Can Portia bounce back?
The first positive response of the People's National Party (PNP) to the revelation from the Bill Johnson poll showing the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP's) leader's almost 2:1 lead over its charismatic leader was its very sober and measured press release last Sunday.
"A midterm poll such as this is timely." There was no subtle attempt to belittle the pollster or to quibble with his findings. Good. Also, there was this very important acknowledgement: "The successes so far achieved in the economic recovery programme have come at significant costs to the Jamaican family … . It is also true that hardships remain and are being experienced by many households and families." The PNP must really be commended for this mature and politically savvy response to last Sunday's poll, which showed a whopping 73 per cent of Jamaicans saying it is leading the country in the wrong direction.
People studying political communication should get ahold of that release to see best practice. The JLP was also sober and measured in its response, avoiding the temptation for triumphalism and gloating. These guys are getting better at their craft and I hope it reflects not just greater PR sensitivity but a growing maturity and respect for the opinions of the majority of us who have not mortgaged our souls to either political party. If they don't take us seriously, they will continue to scramble for a decreasing share of the partisan market.
While last week's poll showed that as much as 65 per cent of Jamaicans identified unemployment as their major problem with this PNP administration, I don't believe the party and its leader's very negative ratings reflect just economic issues. I believe there are general leadership issues that must be addressed, but knowing the PNP, I have no doubt that they will. I suspect other polls will show some wider issues that have caused this major drop in support for the PNP.
But we can't ignore the economic issues and, in fact, must raise some serious questions about this poll. The Gleaner was quick off the bat in support of the Simpson Miler administration's economic direction, warning, "Andrew Holness and his Jamaica Labour Party should take no particular comfort in the findings that three-quarters of Jamaicans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction." The Gleaner went on to make its support for the Government's economic direction even clearer: "Nor should Mrs Simpson Miller and her administration despair over these numbers if they are serious about lifting the Jamaican economy out of the mess in which it has wallowed for more than two generations."
I think The Gleaner's unequivocal and firm reaffirmation of its support of the Government's neo-liberal economic thrust was an important example of journalistic courage and integrity. For people in media have in the past lobbied politicians to take certain tough, harsh decisions and then back off and lead them to sink when populist protests arise against those politicians. The Gleaner has been stout and unrelenting in its call for certain firm measures to be taken to deal with Jamaica's debt and deficit burdens. "The Simpson Miller Government should be aware that to stall the project now would be to squander the gains achieved so far … . Going all the way might be at the risk of losing an election but at the greater potential gain of placing Jamaica on a path of sustainable economic stability, job creation and growth."
The Gleaner has raised some fundamental issues in that well-articulated editorial which we, as a country, must discuss seriously and soberly. I have been a persistent critic of neo-liberalism, which forms the basis of the economic philosophy of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is the path the PNP administration is taking, but make no mistake about it: While I have stressed that the neo-liberal policies being adopted by the Government are not sufficient, they are definitely necessary. There is no way we can pass the people's test if we don't do the things this PNP administration has been doing.
We can talk nonsense on the political platform, but that must not seep into serious discussion. Political propaganda is what politicians do, but we in media and civil society must eschew it. We must dismantle it in the way Bruce Golding so brilliantly and so flawlessly dismissed that argument about the so-called 'four missing years'. (If you want an example of rational, calm and compelling argumentation, go back to Bruce's piece in this newspaper, September 26). I am concerned that 73 per cent of Jamaicans believe we are going in the wrong direction, if they mean that the generally sound macroeconomic policies being pursued by this Government are misguided.
UNAVOIDABLE TOUGH CALLS
I heard Bruce Golding in an interview recently warning the JLP to be careful of how it criticises some of the Government's economic policies, for he reminded that these were some of the very policy prescriptions the JLP was advocating and indeed had programmed. So what do you think was Prince Andrew's 'bitter medicine' that he so honestly discussed with us before the last general election? Go back to his own speeches. Andrew knows some of the critical, tough decisions that must be made - decisions which he himself will have to take if he assumes power.
Andrew knows that macroeconomic adjustment comes at heavy cost to the masses, but that if we continue to kick the can down the road, as we have been doing for decades, we will get the same lousy, non-performing economy we have always got. Can't we have a serious discussion about policy options and must we always be hostage to political gamesmanship? As I said, there are issues outside of the economy which this PNP administration had better deal with - and quickly. But when it comes to management of the economy, credit has to be given. The facts speak for themselves.
It's no propaganda that we have achieved a balanced Budget for the first time in many years. It is no propaganda that we now have four consecutive quarters of positive economic growth and that our cumulative primary surplus for April to August is 13.9% better than what was projected. Our net international reserves stood at US$1.2 billion in September - surpassing even the IMF target of $972 million. Inflation is declining, and, counterintuitively, so is unemployment. Standard and Poor's has moved our rating from stable to positive.
As the Economic Programme Oversight Committee said in its communique No. 17 last week: "This is an important endorsement of the direction of the economy by a key international agency whose rating is keenly watched by all investors." Don't tell me about passing IMF and rating agencies' tests and failing the people's test. Audley Shaw and Andrew Holness are no fools. They know you can't pass the people's test unless these big capitalists and their representatives are pleased with certain macroeconomic indices. They know investors are not going to put down money here so poor people can get jobs unless they see the economy going in a certain direction - precisely the direction this Government is moving it in.
I don't believe all the Government needs to do is to just stabilise the economy and achieve certain monetary targets. I believe those things are necessary, but not sufficient. I have been a vocal and persistent critic of neo-liberalism and IMF myopia. But I read enough to know what are the prerequisites for growth and I know that 73 per cent of Jamaicans are wrong about our going in the wrong direction. And Andrew Holness knows that, too, for he is a bright and sophisticated man.
The Gleaner editorial puts it well: "Mr Holness and his party may tinker around the edges of the reform project, but there is little in terms of the fundamentals of the programme they can change … . That, perhaps, is Mr Holness' dilemma." Indeed. We urgently need an economic literacy programme to show Jamaicans what we must do - irrespective of political administration - to grow the economy. We need to understand the pain we must inevitably feel in making the adjustment.
It would be good to see the PNP and the JLP in a united campaign to educate Jamaicans about our tough, painful choices. But the silly season is around the corner and I must stop dreaming!