by Yao Atunwa, ahead of publication in August Issue of VISION Magazine.
By what standard(s) do we seek to begin to understand the quality of leadership of a leader of a people?
One such standard has to be his/her ability to set a tone for other leaders and the nation at large through the very execution of his/her leadership. There are many dimensions that are applicable as it relates to setting a particular tone (and one that is constructive), no doubt. One of those dynamics pertains to his or her ability to ground with the people, authentically. Such individual has to be of and for the people that he or she is seeking to lead, most ideally. Charisma, we can all agree, is one of those qualities that can serve as a viable currency in attempting to make that important connection with the masses. But beyond the mere personal or interpersonal qualities or soft skills possessed by a leader of government, there is another invaluable quality at work, and that is his or her ability to understand the social needs of the masses. In such lies his or her ability to truly connect with the people in a meaningful way; that is to say, beyond personal effects and mere material gains.
Grenada has had its fair share of charismatic leaders, with personalities that are captivating, even to the point of messianic appeal, as was the case with the most flamboyant personality in that of Eric Matthew Gairy, our inaugural prime minister. The current and longest-serving prime minister to date is also deemed by many to possess great personal effect, particularly with his canny disposition to immerse himself with the everyday Grenadian in his/her environs effortlessly; and speak his/her language, I might add. His own personal heritage, hailing from humble beginnings, affords him such almost by default, because one can choose to relate to others differently despite their personal heritage. Mitchell can be seen knocking glass with ‘the boys” at the neighbourhood rum shop or playing cricket during a local tournament or just leisurely. He is no stranger to those activities or settings. For that, he is king (to be figurative).
But how does Mitchell stack up when it comes to his ability to connect with the social needs of the Grenadian people? There is one other prime minister who has demonstrated such ability par excellence. And it is by this yardstick we will seek to make sense of the quality of leadership that we have had from the current political leader of the NNP and our current prime minister. That person would have initiated the era of progressive policies and governance in our tri-island state that gave rise to an array of educational, economic, and social programmes which led to the social development of Grenada during the revolutionary period: 1979 – 1983. We are speaking of another graduate of the Presentation Brothers College: Maurice Bishop.
Maurice Bishop, too, possessed great personal effect as an individual and as a political leader. He relished rolling up his sleeves, when he was not wearing short sleeves which he donned a lot as prime minister, to partake in whatever task others were engaged in around the island, as he would have donated his time and resources to represent the downtrodden in legal matters prior to taking the helm as leader of government. The dynamic that serves to contrast these two leaders, as alluded to earlier, is their understanding of the social needs of the people. That is the criteria or juncture where divergent ideologies seem to explain the difference in approach to leadership by these two individuals.
Laying attribute to a particular ideology certainly aids our understanding of an apparent difference in governance approach, but it would make much better sense should we examine closely the orientations of these two individuals that convey whether or not a proper connection is made with the social needs of the Grenadian people, of which they would have to grasp fully to deliver transformative results.
One of the benchmarks in gauging whether or not such connection is being met in viewing the general welfare of workers at large. The government’s posture toward labour vis-à-vis its policies, directly and indirectly, impacting the welfare of workers is central. The plight of workers for a fair and living wage, job security, proper working conditions, and pension and gratuity represent by and large the welfare of the nation.
It would appear more obvious now than previously where the Mitchell administration stands on the question of the welfare for a broad cross-section of workers, given the administration’s handling of the lingering pension and gratuity issue affecting teachers and other civil servants. The government would have “promised” the unions representing those civil servants 25% on the heels of the last general elections, only to turn around and renege on such promise to offer a paltry 2%, purporting to not be in a position to afford the original 25%, which according to union representatives is the law. The commentary on the part of the government is that The Fiscal Responsibility Act, to which the government must adhere, does not facilitate the fiscal room for awarding workers such generous retirement package.
And in more recent weeks, after the issue was brought to the court in a class action lawsuit for redress and still pending a ruling, the government indicated that it has plans to enhance the retirement packages for all government workers (not just public officers). It appears that the government’s intent is to pit workers against each other in the process because it has yet to make amends with the classification of worker, public officers, who aired their grievance in the first instance pertaining to their retirement package. Why wait until the matter goes to the court, and pending a ruling, to decide to speak about enhancing the retirement package of all civil servants, especially when affordability was the focal point and seems to remain the focal point, given the emphasis that has been placed on it during the negotiation talks with union representatives?
