Tuesday, 12 March 2013 02:30
By Colin Sampson
The first Media Roundtable hosted by the Public Administration Communications Unit was remarkable for the frank and forthcoming manner in which chairman of the Social Security Board Everett Christian responded to questions from the media panel. Clearly, Mr Christian had something to say, and he made absolutely certain that he said it.
Naturally, under the circumstances, the major focus of the SSB chair’s dissertation was the absolute need to take immediate steps to rescue Antigua & Barbuda’s tottering Social Security Scheme from imminent collapse. On this particular issue, there is absolutely no disagreement whatsoever. Every citizen and resident of these islands is by now fully aware that the Scheme is wobbling financially, wilting under the strain of long term and comprehensive mismanagement.
That phrase “long term and comprehensive mismanagement” incorporates the sad history of more than the Social Security Scheme itself. If the truth is to be told, the shameful saga of the Scheme is only a symptom: the looming disaster is but one of the national crises that have developed over the decades in this twin-island state because of long term and comprehensive mismanagement of our entire country. The singular challenge facing the Social Security Scheme fits neatly, like a piece of jigsaw puzzle, into the picture of governmental venality that is the history of post-colonial Antigua & Barbuda.
Our young nation’s short history of official venality – countenanced, supported, and encouraged by an ignorant, benighted, and sadly misled electorate, has produced the Antigua & Barbuda we know today. Our inability to arrive at a clear national consensus on the way forward for the Social Security Scheme is a symptom of more than mere bad governance. This failure also represents the divisions that wrack our small nation: political polarization and self-interest that militate against any responsible, cohesive and patriotic response to a problem with an obvious solution.
That last statement illustrates the irrational, self-destructive character of the current impasse: Antiguans and Barbudans are unable to accept and implement obvious, unavoidable solutions to an obvious, avoidable problem.
In truth, there should really be no “issue” involving the Social Security Scheme. The “issue” really concerns the body politic itself, and its inability or unwillingness to face and resolve a cut-and-dried case. The “issue” really concerns the political weakness of the government of the day.
Simply put: the United Progressive Party administration is in too weak a political position to take any constructive steps in respect of the Social Security Scheme. For the UPP government to attempt such a foolhardy exploit would be to call down upon itself the wrath of an agitated electorate looking for somebody to blame – and thirsting to visit fire and brimstone on the head of any politician unwise enough to offer a target.
The UPP’s real political weakness – in this instant matter and in general – is aided and abetted by the even greater political weakness of the opposition Antigua Labour Party. There are political observers who maintain without challenge that only the generalized public disdain for the ALP permits the UPP to persist in “power”. The great fear for the UPP leaders is that any definitive move to rescue anemic Social Security from a clear and present danger will tip the balance decisively against their party – in an election year.
The result of this artificially created political impasse is that all critical decisions are being handled with the proverbial ten-foot pole: the political objective being to “kick the can down the road”. By pursuing this policy of avoidance the government of the day seeks to turn the problems confronting Social Security into a campaign issue, in the hope perhaps that it will be lost in the mob of other issues that will crowd the agenda during the silly season.
The “silly season” though, appears to be a permanent condition in our punch-drunk twin island state. In answer to a question from the media panel, Mr Christian posited that the problems facing Social Security are being made into a “political football”, with the stakeholders – labour and the business sector – digging in their heels against moving forward on the proposed fixes. The truth is that the insecure ruling party is a willing participant in the football game.
A confident administration would have long ago taken the bull by the horns, moving swiftly and with determination to implement a complete program of short, medium and long term reforms for ailing Social Security. The ruling party is unable to demonstrate decisive leadership partly because of its own less-than-admirable role in bringing the Scheme to its current parlous state, and partly because of its own poor financial record in government.
The open political secret, one that Mr Christian is not able to ventilate in any public forum, is that the body politic of Antigua & Barbuda is not prepared to grant any more leeway to a government that the electorate perceives as having been irresponsible beyond all measure with the national finances. The UPP leaders are having their collective face firmly rubbed in the ordure of their manifest failure to offer the body politic the quality of governance they promised so humbly when they were being boosted into office in 2004.
Rather than undoing the wrongs attributed to the despised ALP, the “rescuers” have merely added to them – and they did so while taxing and spending like there is no tomorrow. Now, caught with their collective pants around their ankles by the crash of 2008, with the government sector now bigger than it has ever been, with R Allen Stanford enjoying free lodgings in a Florida penitentiary, with arch-benefactor Hugo Chavez heading for a display case and with the IMF camping out in the front room, the government is fresh out of options.
And so the UPP administration, facing a challenge whose solutions are clear and manifest, finds itself politically paralyzed – frozen in the face of a completely rational refusal by an outraged public to extend any further credit to a bunch of delinquent politicians. With a patient ALP waiting to pick up the pieces, the Baldwin Spencer government is reduced to simply kicking the can down the road … and hoping that the Social Security Scheme does not kick the bucket before the ruling party can get its act together.