Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Martin Henry | Holness' Government: First 100 days and the next 1,000

Published:Saturday | June 11, 2016 | 6:50 PM
Finance Minister Audley Shaw
Shahine Robinson, Minister of Labour.
Dr. Christopher Tufton, Minister of Health.
Ruel Reid, Minister of Education.
Desmond McKenzie,Minister of Local Government.
Delroy Chuck, Minister of Justice.
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Might as well this very marginally elected Government govern boldly and vigorously for the one term that it has. And in its first 100 days it has shown signs of being willing and able to do so.

No backhoe will be left unmobilised as the Opposition labours to dig out such a marginal Government in our brand of competitive democratic politics. And the process has started. It will be aided by voting trends delivering lower margins of victory and shorter periods in office, driven by escalating voter expectations which are stoked by inflated promises and decreasing voter patience.

Media has got very hung up on the size of Cabinets. As far as I'm concerned, the Holness Cabinet at 14 ministries is comfortably right-sized. The Constitution requires a minimum of 11, with no maximum, at least two of which and no more than four be drawn from the Senate.

The assignment of ministers is not even a cause of surprise or concern. Holness has played his tight deck of cards pretty well. After my initial trepidation, I think his pick of Kamina Johnson Smith for foreign

minister via the Senate was a masterstroke. The gamble that a good school principal, Ruel Reid, will make a good education minister will take more than 100 days to see if it has paid off.

Senator Pearnel Charles Jr., assigned as minister of state for National Security, remains to me an unknown quantity. But Busy Bobby (Montague), as I have said in an earlier piece last Tuesday, is a good pick from the pack for minister of that most challenging portfolio where one of our biggest worries crime falls.

What's really interesting, new and different are the big combo ministries. My view on the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, headed by the prime minister himself and with a whole sub-Cabinet of three ministers 'without portfolio' and one (Warmington) added later with the Works portfolio, is out there in the public domain. This weird imposition upon the Whitehall model of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government cannot work and will not work. It is managerially unsound.

In any case, it is a given that the prime minister as prime minister would have been in charge of growth and jobs without being saddled with a cumbersome and counterproductive ministry structure.

And up to today, Day 100, its organisational structure, divisions of labour, and internal relationships remain shrouded in high mountain mist.

The ministry of industry, commerce and agriculture, headed by Karl Samuda, is potentially a more viable new combination. Except that so much of agriculture at the scratch-about subsistence level, the level which numerically dominates the sector and which consumes so much of a minister's attention, has very little affinity with either real industry or commerce.

We'll see how Samuda swings to 'modernise' Jamaican agriculture as serious business. And how he will avoid conflict in Industry and Commerce with his Growth colleagues in the OPM? Sugar has returned to suck state resources for survival. Samuda is shouting not a penny more than what was already allocated for short-term assistance. We'll see. Government has always bailed out sugar.

Except for the fixation with Andrew's house, a fixation which helped the PNP to lose the elections and is now gagged by the threat of legal action, and that close shave involving the son of Desmond McKenzie, the minister of local government, being nearly employed at the NSWMA, an agency in his father's portfolio, the Government has escaped scandal in its first 100 days.

This, of course, can't continue for much longer. Not if the Opposition is awake and with the likes of Peter Phillips on the ball, who broke the Manatt scandal which brought a prime minister down during the last short-lived JLP administration. And not if the media is only half awake, even in the absence of Gary Spaulding (RIP).

A quick swing around the ministries on Day 100, stopping here and there for some plusses and some minuses: The Audley Shaw-led Ministry of Finance has substantially delivered on the campaign promise of zero income tax on salaries up to $1.5 million.

There have been reworkings, start date delays, compensatory tax increases, etc, but there has been delivery.

The Shaw Budget was described as a "sham" Budget by the opposition spokesman on Finance and as a "taxperity" Budget by the leader of the opposition but received the ringing endorsement of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as not doing damage to the broad parameters of the agreement and the tax relief being good for the country and the economy. The truth is, except for the jiggling with modest new taxes and income tax relief, accounting for a mere 2.3 per cent of the $580 billion Budget, this was a standard issue continuity Budget cast within the boundaries of the IMF agreement.