Could it be that the stubbornness of the unions to press the issue and to garner wide support as they engaged in industrial actions has put the government on the fence, as it has no alternative left but heighten its propaganda that those workers are being dishonest and greedy with their interpretation or definition of gratuity, to not see it as an upfront loan? Mind you, the issue of pension and gratuity was brought to a head when an earlier (1998) OECS Court of Appeals’ ruling stipulated that government affords the plaintiff, Irwin McQueen, pension compensation to reflect the law as it appeared prior to the People’s Revolutionary Government Pension Disqualification Act of 1985, since Section 84 of such law is inconsistent with the Constitution (which was suspended under the PRG government and restored thereafter). Such decision by the court obviously has wide implications, to include all public officers, not just the plaintiff in this case.
Keep in mind that the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), the other fixture in the domain, was intended by the PRG to nullify the adherence to the obvious class division with respect to workers, including politicians who served in government, which by the way was sidestepped when an earlier NNP administration, in 1989, contravened the PRG’s Pension Disqualification Act of 1985, to ensure that politicians receive pension and gratuity after 4 years in office. There is no earnest indication that the Mitchell government is intending to undo the class division and thus corresponding privileges consequently afforded in the process, with mentioning an increase or enhancement in pension for all civil servants, even at this stage.
Moreover, the initial claim that the public officers are being greedy or fool-headed with wanting and demanding 25% only echoes the reality on the ground that the great majority of civil servants in Grenada would be retiring with very little monetary benefits to sustain a modest sense of wellbeing when they have mortgages and other expenses to honour on an ongoing basis. But how does such charge by the government relate to its decision to take on many of the new hires of nurses in the public health sector on a part-time basis without the fringe benefits that full-time workers are entitled to? And would such practice not only affect those young nurses seeking to practice their profession and make a livelihood but negatively impact the overall delivery of health service, in spite other changes that might be positive to that sector? Does the Mitchell government really have the workers’ welfare at heart?
Should the answer to the question turn out to be no, why would the workers of the State of Grenada not be top priority for the current government? To be most fair, let us ask the question this way: What policies have the government implemented that suggest otherwise; that the government is seeking to seriously improve the general situation for workers in the state? Why is the Minister of Labour also the Minister of Foreign Affairs? How does this begin to make sense?
There is really no comparison to be made as to the treatment that workers received under the PRG government, for it was a period when workers were given the greatest support on many fronts, but particularly so as it relates to ensuring that workers had the benefit of safe and better working conditions; that women receive equal pay for their labour, as well as maturity leave; that workers’ rights to join unions were safeguarded and promoted: all with legislation; and legislation that included the participation of union leadership as well as rank and file members. Such was the process of seeking to democratise industries in the state. There was no Fiscal Responsibility Act as such to prevent or curtail what was deemed beneficial to the welfare of workers, who are the backbone of the society. In fact, Grenada was much poorer during that period, with GDP being nowhere near its current figure of 1.119 billion. Grenada had less foreign direct investments then as well. Another interesting fact is that though we relied on donations from foreign governments to address social projects as we still do, there was much less reliance on loans, another prominent component of our reliance on outside resources. So much so that Grenada’s foreign debt grew from 33% of GDP in 1995 to 83.53 in 2004.
As stated by researcher Patsy Lewis in her analysis of the social and economic policies of Grenada post-independence: “Grenada has enjoyed favourable levels of growth, averaging 3.8% between 1980 and 2003, higher than the world average of 2.9% and the Caricom average of 3.1%, but just below the OECS average of 4.1% (World Bank, 2005:1). However, these positive indicators co-exist with high levels of unemployment and poverty, suggesting significant inequality and vulnerability, which threaten to undermine gains in human development (Case Study: Social Policies in Grenada, 2010).”
