism-related businesses which agree to keep their staff employed for up to two years on 80 per cent of normal salary, plus job-related skills training and broad-based citizenship education.

With help from a Green and Digital Investment Fund, businesses will also invest in water conservation, renewable energy and digital management systems.

There will be similar assistance programmes for agriculture and manu­facturing. Businesses will be encouraged to localise their value chain, with stronger connections to farmers, manufacturers, service providers and artists of all types. First reactions from the private sector bodies sound positive.

The investment will be treated in a similar way to preference shares, not loans. Businesses will not be able to pay dividends or boost management pay until the funds are repaid. At the same time, the Hyatt and other big hotel investments are expected to create 4,500 construction jobs over two years.

BEST is less of an eye-catcher than dumping the Queen. But it may do a whole lot more to save the Barbados economy.

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I start this letter with an apology to two comrades I truly respect—comrades Stephon and Sterlling. The latter sent me a letter, via WhatsApp, since October 10, and the former told me about the same letter since the day before it was sent to me.