Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Election day was payday

Published:Sunday | March 6, 2016 | 3:00 AM

There's a photograph of Mr and Mrs Holness' family circulating, and honestly it's a good look. Jamaica could do a lot worse than having this family unit as its symbol and ideal. That image is, for me, a sweet positive.

Also, a new administration has been inaugurated and Jamaica really needs them to enjoy success. Andrew is our youngest prime minister ever, again, and that, too, adds to the inevitable air of anticipation for his premiership. Hope springs eternal.

Overall, it was an exciting, if brief, campaign. The JLP was disciplined and on message: 'Poverty to Prosperity'. The PNP's message was more vague, less pointed. It could have used help explaining why improving economic metrics are the only sure path to sustained progress and wealth creation. Its messengers needed to take that story far closer to the ground. That failure was costly.

For instance, the contrast between a 10-Point Plan and a 72-page manifesto is telling. I don't think people have thought very much about what's in the plan, and I'm quite certain that some of the wilder promises in it aren't even believed by most. But neither will people wade through a large manifesto. My sense is that, more than anything else, people just want to know that there IS a plan, and the JLP captured that ground conclusively.

It will surprise nobody to learn that going off the promises made by Andrew and Audley on the campaign trail, I am sceptical about the direction in which they want to take the country. However, I would like to be proved incorrect, and even utterly and completely wrong.

The scepticism isn't just because we've been here before and that this is our usual pattern. Countries, like people, can keep repeating old mistakes rather than learning from them. So as I watched the election results, my mind did indeed wonder back to an observation penned years ago by Morris Cargill.

"Year after year, at those public auction sales which we call general elections, our politicians, in reckless pursuit of power, promise us goodies which the country can't afford and which involves the constant borrowing of money. It is this indebtedness that is the root of our present troubles."

Mind you, this was written way back when conventional wisdom had it that PNP was the party of promises, blank cheques, and printing money. The JLP, the story then ran, was the party of good housekeeping, moderate commitments, and fiscal restraint.

Most objective commentators agree that things have evolved.

Consider these past few weeks. At first, there was a promise to jack up the minimum wage. It was met with underwhelming applause, so although it didn't quite disappear, it sort of slid out of the spotlight. Still, the promise hasn't yet been withdrawn, and there was a broad commitment that these things were to happen, if not by April 1, then in the first 100 days. So, dear Audley, the workers of Jamaica await; they have nothing to lose but their jobs.

Of course, the policy prescription that really seized the imagination of voters was this promise to raise the non-taxable PAYE threshold to $1.5 million. It's a sizable policy shift. All the same, it seemed to be policy being formulated on the fly.

At first, it was spoken of as applying to all income levels. When the price tag on that 'commitment' became clear, some parsing, rephrasing, and reformulating quickly took place. A substantially new version then emerged, with up to $1.5m exempt, the current rate between $1.5m and $5m, and the 25% tax on every dollar for those further up the ladder.

Powerful objections have been raised to this revised version also, mostly pointing to the perverse incentive it sets up for people to earn just below the threshold of $1.5m, or $5m, as the case may be, so as to not attract the higher taxes. This gaping pothole hasn't really been fixed, although it was said from the political platform that ameliorative measures would be found.

Whatever nuance is added to the official plan, the electorate was fully introduced to the unvarnished and raw number of $18,000 as the reward for voting correctly. It was beautiful. And comical.

I believe in acknowledging brilliance when I see it. And I freely confess the plan and marketing was brilliant. For while it may be illegal to hand a man money for his vote, and while conventional wisdom had it that $5,000 was the going rate, this was "vote for me and I will see to it you get $18,000 every month, starting now". Hence the fantastic advertisement mantra: 'Election day is payday!' And the fantastic: 'What would you do with up to $18,000 more per month?'

On another note, had I only been able to see into the future to anticipate the withdrawal of school auxiliary fees, this sucker would have gone on a payment plan instead of paying up front. For rest assured that the schools won't see another penny from anyone who hasn't already paid. Come to think of it, isn't a refund appropriate?

From another angle, I'm surprised the PNP did as well as it did. Running a 7.5% primary surplus of GDP took serious and sustained hard work, and it's difficult to hold a Government and political party together while doing it, not least because it causes political parties to lose elections. That's why neither of Jamaica's main political parties has ever done anything like that before. It is far easier to print or borrow money. And that's why we are where we are economically.

We will soon see if we're back, as I suspect we are, to the competitive public auctions sales that Cargill wrote about, where the politician's job is to be the bestest promiser of free house, free land, free light, free water, free education, free health, free money, and no taxes. Indeed, had the campaign been a week longer, I fully anticipated a promise of free p** p**, except perhaps that even the most gullible voter knows that that is never free.

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