Tue | Aug 21, 2018

Can we handle the truth?

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2015 | 12:00 AM

I'm watching this public-sector salary negotiations, not with popcorn, but with a wonderful Greek salad. Our Government fears firing even one civil servant, because politicians need people to like them. Plus, elections loom. But Government can't afford real pay increases without raising taxes, and it doesn't want to raise taxes, because politicians need people to like them. Plus, elections loom.

Here is the trouble: The plain effect of the IMF agreements - Audley Shaw's in 2010, or Peter Phillips' today - is to lower living standards. That's what happens if your spending requires borrowing but there's nobody still foolhardy enough to lend, except the international rescue bank for basketcases. That guy, the IMF, then says: "The price for my loan is that you need to get your sh** together!"

That's where we've been for some time, but there has, to date, never really been much of an honest public discussion about it. Why? To paraphrase Jack Nicholson's Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men, "We can't handle the truth!" But in fact, the IMF programme is working exactly as intended.

What's happened is we've forgotten the panic of a few years ago when the country was teetering on bankruptcy.

Now the Russians have an expression: "The wise man learns from someone else's mistakes, the smart man learns from his own, and the stupid one never learns." Applying that to the country, and since there's no chance of us being counted among the 'wise', the only question is whether we will be 'smart' or 'stupid'.

Speaking of which, on last Monday's television newscasts, I watched (in admiration) Mr Holness in full flight at Donald Quarrie High School. I have to say, Mr Holness' political delivery has seriously improved, and his many hours on the road are showing. Nowadays, Andrew can rightly be accused of giving a good speech. How is he using his talents?




Well, the content got me to thinking that the first principle of Jamaican political economy is that, collectively, we have learned no principles. This is the same smart guy who, as PM, returned from overseas travels to the capital markets and multinationals looking ghostly and terrified, and muttering about "castor oil" and "bitter medicine".

As an aside, and just in terms of evaluating rhetoric, Andrew concluded that Government's offer to the civil servants showed "this is the wickedest Government in the history of Jamaica". I find that interesting, not least because, coincidentally, it was broadcast on the same night as Major General Saunders' testimony that in 2010, Jamaica's most wanted drug kingpin fled Upper St Andrew for Tivoli within five minutes of Jamaica's PM being told that a warrant had been received for said drug kingpin. That was another MAJOR coincidence.

Still, perhaps that's comparing apples to oranges. A better comparison would be to four years ago, the last time we were preparing to flip the IMF the bird. I call Andrew's attention to a Gleaner story dated July 7, 2011 headlined 'Public-sector wage battle ends'. It records the capitulation of the then administration. Here we find, in detached reportorial language, all the elements of banana-republic government. Having already flushed the country's law-enforcement credentials, this now, coincidentally, flushed the country's IMF commitments and economic respectability:

"Prime Minister Bruce Golding has challenged the finance minister, Audley Shaw, to ensure that civil servants are paid their 7% increase ... . It will cost the Government $10.4 billion to make the payment this fiscal year. The PM noted the payment will have to be done without breaching the IMF programme. According to Golding, the international lending agency has said Jamaica will have to adjust its budget ... as there will be no changes to the IMF agreement ... . The Government also will pay the outstanding two years of retroactive salaries over three years in five tranches starting in 2012."

Notice responsibility is kicked down the ladder to the hapless finance minister. To this day some of Audley's people seethe about it.




I'm not done with the coincidences just yet. Is Andrew watching this week's Greek tragedy? There, brinksman Prime Minister Tsipras and his clownish finance minister have thrown the country into complete chaos. Meanwhile, with all the cold disinterest that the outside world would have for Jamaica if we should start playing foolish games again, I'm hoping the Greeks get booted from the EU so I can have a decent holiday to Athens and the Greek Isles for cheap.

Back home again, The Gleaner has been arguing for the continuation of fiscal sanity. But calls for tempered approaches to the economy, however well argued, are falling on barren ground. 'Tis election time and populist posturing is the yellow-brick road to power.

In fairness, let's be clear about one thing: As Holness sees it, he's just returning the favour. Last general election, I heard one PNP minister making mincemeat of Audley for taxing female sanitary pads. It was done with such guile and precision that he may as well have said Audley was taxing p** p**.

Soon after the election, I said to a former Cabinet minister: "Unnuh try buy out the civil servant dem doh!", and in a moment of defensive honesty, he responded: "Of course! Den PNP nuh woulda try dweet to!" And that, folks, is the truth! Luckily, the IMF is here to hopefully provide adult supervision to the amount of damage we inflict on our economy.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.