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Editorial: Where’s your whistle, Mr James?

Published:Friday | December 30, 2016 | 12:00 AM

As nice a guy as he is most times, somebody ought to have called out Karl James a long time ago about the hot air he often spouts about the supposed illegal dealing by manufacturers in refined sugar. Now, we are sure, many people are envious of Metry Seaga, the president of the Jamaica Manufacturers Association (JMA), for the style with which he went about the effort.

After many years of leveling his allegations and threatening to identify the culprits, it is high time, he insisted, for Mr James to put up or shut up. "Blow the gaddam whistle or shut your mouth," he said.

This newspaper adopts those sentiments. We, however, suspect that Mr James has little, if anything, to put up, except for suspicions and gut feelings and, perhaps more important, his hankering for the bad old days when state monopolies had a strangle hold on markets and stifled entrepreneurship and enterprise.

Until lately, Mr James was the general manager of Jamaica Cane Products Sales (JCPS), a quasi-government agency that used to have a monopoly on the export of sugar from the island, operating as factor for the state's industry regulatory agency, the Sugar Industry Authority (SIA). In the new year, he will be its chairman.

In his old job Mr James was against, and fought hard to prevent private sugar manufacturers extricating themselves from the JCPS' grip and marketing their product for themselves.

He has also, for a long time, lamented the arrangement for manufacturers to import their own refined sugar, claiming, without offering evidence, that the system is abused by these firms.

He has favoured that such imports be brought under central control, or, alternatively, the imposition of a scheme which, essentially, would translate to a tax on production, or, at the very least, add layers of bureaucracy to the process of doing business.

There is no sugar refinery in Jamaica, but the island's firms, and other consumers, annually, use about 80,000 tonnes of the stuff. Up to two decades or so ago, Mr James' outfit imported all refined sugar, until the government of the day yielded to demands of manufacturers that they be allowed to do their own importing. They could do it more efficiently, the manufacturers argued.

 

Uneasy relationship

 

But this has long been an uneasy relationship. Government bureaucrats often complained that having passed far lower duties than the 128 per cent tariff on refined sugar, manufacturers sold some of what they imported into the domestic market, rather than using it all in their products. The upshot was that the government lost revenue while consumers afforded subsidies to manufacturers.

Frustrated in their attempts to reprise their import monopoly, last year the then agriculture minister, Derrick Kellier, came up with an idea to impose this tax of US$35 per tonne of refined sugar, which would have amounted to a ruinous tax on manufacturing, at a time when new investments were being made in the beverages sector. Happily, that idea, too, was thwarted.

Then there was this latest bolt from Mr James' giddying darkness, which really was a repeat of an old promise: to name and shame guilty importers.

If, indeed, Mr James knows these people and firms and he has evidence of their wrong-doings, he should inform the police, the financial crimes unit and the Customs and Excise authorities. Let them be charged and brought before the courts.