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Commentary: Fish back proves Government is out of touch

Published:Friday | March 27, 2015 | 3:00 AM

Even some ardent detractors have had to call it a reasoned, empathetic and statesmanlike Budget speech that was presented by Opposition Leader Andrew Holness on March 19.

He introduced many government MPs - maybe all, including the prime minister - to a relatively new addition to Jamaicans' food basket. It is fish back. It is a cheap source of protein.

According to scores who buy it, fish back has replaced chicken back in poor people's menu.

Chicken back is now said to be too expensive for many of our less fortunate Jamaican brethren, sisters and their children.

The much ballyhooed curried goat and oxtail promised by the now Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and her platform campaigners in the last general election has, under their IMF test-passing but near no-growth government, changed into the lowly and meat-scarce fish back.

That promise has not been kept and is replaced by a new symbol of advancing and spreading poverty.

For the uninitiated, fish back is the remains of a fish after the two fillets are removed from the sides. It is the head, main bone, tail and fins.

A Rainforest executive confirmed to me that most of the fish back is actually produced in Jamaica but from imported fish.

According to press reports after Andrew Holness' parliamentary revelation of the fish back product, Rainforest, for weeks before that, has not been able to produce enough supply to meet demand. One imagines that consumer demand has increased since the revelation.

Government MPs and ministers responded to Andrew Holness' fish back revelation with incredulous guffaws. The laughter and obvious mirth suggested that these officials, from the current PNP administration, are completely out of touch with the harsh financial and social realities of the Jamaican people, whose economy they were elected to govern.

Some made utterances of such strong disbelief that they implied or said the opposition leader was lying. Their reaction made for poignant and seriously out-of-touch theatre.

TALKING POINTS

Clearly, they lap up the talk of fiscal consolidation, meeting the very stringent 7.5 per cent IMF-imposed primary-surplus target, and certainly the passing of many IMF quarterly tests, but they have not yet figured out what these repeated government talking points mean in the lives of the vast majority of persons who voted for them.

It became blatantly clear for everyone to hear and see that government MPs have not taken the time to know what is happening in the lives and pots of their constituents. These government MPs went into knee-jerk denial when the verbal scent of fish back was forced into their really insensitive political and economic nostrils last week Thursday, in Parliament and before the nation, by Holness.

It is not just on the matter of fish back that the Government is out of touch. We have seen it in the woeful response to the chikungunya outbreak in the country - a full two years after Dr Fenton Ferguson was warned, at a conference here in Jamaica. He kept Jamaicans including, apparently, his ministry of health professionals in the complete dark. He then mismanaged in such a way that we ran out of medicines.

The Riverton dump disaster and managerial fiasco is another example of being out of touch at all levels and that fact causing, still, unnecessary pain, possible cancer, and delayed vital school exams. Of course, lots of related parties seemed to have been blessed to 'eat a food'. That touch has never been lost!

MIDDLE-CLASS MENU

Instead of exhorting her government MP colleagues to step out of their shiny Prados and get in touch with their in-pain constituents, the prime minister went to Parliament on Tuesday to upbraid the opposition leader and to tell him not to make a joke of the poor.

It is my clear recollection that it was her party MPs who joked about the poor, based on their lack of knowledge of fish back and their incredulity towards Andrew Holness' accurate report.

Also, on Tuesday Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller used her Budget speech to say very little about the terrible Riverton fires and sickness-transporting smoke. But she did mention that her health budget was increased in the 2015-16 Estimates of Expenditure by 17.83 per cent, in nominal terms, to $49.09 billion. This was spoken by her with great emphasis and fanfare.

One of her financial advisers should have translated those figures into real terms for the prime minister.

The current Simpson Miller administration inherited the 2011-12 Ministry of Health (MOH) budget when they came to office. When we put the 2015-16 estimates against the revised 2011-12 MOH numbers and adjust for inflation over the period, there is a real increase of 7.67 per cent. This means that in real, inflation-adjusted terms, there has been a mere 1.5 per cent annual increase over the five years. This small real increase is going to a health ministry that is stretched by the - unrecognised like fish back - chik-V epidemic. The chik-V outbreak has been plagued by a shortage of basic and not-so-basic medicines, and is nationally recognised as being woefully mismanaged by an out-of-touch minister.

Finally, fish back is being talked about as if it is the food of only those who were once considered as 'the poor'.

Under the IMF and this Government's 'manners', the category of the poor has been expanding deep into the realms of what was considered the middle class. The reality is that the ranks of the poor are growing and those of the middle class are shrinking.

• Aubyn Hill is CEO of Corporate Strategies Ltd and chairman of the economic advisory Council of the opposition leader.

Email: writerhill@gmail.com

Twitter: @hillaubyn

Facebook: facebook.com/hillaubyn