Very quickly after his party won the general elections in Belize, on February 7, 2008, Dean Barrow, our new prime minister at the time, decided that his government did not have the capacity to run a true democracy, after it had promised the people of this country that if we voted for them, good governance, true democracy, is what we would get.
The 2008-2012 UDP’s “Imagine the Possibilities” manifesto said, in almost its first paragraph, that “our current economic and social crises are not due to any lack of human or natural resources but instead to deplorably corrupt and incompetent governance.” The government the UDP was criticizing (PUP) had introduced more governance reforms than any previously, but the financial dealings of that government had led to an uprising that had not been seen since the Heads of Agreement were presented to the Belizean people in 1981.
The UDP produced a 13-point agenda to deliver this essential good governance, and among its promises were an Unjust Enrichment Act, Senate reform (13th senator), revamping of the Freedom of Information Act, laws to regulate campaign financing, and laws to prevent conflict of interest, nepotism and cronyism.
Running a democracy is truly a task for giants, because, unlike a dictatorship, where the main concern of leaders is to keep the army happy, the leaders in a democracy have to be responsive to the needs of all the members of the society.
On coming to office in 2008 the UDP fired out of the blocks; as early as August the party went to the House of Representatives and introduced a number of Bills to deliver on some of its promises to improve governance. At that House meeting, when the Bills were introduced, speaking on the one to improve the Senate, PM Barrow told the nation that his party “voluntarily giving up control of the Senate, control of the upper house by the administration” was “the essence of real effective Senate reform.” (quotes taken from a 7News transcript)
Unfortunately, very soon after its red-letter day in the House, the party showed that it didn’t have the stomach to run a true democracy. It would take 9 years for the UDP government to actually deliver on the 13th senator, and that promise was only realized after the government came under considerable pressure from the BNTU.
The UDP controlled government for close to thirteen years, and many promises in their 13-point agenda for governance reform went unfulfilled, one of the most notable on which it reneged being the introduction of campaign financing laws. Campaign financing laws are essential, because in the land where such laws don’t exist, political leaders who are weak-kneed or unscrupulous are easily bought. When political leaders are beholden to donors, government for the people becomes an afterthought.
After UDP rule that was functionally a dictatorship, the people dumped the party in one of the worst blowouts in our electoral history and handed the reins of government back to the PUP, the party that had been booted out in 2008 for corruption and incompetence.
The PUP, in its Plan Belize 2020-2025 manifesto, condemned the UDP for its failures and promised to “return principle and probity to public life.” The PUP said “confidence in government is at its lowest…Belizeans are not prepared to tolerate this any longer…”, and to help us regain confidence in our government the party promised, among other things, to set fixed dates for elections, register all political parties, introduce campaign financing laws, reduce ministerial discretion, reconstitute the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), fast track the implementation of the UNCAC, and introduce legislation to protect whistle-blowers and witnesses involved in corruption cases.
It’s early in the new government, and our new leaders have moved on implementing some of the good governance promises they made, but the Belizean people are naturally skeptical, because they have been failed so many times before. In normal times the PUP would have five years to show its sincerity about all its good governance promises, but, as the party mentioned in its manifesto, “confidence in government is at its lowest”, and also because of the strains caused by the pandemic, Belizeans are no longer as patient as they used to be.
The pandemic has hit our economy extremely hard, and the IMF has warned that our government must be urgent about reining in spending and increasing revenue collection, and in that vein it has called for the government to retrench 3,000 of its employees and increase the GST to 19%. Addressing spending, the new government has chosen to cut the salaries of most of its employees, a measure it noted in the House of Representatives last Friday, at the reading of the budget for this fiscal year.
Since the business of unions is to protect the salaries and benefits of its members, and to seek better working conditions for them, they, despite knowing that the country’s financial situation has never been worse, naturally are balking at the government’s insistence on a cut in their salaries. The majority of Belizeans outside of the public sector have taken a massive financial hit from the pandemic, and while some question the unions’ position that government look elsewhere for the finance it needs to stave off financial ruin, all agree with the unions’ governance reform demands.
A recent release from the PSU says, “the government may proceed with its unilateral salary cut, but we shall not be moved until we are heard…” The PSU said that what we need in order to get out of the financial crisis is not an $80-million cut in the salaries of government’s employees, but “better governance”.
Prime Minister John Briceño has noted that his government has already moved on implementing a number of the reforms the party promised in its manifesto, but the unions are seizing the moment to force them to quicken the pace.
As these two giants joust, the rest of us are on the sidelines watching nervously. Today, the PSU is on “go slow”, and the BNTU and the nurses have indicated that they will also take industrial action. The government does have room to give when it comes to reform. It hasn’t yet fulfilled all of its election promises, but on the matter of protecting the value of our dollar, staving off financial ruin, it has said the necessary $80 million cut in spending either comes from the harsh IMF solution or their less harsh homegrown remedy.
The standoff continues. The unions insist on governance reforms; the government says it needs $80 million.