Wed | Nov 14, 2018

Gordon Robinson | Only one free pass

Published:Tuesday | January 16, 2018 | 12:04 AM

PNP General Secretary Julian Robinson exposed PNP's thin skin in a letter ('Phillips laid wicket for growth') published Friday.

As usual, The Gleaner's headline was disconnected from the letter that contained no such hostility to reality but sought to deflect criticism of Peter Phillips' facile flip-flop on public-sector wage increases. Gen Sec wrote:

"When the PNP took over the reins of government in 2011... the nation was on the brink of economic disaster.

Based on the hard-won improvements in [Jamaica's] fiscal fortunes on account of the [PNP administration's] strong performance with Dr Peter Phillips as finance minister, the economy was put on strong footing to ensure better pay for workers going forward."

No mention of "growth". Gen Sec says Phillips was ensuring "better pay for workers going forward". Awwwww! Ain't he sweet? More from Gen Sec:

"Government, within that context of sacrifice, gave the workers an undertaking to improve wages and benefits as the country's fiscal situation improved. This commitment was honoured.

"There was an improvement in the fiscal deficit, which declined to 0.2 per cent for the fiscal year 2016-2017 ... . Likewise, the public debt-to-GDP ratio fell from 140.3 per cent at December 2012 to 120.2 per cent .

"... The nation was able to improve the debt to GDP from 150 per cent to now 110 per cent. ... Dr Peter Phillips can now call for improved wages for the public sector as the necessary fiscal space was created to facilitate this."

Apparently, Finance Minister Phillips' policies (2011-2016) were to create 'fiscal space' in order to spend on 'improved wages for the public sector'

Well, blow me down! In my November 3, 2015 column (Please, sir, I want more), I commended Finance Minister Phillips for transparency in responding to my questions about fiscal responsibility. I asked:

"Based on the minister's presentation, it's the IMF [that's] to be congratulated for the macroeconomic improvements. The cracking of the quarterly whip seemed to be the catalyst for fiscal responsibility. While in office, what, if any, systemic safeguards has this Government ... put in place to ensure accountability/fiscal responsibility AFTER the IMF goes?"

He answered (in part):

"The commitment to fiscal consolidation is institutionalised through fiscal rules legislated in Parliament which, among other things, provide for a specific debt-reduction path and ... an automatic correction mechanism for any deviation from fiscal targets. Specifically:

The framework aims to limit annual budgeted overall fiscal deficits of the public-sector (covering all fiscal activities) to achieve a reduction in public debt to no more than 60 per cent of GDP by 2025-26."

Gen Sec says we've reached 110 per cent.

Legislated. Fiscal rules. Parliament. Automatic correction mechanism. Limit public-sector deficits. Phillips' words, not mine. I concluded:

"... These tools, although well-meaning, aren't real safeguards because all can be changed by a simple parliamentary majority. ... This gives comfort to no sensible person ... ."

Now PNP is Opposition, we're told there's "fiscal space" to disregard fiscal rules; override debt-reduction targets; ignore overall public sector deficits; ignore Parliament; and pay police more. Are we serious about fiscal responsibility? When? What'll save us from Government pissing away every hard-fought IMF-demanded gain a day after IMF leaves?

THIS is why Jamaican press freedom is so vital. Public figures playing fast and loose with fact then pirouetting like Nureyev in stubborn defensive mode rather than accepting reality MUST be exposed. Citizens depend on free, independent media for this.

Accordingly, press freedom, a new constitutional right HOWEVER obliquely expressed, should be jealously protected by journalists.

There's a cherished relationship, like marriage, between journalists and readers/viewers/listeners. Beautiful, sexy, intelligent and pragmatic Welsh girl, Stella Morris (a Domino Award to whoever can tell me who she is or, more accurately, isn't; no googling), says "there's one free pass" for each spouse in every relationship. He/she is allowed to kiss a third party ONCE but go no further.

Journalists shouldn't be too cosy with politicians. I was taught some rules about press conferences when I started writing columns 25 years ago:

1. If free food is offered, don't partake. If you can afford it, stop at a patty shop after;

2. No applause, no matter what's said;

3. Friendly conversation between journalist and subject is fine, especially as it facilitates access, BUT keep it professional. Fundamentally, take notes, ask questions and leave.

Please (pretty please) don't attend "media appreciation" parties hosted by politicians. Firstly, it's an oxymoron. You're not appreciated unless you're swallowing/regurgitating their unadulterated propaganda. Second, they're altogether too private. Your collective spouse (readers/listeners/viewers, remember?) has no idea what you're doing or with whom and might suspect you've exceeded your free pass.

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.