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Two challenges for government

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There are two issues confronting the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines which have become the subject of much public discussion and debate. They are the impasse over increased bus fares with the national mini-bus association, NOBA, at odds with the government and the controversy occasioned by the passage of the Produce and Commodities Bill 2006.

The NOBA situation is not new, nor is it surprising that the pressures exerted by constant increases in fuel prices would produce strains on the relationship between NOBA and government. For it is not the first time that NOBA has been seeking increased fares consequent upon escalating fuel costs. {{more}}It has forced NOBA to call for a withdrawal of services to the public on two occasions, the last being one month ago. Fortunately for the commuting public, the latter was only partially successful, for the majority of working people, students and pupils rely on public transportation to get to and from their destinations.

Basically NOBA’s case rests upon the fact that this is the fourth time they have sought an increase in fares to keep up with petrol hikes. They have been so far unsuccessful with negotiations with the government and Transport Board so far incomplete as far as the bus operators are concerned. They feel that, unlike other sections of the private sector which have been allowed to jack up prices or rates, they are unfairly being asked to shoulder the burden of a situation over which they have no control. They have a point there. In order to offset latest round of fuel increases, NOBA put forward a case for a reasoned fare increase (they have some ideas as to how to implement these so as not to let most disadvantaged areas suffer most).

Government on the other hand has held up the plight of the working people and especially the cost to school-goers as its reason for not consenting to higher bus fares. It should be commended for this concern. It cannot however deny that bus operators are worse off as a result of the latest increases, so it has come up with a solution of subsidies. While in principle NOBA does not reject a subsidy, it disagrees with the size and feels that other concessions are needed to put them on an even keel.

So both sides are at loggerheads. But that is not unusual in industrial and labour disputes. The problem lies with how to find a solution. In this, the water is being muddied by political perceptions with many in the government making accusations about political motives on the part of NOBA which in turn, its leadership at least, accuses the Prime Minister of being “very political” in his discussions with them. I believe that if NOBA believes that the subsidy is inadequate, in spite of its reservations, it should propose what it considers to be a more reasonable figure.

Also, there is never anything wrong in talking, so why not another round? The P.M. has asked NOBA at least to try out the subsidy solution, so why not get him to further re-examine his offer, reach some compromise and try it for a limited trial period, 3-4 months? Both sides should remember who will suffer most in any breakdown or standoff.

The context and political history (the bus drivers were supportive of the ULP protests in 2000 which catapulted it to win the 2001 general elections) make it difficult to keep politics out of it and the pervading influence of talk-shows and callers on radio stations create pressures of their own. But maturity and the public interest must come before all else. NOBA is not NDP nor is the fare dispute a partisan political one, no matter how some on both sides may wish it to be so.

PRODUCE BILL

The second issue is the controversial Produce and Commodity Bill 2006, giving the government, through the Minister of Agriculture wide powers over the export and importation of specified “produce”, defined in the Bill as “fruit, vegetables, or other praedial produce, whether in its natural state or not, meat and fish in all its forms, milk and milk products, cooking fats and oils and crustaceans”. The major export produce, bananas and arrowroot, governed by other legislation are not covered here.

Predictably the Bill has aroused the ire of the private sector with both the Chamber of Commerce and the Private Sector Organisation of SVG calling for its repeal, among others. Naturally the political opposition too has strongly opposed, leading the government to accuse it of defending the interest of a particular business firm and claiming that what is really at stake is the right to import sugar. This right, the government claims, enables it to provide subsidies for banana farmers and has skillfully turned the political argument to one of NDP versus banana farmers.

However the matter is not as simple as that, even if that argument may have some merit. True, as the government points out the provisions of the new Bill are not in themselves new, having been around for three decades.

But, if truth be told, in the context of today’s international trading environment they were bound to raise more than eyebrows, especially in the absence of the “consultation” of which this government is so fond of boasting. The government is not unique, certainly in the Caribbean in maintaining powers to control trade in some produce. Examples of neighbouring countries are given to back up this claim.

But there is far more to it than that.

Central to the concerns, if not clearly expressed is what many see as the growing powers given to an unaccountable National Properties Ltd. This was supposed to be guardian of government’s properties but its reach is being extended steadily, into areas of the productive economy without what seems to the public to be reasonable justification. The powers under the Bill, designated to the Minister and supposedly to be used to protect or advance the interests of the NPL, seem to be the real issues. Further, legislation once on the books are there for the use of any government, good or bad, any Minister, reasonable or vindictive. Is this the best way to go in our current environment?

What is of concern must be whether such legislation can be to shield inefficient and unaccountable public enterprises, at the expense of the tax payer. Yet it must not be assumed that private sector operation, per se, is naturally efficient. Our experience has been of inefficiencies in both public and private sectors. Neither can be exonerated.

The real issues are too readily being swept under political or selfish interests and simplified as either pro or anti-private sector. Government cannot just dismiss all critics of the Bill for there are genuine fears about possible abuse of power which must be addressed.

Finally and sadly, for critics of the Bill to use the ancestry of Victor Hadley, Chairman of NPL to advance claims of “return to the plantocracy” and “re-introductory of colonialism” is outright reprehensible. Mr. Hadley is a Vincentian entitled to all the rights and obligations as the rest of us, under the Constitution. Attack him on the NPL’s record but please don’t descend into those murky depths!

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