Fri | May 26, 2017

The eunuch and the headless committee

Published:Sunday | July 19, 2015 | 7:04 AM
In this 1981 photo, D.K. Duncan, general secretary of the PNP, addresses a press conference at party headquarters. Flanking him are PNP heavyweights Anthony Spaulding and Portia Simpson Miller. Duncan's role as minister of mobilisation was ineffectual, writes commentator Claude Clarke, likening it to the political eunuch that would befall Andrew Holness' idea of a growth czar.

If Andrew Holness hopes to be the leader who takes Jamaica ‘from poverty to prosperity’, as his new mantra proclaims, he should heed Prime Minister Simpson Miller’s rejection of his proposal to appoint a special minister to drive economic growth.
The prime minister is undoubtedly right in saying, “Every ministry is supposed to be making their contribution to growth.” And the opposition leader is gravely misguided in his expectation that a single minister can command all the elements involved in expanding the economy.
Each minister is constitutionally responsible for, and exercises authority over, specific subjects, departments and agencies. No Cabinet member other than the prime minister can supersede this authority to determine the actions and priorities of a ministry. No minister worth his salt will allow any other minister to interfere, let alone direct, any department or agency under his/her control. Not only is this the Constitution, it is the way Jamaica’s government works.
It is the reason that in the 1970s, the Ministry of Mobilisation, headed by the politically powerful Dr D.K. Duncan, was ineffective and impotent.
Without line authority, no one can direct a department, agency or individual civil servant to act. There are clear lines separating ministerial authority, and one minister ‘canna cross it’ without going through the responsible minister. The minister whom Mr Holness would make a czar would, therefore, be as immobilised as the mobilisation minister was in the 1970s. He will be a political eunuch.
The opposition leader made an accurate diagnosis of Jamaica’s economic challenge, and the naiveté of Government’s belief that fiscal consolidation and imagined mega projects will produce economic growth. Unfortunately, his prescription, which relies on appointing an ineffectual minister for growth, does not offer a cure.
On the other hand, Mrs Simpson Miller, while correct in saying that Cabinet is charged with the responsibility for growth, should understand that unless the prime minister has direct ministerial responsibility, charging Cabinet with that duty would be tantamount to handing the country’s prospects for growth to a headless committee. What is more, her position suggests that she expects each minister to initiate policies and actions which promote growth, even where the credit will redound to another minister. No minister does this unless specifically requested by the prime minister.
The prime minister holds the only office with the authority to ensure the compliance of all ministers, departments, agencies and individuals with the plans and strategies needed for significant expansion of the economy.  
This responsibility does not require technical expertise to reside in the prime minister. What it calls for are the same qualities that contribute to political success: a clear vision of where to take the country, belief in the goal, and the passion and determination to achieve it. It is for the prime minister to determine the type of managerial and technical support she will need.
There have been instances of this type of leadership in Jamaica’s post- Independence history. Jamaicans do ourselves a disservice when we lump our recent economic history into one 40-year episode and do not distinguish between periods of success and failure and analyse the factors accounting for each. Edward Seaga, no doubt benefiting from the fact that he also held the finance portfolio, used the power of his office as prime minister to coordinate economic management, resulting in an average growth rate of more than 5% at the end of the 1980s.
A prime minister’s capacity to mobilise the entire government towards achieving a desired goal is limited only by their political power within their own party. The present prime minister is not short of this asset. This is why her reluctance to personally lead Jamaica on a mission of economic growth is so difficult to understand.
The absence of an effective growth strategy in the programme agreed with the IMF two years ago is one outcome of the prime minister’s failure to take the lead.
The continued absence of a coherent strategy incorporating the monetary, fiscal and trade policies and institutions capable of delivering it is another.
A growth plan wholly dependent on austerity and the hope that mega projects will emerge is blind to the current financial realities. Today’s investment world is fraught with uncertainty. The Greek economic crisis, Middle East instability and China’s stock market crash, among many other regional economic crises around the globe, have made investors increasingly nervous about investing outside of their home country.
More than US$3.5 trillion of wealth has been wiped from China’s stock market in the last month, severely weakening the collateral base for commercial credit. Chinese banks are displaying a great deal of nervousness in increasing loans overseas. The delay in putting the finishing touches on the Bahamian US$3.5-billion resort project, Bahamar, may well be partly attributable to that fact. Financing for the mega projects our government envisages will in the near future be less available than it would have been a few years ago.
Given the prime minister’s long-held passion for the poor, lifting them out of poverty should be her priority. But this is not possible without economic growth.  It is also the only effective counter to the severe austerity demanded to pay down our debt. But growth demands that the Government stimulate development outside of a few uncertain mega projects. A prime minister carrying the responsibility for growth would insist on implementing measures to incentivise and induce development.
To be the first to hold any office carries with it an obligation to succeed. When he was elected president of the United States, Barack Obama was acutely aware that it would not be sufficient to be simply an asterisk marking the fact that America once had a black president. Recognising the magnitude of the responsibility he had assumed, his sense of duty to history and the millions of people around the globe with whom he identified made him aware of the critical importance of leaving a legacy of significant accomplishments.
Jamaica’s first female prime minister shoulders no less a responsibility. Economic growth, on which her natural legacy of lifting the poor from poverty depends, cannot be left in the hands of a headless committee any more than she could leave it to Mr Holness’ eunuch.
- Claude Clarke is a businessman and former minister of industry. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com