To put this in perspective, much of our economic growth was, in fact, fuelled by loans in the development of the port and other major infrastructure project post-1995, resulting in construction playing a prominent role insofar as GDP contribution (11%, as cited in a Caribbean Development Bank report, 2007; more than hotels and restaurants). The other major factors, as listed by Patsy Lewis, are: “concessionary access to major trading markets, including the European Union (EU), USA and Canada; the development of the service sector, primarily tourism, but also off-shore financial service; generous inflow of foreign direct investments (FDI).” The reality of which implies that most of the growth was derived from outside of Grenada. However, with the fiasco that led to the loss of the concessionary market for our bananas (and by extension the OECS) in the EU, the loss of the once popular off-shore banking sector, and loss in income from duties and trade, seemingly the only factor that is still “viable” would be that of the continued inflow of foreign direct investment primarily in the tourism sector, which currently is picking up. However, with the upkeep of the 20-plus years in tax holidays given to hoteliers as standard practice, combined with low-wage jobs offered in the sector, as well as the heavy reliance on imported food, the great majority of the profits (over 80% on average for the region) leave our shores for the developed world. Nonetheless, we continue to rely on tourism as the centrepiece of the economy.
In such context, where are the real benefits for the average worker labouring in those hotels that are introducing exciting luxury to our shores, of which most of our people would not be able to enjoy? Are we not continuing to sell our labour in a market that does not provide much for our general wellbeing: the same way agricultural workers did on the many plantations?
Another aspect of Mitchell’s approach to governance that worth highlighting is his attitude towards the people’s desires. For instance, his total and blatant objection to a great many members of the public regarding his decision to use Camerhogne Park for a hotel project. His adamant disapproval of the idea to save the park at its location is still an ongoing one. If the park was not entrusted to the people of Grenada by The Willie Redhead Foundation, and instead was the property of the government, I am not sure that the people’s effort to save the park would withstand the prime minister’s wish to have his way. The same attitude is displayed even more concretely when he and his cabinet choose to withhold important information on matters of wide public interest and implication, such as the end result of the negotiation with the foreign investors in the nascent energy sector. Grenadians had to gather such information from Trinidad media. The cry is that Mitchell does not respect the citizens of Grenada, with his continued anti-people posture: dictatorial, some have come to describe it.
I, personally, recall an episode of Mitchell (then-opposition leader) making crass and outright rude comments about Kirani James’ parents on the young man’s return trip after representing his country in an international meet, to celebrate his victory as a world champ. Mitchell’s intent was to embarrass Annie James and Dorrani Marshall, as there was little room left for interpretation when Mitchell suggested that James and Marshall’s appearance could be altered or enhanced for the celebratory occasion. Why would a national leader even make such comment about a national hero’s parents for public consumption, and disparagingly?
Not even the critics of a socialist Bishop could fathom such ill-manner or anti-people posture from Bishop.
Another benchmark worth viewing to begin to grapple with the quality of leadership that Mitchell is affording the citizens of Grenada would be his great reluctance to even engage in fruitful dialogue regarding the decriminalisation of marijuana, when several regional and international states are presently signalling their commitment to doing so, to alleviate the unnecessary punitive burden their citizens have to bear under the traditional framework, as well as the great potential for health benefits and overall commerce. Mitchell’s obvious lack of interest in such an important area of the social and economic life of citizens is quite alarming.
One must note that the ideological deportment of Keith Mitchell, neoliberalism, does not provide great social benefits for Grenadians, though he seems formidable as a leader, especially as a candidate for general elections, winning two landslide electoral victories in recent years. There are structural problems in place that would create favourable conditions for such to happen. The most obvious is the current two-party system: it is either or, in an increasingly partisan context. Another being the adherence of the second major party to the neoliberal order. However, the most fundamental of them is the shift from the reliance on our people in developing our nation as was the case during the reign of the PRG. That is partially the reason why neoliberalism, i.e. capitalism, can serve as the number one educating instrument of our people’s consciousness. In an era of privatisation and its peer, rugged individualism, the one-eyed man is king. Mitchell is that one-eyed man for his view that capital is the primary focus in inviting prosperity.
The true answer lies in realising that the human aspect to development is both at front and back ends of all endeavours undertaken to inspire social development, not glorifying capital or seeking to always make conditions favourable for private investors at the great expense of workers/citizens. I hope that you may still find the title of this essay most applicable, after the use of the one-eyed king metaphor. I see parity in both, and the need to use both to say what we currently have is substandard. Acknowledging that such is the reality is our first crucial step in changing course.