Man of the Year vs Man A Yaad
The award could not have come at a better time. When the trumpet sounds tonight in Half-Way Tree for the pre-Easter general election, the PNP campaign director is Gleaner Man of the Year Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips.
The touch of the Master on Phillips' master, the prime minister, has come. And it is a statistical finger, not the finger of God as in Michelangelo's famous painting The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
The January 2016 numbers in the RJR-Don Anderson polls are showing the PNP ahead of the JLP in voter support, with 27.5 per cent of voters indicating they would vote for the PNP if an election were called now, compared to 23.2 per cent for the JLP, a 4.3-percentage-point differential. These differentiating numbers are down from the 30 per cent support apiece when the false-start election campaign was up and running last September.
We know that the parties conduct their own private polls, so the prime minister and PNP president would have had the same or very similar numbers to work with.
It was Man A Yaad Audley Shaw, opposition spokesman on finance, and finance minister in the last JLP Government, who provoked the revelation of the touch in an exchange with the prime minister last Tuesday in Parliament. Shaw has been publicly promised his old job back by Leader of the Opposition Andrew Holness, the man he challenged for the leadership of the JLP a little over two years ago, which left the party Rottweiler in the doghouse for a while.
The Gleaner heaped accolades upon the finance minister, who also took the category award for public service, for his role in managing the country's challenging finance portfolio under the current IMF programme. Dr Phillips took the opportunity to speak glowingly of his achievements at Finance, without quite saying, as he often does, particularly on the trial run campaign trail, that he and the present Government pulled back the country from the brink.
A critical subtext of the RJR-Don Anderson polls data on voting intention is that fully one-half of voters see in the PNP and the JLP no better herring, no better barrel, or black dog and monkey: Will not vote, 22.3 per cent; undecided, 17.4 per cent; no answer, 9.6 per cent. Voter turnout for the 2011 elections was 53 per cent, the lowest ever.
While Dr Phillips is widely praised for the country's passing 11 quarterly IMF tests and beefing up the NIR and holding inflation down to historically low levels, among other economic achievements, over the same period the Jamaican dollar has kept up its steady slide in value, growth has remained as elusive as ever, unemployment has bounced a bit around its 14 per cent average but hasn't really gone down, and that terrible crime monster has remained far from being tamed. I have thrown in crime into the finance and economy mix for a good reason.
It is much too early to write off the JLP and Shaw for the next Government. The polls data do not suggest a PNP walkover. And smarter Jamaicans know that whether it is the Man of the Year or Man A Yaad at Finance after the election, the country's economic programme remains essentially the same.
Shaw's boss has given a robust defence of his performance at Finance in the last administration. The debt exchange, which significantly pegged down debt-servicing costs and freed up more of the Budget for domestic spending. Cheaper borrowing. Lowering of interest rates. Divestment of state assets that had become liabilities. And steering the country through the global financial crisis and recession beginning in 2008, the worst since the 1930s, when many other economies imploded.
There was the 'stalled' IMF programme. But in an environment of greater political honesty and better memories, the Man of the Year's debt to Man A Yaad would be recognised. And the build-on and build-out of the Man of the Year which has justly earned him the Gleaner's top honour would be recognised by his political opponents.
Finance is not going to be a place of any real differentiation between the PNP and the JLP in an election campaign and in government. The reform agenda for fixing the country's deep-seated economic problems will have to continue. And, with it, the IMF programme. No minister of finance, no government dare engineer any significant variations in the key commitments for restructuring the country's economy. Any significant departures leading to the collapse of the IMF programme would leave Jamaica in the unthinkable position of being a pariah in the international financial markets and the global economic system.
And yet I hope that one or the other man and his party would offer some truly revolutionary changes without interfering with the economic perimeter fence laid down by the reform programme backed by the IMF agreement. For one thing, pegging down the income tax rate, if not to zero like Antigua and Barbuda, then certainly steeply, would be a good thing. But revenue would have to be picked up on consumption taxes.
But where I would like to see a real revolution take place is in the Budget itself. Pegging down the public-sector wage bill is not a revolutionary; it simply has to be done. Lightening the pension burden on the state coffers simply has to be done.
While government and its finance ministry are excessively and obsessively focused on economic management and 'growth', the fundamental business of the state and government is public safety, law and order, and justice. And when these work well everything else flourishes. A responsible Jamaican government, be it PNP or JLP, whether the finance man is the Gleaner Man of the Year or Man A Yaad, must, in the near term, preferentially direct additional budgetary resources to national security and to justice to fix the problems in these core areas of responsibility, restore law and order as the normative state of the society, bring crime under control, deliver justice efficiently as its foremost obligation to the Jamaican people. And watch Jamaica flourish in peace and prosperity.
Man of the Year, flushed with the thrill of the win, gushed, "If we can get it all right, we will become the greatest country on earth." Well, we can't get it all right economically until we get it mostly right in these core functions of the state for public safety, law and order and justice. I am begging whichever man gets to Heroes Circle after the election polls to help us get it right here.