‘Screw Face know a who fi frighten'
The recent announcement from Derrick Kellier, minister of agriculture and fisheries, about a pending well-needed and well-intentioned cess on imported refined sugar has generated protest running the full gamut from stupid, irrational and rude, to downright disrespectful.
Even without the minister having yet articulated the actual tariff rate, a number of upstanding representatives of the private sector have come out squealing, not so much like a pen full of pigs but rather reminiscent of a choir of banshees from Irish mythology.
The media have done an excellent job of muddying the water and creating a distorted picture of the minister's proposal by playing up, in particular, the threat from Lascelles Chin to relocate the LASCO group's operation to Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the declaration from William Mahfood, chief executive officer of the Wisynco Group, that he will not pay the tax.
In fact, Mahfood, whose company is one of the largest beverage manufacturing and distribution operations in Jamaica, says he hasn't even calculated the potential impact of the increased cost of doing business because he has no plan to pay it.
I couldn't help but recall the lesson passed on from Ernie Smith in the song Duppy or Gunman, that if confronted by either of the two and you opt to take flight, it makes sense to ensure that one's feet hit the ground before you start running.
By then I had read the lead story in The Gleaner two Saturdays ago that Lascelles Chin, head of LASCO, one of the country's largest food manufacturers, had declared he might shelve a US$20-million expansion project if the Government went ahead with plans to impose the cess.
By last Thursday, private-sector players had circled the wagons with the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association (JMA), using a press conference to drive home the point that they would be firm in resisting the imposition of the cess on imported refined sugar. And it was clear they were confident that the "rogue" minister, as Mahfood has dubbed Kellier, was on the retreat.
The repeated reference in the media to the fact that the agriculture minister had agreed to continue dialogue on this bothersome issue seems to have been misread by journalists and manufacturers as an admission that he is likely to recant. That, I believe, is a serious misinterpretation of his intentions.
On this matter, Kellier is not the loose cannon he is being made out to be in, and by, the media. The proposed cess, a figure he is yet to declare, will not have been arrived at lightly and most certainly not pulled out of the air. It was predicated on and informed largely by the harsh realities of the global economy and geopolitics which have seen some of the largest sugar producers in the world employing protectionist strategies - some in open defiance of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. This is in order to protect their sugar cane farmers from going broke and their economies from crashing.
The minister's bold call on this issue is a refreshing example of the proactive, well-thought-out, absolutely necessary, decisive though unpopular action that has been woefully lacking in Jamaica's post-Independence parliamentarians.
And contrary to what the manufacturing sector would have us believe, this is not an ambush. When Kellier served notice in November last year that the cess would be coming, the private sector responded by stating that it would take up the matter with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Industry and Commerce Minister Anthony Hylton - it didn't take him seriously.
But Kellier hasn't changed the script since then; it's just that the business operators are only just now seeing more clearly the writing on the wall - 'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin' - and it scares the common sense out of them.
Of course with, elections - both local and general - in the offing this is definitely a risky political move for the ruling administration but a very correct one for the sugar industry.
Even in the face of the daunting prospect of being voted out of office, the agriculture minister must stand firm on this issue and mount a public awareness progamme to get society at large to understand fully the short- and long-term implications of the proposed cess for and on all Jamaicans.
It might also help if someone were to enlighten Chicken-licken, Hen-len, Cock-lock and the rest of the posse to the fact that the sky in Jamaica is connected to the one in Trinidad and Tobago, and so if it does come crashing down (in their minds), there will be no escaping the economic maelstrom, even for those in that twin-island republic.
So Minister Kellier must resist the puerile efforts of these detractors to bait him into a muscle-flexing contest and instead maximise the decidedly competitive advantage he has by way of that God-given poker face.
Taking into account that 'Screw Face know a who fi frighten' - circumstances dictate that the agriculture minister must use this opportunity to rise to the occasion and justify his ascendancy to the new portfolio to which I've assigned him.
Let it be noised abroad that there is, in fact, a new Duppy Conqueror in town.
- Christopher Serju is a freelance reporter who covers agriculture and rural affairs. Email feedback to email@example.com.