Crime continues to give the responsible minister, the police, and us the citizens bloody hell. We hear that there has been a 10 per cent reduction year on year so far this year. But the new Minister has been greeted with a spate of multiple murders and only a 2 per cent decline and has not yet offered anything really radical to deal with this national crisis. In any case, he has no radical new financing for this Public Emergency Number 1 which the Prime Minister says must be muzzled for growth.

Education takes the biggest slice of the Budget after debt but still can't make two ends meet. And loan financing for expansions in Education is a big part of the reason for the accumulated debt. The reckless push to remove auxiliary fees from the secondary level as pure political gimmickry is perhaps the biggest wrong move made by the Government in its first 100 days.

 

Fortunate

 

Kamina Johnson Smith is shining at Foreign Affairs and Jamaica has been fortunate to have strong leadership and large international respect in this area. The Government has moved briskly to reassess CARICOM, with former Prime Minister Bruce Golding leading the appointed task force. The country has engaged the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific group of states, has smartly engaged a crumbling Venezuela and the PetroCaribe Agreement, and is dealing with the Trinidad & Tobago-Jamaica issues with smooth diplomatic savvy, avoiding the drum beats of war for boycotts. In 100 days the Minister has assumed a dynamic presence on the regional and world stage.

Tourism with Edmund Bartlett has been gunning for growth and purposefully globe-trotting. Justice with Delroy Chuck has made utterances, not without controversy, for the speeding up of the courts. And the PM himself has proposed amendments to the bail act specifically to deal with murder cases, and this not without its own controversy.

Andrew Wheatley with Energy is benefiting from the efforts of Phillip Paulwell and the previous administration to diversify fuel sources and lower costs. A number of projects have been advanced in the last 100 days.

Shahine Robinson at Labour has won the tentative support of the labour unions in the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions as an engaging and doing Minister. The collapse of construction works at the Royalton Hotel has dropped the stalled Occupational Safety and Health Bill into her lap. And a surprising number of emerging labour unrests over the last few weeks have put the wage issue back on the Labour front burner.

Desmond McKenzie, Minister of Local Government, has taken on the Parish Councils for accountability, nearly all of them controlled by the PNP. Fires, including the big industrial one at Wisynco, has exposed the weak condition of the fire services. The Minister has announced and started clean-up drives.

Christopher Tufton's biggest challenge at Health is handling the relentless spread of ZikV while avoiding the mistakes of Fenton Ferguson with ChikV. He has won some accolades for talking well, rather than doing anything big, new and different in 100 days. He benefits for developments by the last administration like national testing labs coming on stream.

Mike Henry at Transport and Works has put the problems of the Jamaica Urban Transport Company back in the limelight, has floated the view of making fares equitable for all users of public transport across the country, and is back on his Vernamfield airport riding horse.

The Prime Minister from early set up an Economic Growth Council headed by Jamaican-Canadian billionaire banker Michael Lee-Chin at a time when even the IMF has been criticising the banks for not doing enough for economic growth.

The PM has also announced a round of new benefits from the National Housing Trust, benefits which will go some ways but will still not launch that housing revolution which has been deemed necessary from that very first Independence Five Year Development Plan. Building 20,000 houses a year for the next few years would do more for economic growth spread across the population, particularly at the base, than almost anything else imaginable.

Ruel Reid's initial bungles as Information Minister once again underscored the need for a professional public service officer to be Government spokesperson, leaving the Minister to deal with his proper responsibility of overseeing the information policies, programmes and agencies of the Government.

No long-term watcher of Government and of government transitions, as I have been, could honestly conclude that this administration is not off to a fair start vis a vis any other in living memory. The Prime Minister has promised less talk and more action after the first 100 days. It's the next 1,000 days that will really test the mettle of the Government and could even position them for a second term.

Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com andmedhen@gmail.com.