Social justice in the time of austerity: the promise(s) of Mia Mottley

Prime Minister Mia Mottley (right) receiving the instrument of office from Governor General Dame Sandra Mason.

By Roberta Clarke

Roberta Clarke is a human rights and social justice activist. She is a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists and the head of the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

This article was originally published in Sexuality Policy Watch on August 3, 2018.

On May 24th, Mia Mottley became Prime Minister of Barbados with her Barbados Labour Party (BLP) winning all thirty parliamentary seats. This obliteration of the opposing Democratic Labour Party (DLP) which had been in government for the previous 10 years was stunning, (or epic as the millennials would say) and historic. It was stunning because it was the first time in post-independence elections that one party captured all the seats and did so with large margins in every constituency. And it was historic because Mia Mottley became Barbados’ first woman Prime Minister.

Mia (as she is called by Barbadians familiarly) however is not a political neophyte, having entered representational politics when she was in her twenties. In the period 1994-2008, she was the Minister of Education, Minister of Economic Affairs and Development, Attorney General and at some stage, designated the Deputy Prime Minister. Despite a record of achievement and innovations across these portfolios, in some quarters Mottley was criticized as ‘entitled’ given her upper middle-class background. It was a critique deployed as a drag on her political trajectory, notwithstanding her rather extraordinary intellectual and oratorical capacities.

And so, against the headwinds of grumblings of entitlement and allusions to ‘morality’ and sexual orientation, Mottley took over the leadership of the BLP following its electoral defeat in 2008. Within two years, five of her male parliamentary colleagues withdrew their support in favour of the former Prime Minister Owen Arthur, who then led the party into its second successive electoral defeat in 2013. In opposition, the BLP turned once again to Mottley who carefully recrafted her political party, bringing in a host of new people and shaping a message of “enfranchisement, empowerment and inclusion”.

This was also a period of distraction and turbulence with a mysteriously fractious Owen Arthur, taking aim at Mottley. Through it all, she kept her political concentration (at least in the public domain), on the DLP

government’s record, strategically refusing to give oxygen to the political gossip about her personal life or her party’s internal politics.

All of this is noteworthy because in maintaining attention on dreadful governance, lack of transparency and rank inefficiency of the ruling party, Mottley was also able to draw attention to her political and technical abilities to lead the country.

Arguably the 2018 electoral victory was a win for political decency, for the promise of resolve for efficiency and a rejection of maladministration. All of which is not to say that gender was not a factor in the elections. Certainly, the DLP tried to make gender and sexual orientation a lightning rod. It was a tactic that backfired spectacularly. With a 60% voter turnout, a full 80% of voters rejected homophobia and misogyny as a basis for making electoral decisions. Instead, they responded to the BLP promises (under Mottley’s leadership) to stabilize the currency, reduce indebtedness, fix the horror of a broken sewage system and secure social provisioning and protection.

Given the history and the long shadow of slavery and colonialism, Barbadians share a social compact for ‘fairness’ and social mobility. Post-independence governments honoured these expectations through a social democratic model that took the market as a given but also the redistributive and regulative role of the state as a counterbalancing given.

The Barbadian state ensures free and universal education and health care and there is a relatively robust social security/protection system in place. This level of social provisioning is made possible through progressive taxation. And even a flat tax like the Value Added Tax was implemented with some degree of sensitivity to income levels- basic items being VAT exempt.

With the global economic downturn in 2007, the Barbadian economy went into recession. Revenue from tourism and financial services declined. Without a clear strategy for growth, expenditure reduction or diversification, the then government’s primary response was to increase domestic and foreign borrowing and the country’s debt to GDP ratio shot up to 175% by 2018.  Barbados is reportedly the third most indebted country, after Greece and Japan. And public services were allowed to deteriorate to a shambolic state. This now is the crisis which has to be addressed. How does the Barbadian state maintain its commitment to progressivism and to social justice in the time of debt-induced austerity?

Will this government follow neo-liberal methods of downsizing the state, privatizing essential services and introducing user fees for education, sanitation and health care as a way of reducing public expenditure? Will policies aimed at stimulating economic growth and attracting foreign direct investment come at the expense of worker rights and national ownership and control of important assets and resources?

In her first mini-budget, the Prime Minister iterated two principles that would guide her government’s difficult decision making: “The first is that the burden must be shared by all of us. Labour, the workers, cannot be asked to shoulder all the burden but neither must Capital bear all the pain. And our second key principle is that we must always protect the most vulnerable in our society.”

