Sun | Jun 16, 2019

Editorial | Consensus on strategic issues good for Jamaica

Published:Monday | May 20, 2019 | 12:16 AM

A recent op-ed in the US newspaper The Miami Herald (May 14, 2019), by Alex Van Trotsenburg, spoke to Jamaica’s ‘extraordinary’ macroeconomic turnaround over the last seven years. He placed significant attention on the country’s remarkable retreat from the economic precipice when it faced a debt-to-gross domestic product ratio of close to 150 per cent in 2012, and the Herculean effort of the previous Portia Simpson Miller-led administration and the current Government, led by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, with International Monetary Fund tutelage, to get that debt figure below 100 per cent as of March 2019.

This achievement was only possible with great sacrifice from the population that endured a painful annual budgeted primary surplus of more than seven per cent – one of the toughest on the planet. As a result, Jamaica is one of a very small number of countries that were able to reduce their public debt stock following the Great Recession of 2008.

Van Trotsenburg attributes the turnaround largely to “the strong commitment across political parties over two competing administrations and electoral cycles”, as well as the “sustained social consensus for change and the strong backing of the private sector”. With the benefits of consensus and continuity, there is emerging a strong desire for similar efforts around other national issues, like crime-fighting, health and education.

The seeming consensus around economic policies has been under way over several years, as the two major political parties have moved closer ideologically, even while the rhetoric around elections remains strong. The People’s National Party (PNP), on economic matters, seems to have moved more to the Right. From the period of leftist policies in the 1970s – nationalisation, controls and regulations – the party found itself with the responsibility of implementing much of the market reforms under the Washington Consensus in the 1990s – privatisation, deregulation, removal of subsidies, dismantling exchange controls, and successfully courting foreign direct investment in the tourism sector. Many of these were central planks of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) policies in the 1980s.

The JLP, on the other hand, while it criticised the PNP on the implementation of the reform agenda of the 1990s and early 2000s, was never opposed to the general framework, and has not sought to reverse any of these policies once in office. The criticisms were more about form rather than substance; pace rather than direction.

Since the mid-2000s, to strengthen its election fortunes, the JLP appears to have moved to the Left on social policies, adopting strong support for National Housing Trust accommodations, no tuition fees in secondary education, no-user fee in public health facilities, along with social safety nets for the poorest and most vulnerable. Many of these social policy positions are shared by both parties. In substance, there is very little to distinguish the two major parties on economic and social policies.

The two parties even seem to mirror each other in being hobbled by the same governance issues relating to corruption and general inefficiencies.

One of the positives from the emerging consensus around policies was the fact that the country did not have to wrench sharply from Left to Right after recent changes in administration. This allowed greater certainty for markets and investors and the wider population in planning.

NEW CONSENSUS NEEDED AROUND HEALTH INSURANCE PROPOSAL

The recently launched Green Paper on a proposed National Health Insurance Plan presents another important opportunity for the country to search for a consensus on healthcare. While the minister of health and wellness, Dr Christopher Tufton, can take some credit for seeking to advance the work on the issue, we should recall that some effort was done on this by the administration of the 1990s. That early input led to the establishment of the National Health Fund and the Jamaica Drugs for the Elderly Programme.

We raise this issue to indicate that both parties share some desire for a National Health Insurance Plan to protect the poor and vulnerable, and therefore it should not be impossible to get a degree of consensus. The example of the Obamacare debate in the United States shows that healthcare, and health insurance, can be very contentious issues that take a very long time to be implemented.

The ability to fund a National Health Insurance Plan, in the context of a still-high public debt, low growth and a commitment to macroeconomic stability, will test the skills of policymakers immensely.

We urge the Government to follow through on its commitment to the widest possible consultation on the subject, ensuring that any White Paper that emerges truly represents a national consensus.