Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Peter Espeut | Holness Government still finding its feet

Published:Friday | March 3, 2017 | 3:00 AM

When the Bruce Golding Government assumed power in September 2007 with a four-seat majority, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had been out of government for 18 years. What this meant was that only their vintage politicians had any experience in public administration at the highest level, and all their middle- and lower-tier leadership were neophytes.

That inexperienced JLP government mishandled public-sector wage negotiations and defaulted on the IMF agreement they had negotiated; and when the Dudus-Manatt scandal forced the resignation of Bruce Golding, an unprepared Andrew Holness was given his first innings at the prime ministerial crease.

It was a difficult wicket to bat on, with a well-organised People's National Party (PNP) united in Opposition, and with the inherited baggage he was forced to carry. After serving six weeks as prime minister, Holness was persuaded to call an early general election, and his party lost by a 21-seat landslide. It was a very shaky start for the relatively young politician.

In Opposition, Holness made a big error of judgement by actually using undated letters of resignation he had procured from senators he had appointed. This inexperience precipitated a leadership challenge from the old guard, which he barely survived. I don't know who would have predicted much of a political future for someone with such obvious shortcomings in experience and good judgement.

But Holness led the JLP to victory in the February 2016 general election with the slimmest margin possible - only one seat.

Now he faced political battles on two fronts: against a demoralised PNP with weak leadership, and against disaffected persons in his own party. If only one JLP parliamentarian crossed the floor, it would bring down his government. Keeping his government in power would require skills in diplomacy, political quid pro quo, and conflict resolution with very little margin for error. One year later, the Holness administration is still in power, and all his parliamentarians are still in place. This, in itself, is an achievement, and must not be overlooked. A stronger PNP might have made one of his team an offer he/she could not refuse.

Over the last year and during the election campaign signs of inexperience and poor judgement were there for all to see. The promise of raising the income tax threshold to J$1.5 million was a master stroke, pandering to the struggling lower middle class; but the promise that this could be done in one go (under tight IMF constraints) with no additional taxes was implausible.

 

Indirect taxation

 

The switch to indirect taxation has meant that wealth has been transferred to the better off from the poor, who pay the indirect taxes but do not benefit from the income tax reduction. This will come back to haunt him.

The obvious multimillion-dollar 'bullo-work' bush-clearing programme just before the 2016 local government elections was an inexcusable lapse in good judgement; it was not necessary to resort to that kind of old politics to win the election, and the fall in his reputation and the doubts created about his newness was not worth it.

At the same time, his management team still shows signs of ring rust. Ruel Reid's ham-fisted and heavy-handed approach to his portfolio has not endeared him to the sector, and Bobby Montague's stand-offishness does not inspire confidence.

I am still not convinced that Holness' configuration of the ministerial portfolios is optimal. I do not like the marriage of industry and commerce with agriculture and fisheries. As I have written before in this column, fisheries which is really hunting of scarce wild animals has a dynamic different from the one that says that if you increase inputs, you will increase output. We have tried this, and our waters have become some of the most overfished in the world.

And I remain suspicious of the motive for hiding the environment portfolio within the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. On the face of it, it sounds like a jobs-for-the-environment swap, a recipe for unsustainable development that Donald Trump might agree with.

But the announcement of the abandonment of plans for a trans-shipment port on the Goat Islands is a sign of a real commitment to the integrity of Jamaica's natural environment, and I suppose that is preferable to a nice-sounding but ineffective Ministry of the Environment.

I am inclined to wait with patience to see whether the Holness administration will make good on its anti-corruption promises. Will there be genuine campaign-finance reform? Will the detailed declaration of the income and assets of politicians be made public? Will the garrisons be dismantled?

The Holness administration is still finding its collective feet, and I give them a passing grade for their first year. I will mark harder in the second year.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.