Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Editorial | PM’s hubris over NHT drawdown

Published:Monday | March 27, 2017 | 3:00 AM

This newspaper is consistent in its position that what is worse than a government formulating bad policy is implementing that policy.

In the context of Jamaica's fiscal crisis, it was bad policy when the Jamaica Labour Party planned to raise the personal income tax threshold and give up billions of dollars of revenue without offsetting measures to close the gap. In government, they were forced to concede a horrid miscalculation and, lectured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the folly of the plan, restructured the policy.

The Government, therefore, raised new taxes to recover what was given up. That was the fiscally responsible thing to do and, in that sense, good policy.

But doing the right, or practical, thing in the end doesn't extricate governments and leaders from accountability for their actions and/or statements, as Prime Minister Andrew Holness seems to believe ought to be the case regarding his administration's withdrawal of J$11.4 billion from the National Housing Trust (NHT) to help finance the Government's 2017-18 Budget. Rather, the prime minister appears to ascribe political motive and personal vendetta to the journalist who questioned him about his previous opposition to the use of the NHT's resources in this fashion, instead of recognising it as a genuine exploration issue of trust for leaders and people who hold public office.

 

unavoidable move

 

In 2013, when the previous administration announced the planned four-year drawdown from the NHT to cover fiscal gaps, Mr Holness, then, when in opposition, railed against the move, which he threatened to challenge in court. Then in government, Mr Holness' administration went ahead with what should have been the final of the drawdowns, but his finance minister, Audley Shaw, promised it would have been the last.

The Government, however, feels it unavoidable to go back to the NHT. Mr Holness would have won plaudits with a simple explanation of the circumstances behind that decision and with, perhaps, self-deprecating remarks about politicians sometimes perceiving things differently in opposition, as opposed to the reality of government.

That would have been in keeping with the tone of the PM's opening remarks during his contribution to the Budget Debate, when he pointed to the common difficulties and shared frustrations on either side of the aisle, whichever forms the government. We heard in those remarks an appeal for consensus-building, empathy and a new, higher quality of debate and dialogue.

 

unfortunate approach

 

Mr Holness' approach in this case, unfortunately, was to characterise the reporter's question as an attempt "to win a political battle".

He said: "Fine! Go ahead and win it. But the battle I want to win is to know that Project Jamaica is still viable. If you want to win some other project about 'I've got him', go ahead. You've got me, but Project Jamaica is still viable."

The prime minister's hubris, real or feigned, deflected nothing. It gained him no points with this newspaper. It is he - not the voters who accepted his overtures - who offered himself for public office and promised, as the first post-independence generation prime minister, to bring a new approach to leadership.

Reasonable people might disagree over the NHT drawdowns. Having now thought about it and changed his mind, and now believing that the alternative would be bad policy, Mr Holness should simply say so.