As Minister of Finance, Mottley has stated that macroeconomic stabilization is to be accomplished by three measures – through i) the promotion of growth without the overuse of tax concessions or subsidies; ii) restructuring of public debt to give fiscal space; and iii) generating annual fiscal surpluses. In this ‘mini’ budget eighteen days after the elections,  under the principle of shared burden, a range of additional taxes, levies and ‘contributions’ were restructured or introduced. From a progressive perspective, a higher rate band of 40% on that part of income greater than $75,000 was instituted. The annual budgets of some statutory corporations were reduced. These are the first of the austerity measures and there are more to come, including a possible reduction in or re-profiling of public sector employment. Yet political space was also secured through a 5% pay raise for public servants who had not seen a salary increase since 2007 and through the increase in non-contributory pensions.

In these measures, one gets a sense of the balance which this BLP government is seeking to get right – a social justice outcome secured through stimulating the private sector for economic growth and means-based contributions and taxes. Will they be able to secure social justice beyond rhetoric? The government’s approach appears to have been endorsed by the IMF. This no doubt causes anxiety for those who associate the IMF with failed programmes of structural adjustment, increased inequality, privatization of public goods and austerity borne disproportionately by the middle and low-income classes.

Caribbean feminist and social justice advocates are paying close and critical attention. The challenge for the movement is to understand the margin of appreciation of Mottley’s government. They must influence policy choices of the Barbadian government as it seeks to maintain essential socio-economic programmes, secure the value of the currency (devaluation will immediately increase the cost of living and poverty), stimulate growth and reduce indebtedness. It will not be enough to stand on the sidelines advocating only for expenditure.

Beyond stabilizing the economy, this government also has a number of other priorities which it characterizes as ‘missions critical’. These include youth employment and empowerment programmes, addressing crime, making communities safer and reform to the criminal justice system.

Yet there are parameters to the social justice agenda being articulated. Absent in the BLP manifesto are references to some issues which have come to be emblematic of the human rights challenges in the Caribbean. These include the decriminalizing of same-sex intimacy and sex work. The manifesto is also silent on the abolition of the death penalty.

But can social movements reasonably expect that Prime Minister Mottley will spend political time and capital on these issues given the scale of ongoing socio-economic challenges? And in any event, securing the economy is a precondition to securing social and economic rights to decent work, quality health care and education and social protection.

What is promised, if vaguely, are referenda which would permit “our people, and not only Parliamentarians, to have an appropriate role in decision-making on fundamental issues affecting the stability and cohesion of our nation.” In any event, some of these emblematic issues will no doubt be addressed through the application of a recent judgment of the Caribbean Court of Justice  where the mandatory death penalty in Barbados was declared unconstitutional and the constitutional bar to reviewing pre-independence laws (like the sodomy provisions) which are inconsistent with fundamental rights and freedoms removed.

In the 1970’s after the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City, all the laws were reviewed for sex discrimination and these were addressed in a structured manner. Of note, in 1981 Barbados recognized cohabitating relationships and in doing so advanced equity and economic fairness for women in unions other than marriage. In 1983, through the determination of Billie Miller, (a political mentor of Mia Mottley and who now sits in the Cabinet as an Ambassador) the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed, ensuring safe access to abortion. Whilst there is still gender inequality in Barbados, most aspects of formal and direct discrimination have been eliminated. Yet patriarchal culture persists. The BLP manifesto promises to address equal pay, paternity leave and domestic violence. But otherwise, it is silent on the persistence of gender stereotypes and norms which, along with especially income inequality, constrain the lives of sectors of women, men, boys and girls in profound ways. There is little indication as yet on how the education system will be reformed as an agent of human rights-based socialization.

In understanding politics as the art of the possible, the work on shifting culture, including through the levers of law reform, is also a ‘mission critical’. The Caribbean women’s movement is willing Mia Mottley forward as the transformational leader which the Caribbean needs. Already, she has developed a practice of communications and consultations so that the country understands the scope of the decisions which have to be taken.

Yet still, social justice advocates have our work to do, being realistic about what we can expect of a leader of a population with social, religious and cultural diverse views. That work includes speaking truth to the powerful; not letting pragmatism obscure principles; standing up for human rights; being proactive with policy recommendations; and working in all our spheres of influence for equality, justice and freedom.

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