Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Ian Boyne | Andrew’s one-year report card

Published:Sunday | February 26, 2017 | 2:00 AM
Does Andrew Holness have the stamina for the next four years?
Ian Boyne
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I have turned down opportunities to host radio talk shows. I would be a marketing disaster. Few people would be interested in listening to me in this tribalised society. I am not hysterical, sensationalist, hardline, doomsday, and belligerent.

I am too nuanced, too much of an on-the-other-hand kind of a guy who believes that there is some kind of virtue in detachment. People love when you vehemently take sides and deliver your "Pram! Pram!" commentaries. People love that kind of take-no-prisoners, 'slew-dem' approach. My colleague, Ronnie Mason, delivered one such commentary last Sunday in an article titled 'One year of nothing'.

"In the one year since Andrew Holness has been prime minister, he has proven to be absent ... ," wrote Mason. This man who is speaking all over the place, addressing all kinds of issues, and who has a social-media presence that rivals many young people's? Absent? The man who is criticised for too much public relations is absent?

Wait, there is more of that sort: "Andrew Holness does not submit himself to questioning by the press. He puts out what he thinks should be of interest." What? No media house could ever justifiably complain that Holness was inaccessible in his one year in office. He has given interviews to the toughest, most probing journalists in town, including

Dionne Jackson Miller, who was devastating with him. And her reputation for brightness preceded her.

He has not done many press conferences in his first year, but, quite frankly, press conferences are much easier for politicians wanting to duck hard questioning than one-on-one interviews. In assessing Holness' first year in office, fairness and balance must be a requirement.

 

WHAT ARROGANCE

 

Mason, who is certainly no partisan, accuses that Holness "acts with arrogance". As a journalist, I hate to have to defend a politician, but where is the evidence of Holness' arrogance? In the face of intense pressure from environmentalists and civil-society activists, Holness backed down from a project Government seemed heavily invested in and pulled away from giving up the Goat Islands to the Chinese, losing a major investment. This is even after the International Monetary Fund had published a document saying that the Government was forging ahead with the project. Holness bowed.

In fact, Ronnie, part of the reason Andrew is not adopting some of the tough measures you and I are advocating is that he is overly sensitive to civil-society perspectives. Andrew is very respectful of middle-class, elite perspectives. Arrogant leaders usually ignore them. Holness' recent stance on the pension issue was another example of his willingness to not push through his views arrogantly in the face of opposition. In his year in office, he has been genuinely consultative and consensus-seeking.

He restarted the Partnership for Progress when the Opposition feared he would abandon it. He created a public-sector monitoring group with Comrade Danny Roberts as head of it, while appointing Comrade Keith Duncan as head of the Economic Programme Oversight Committee.

On the economic front, the Holness administration has continued the sound management of the economy that had started with the previous People's National Party administration. Last year, we had the lowest inflation rate since 1964. The highest level of business and consumer confidence in the 15 years these surveys are being conducted was recorded under this administration's first year. The economy grew last year. Net international reserves were at US$2.4 billion.

 

FAILING GRADE

 

Peter Phillips must be highly commended for his management of the economy. But the Andrew Holness administration could have squandered the gains. Look at the raw economic indices. They are trending in the right direction. Andrew Holness cannot, by any objective measurement, be given a failing grade on the economy. The Planning Institute projects growth of two to three per cent for next year.

Bank of Jamaica Governor Brian Wynter could point to "years and even decades of feeding an insatiable appetite for borrowing by Government" coming to an end. Government is crowding in private-sector credit now, not crowding it out. This is a positive.

Unemployment has declined and there was growth in the labour force of more than 30,000 persons in October 2016 compared to October 2015.

There has been significant growth in BPO operations, as well as in tourism. Of course, much of the foundation for this growth was laid by the previous PNP administration. But that does not take away from the fact that investors see a continuity of the sound economic policies pushed through by Portia and Peter. They don't see PNP and JLP. They see Jamaica. And they see a Jamaica under Andrew Holness that is continuing on a solid economic path. And they are voting their confidence in this administration by pouring their investments in the economy. That says much for this administration.

Where are the objective, empirical grounds for economic gloom and doom? And what has worsened since Holness came to power in terms of neo-liberal management of the economy? The dollar, which was slipping for some time, is being stabilised, however belated, by the Ministry of Finance.

In education, there has been major success with the policy of no mandatory auxiliary fees. I am happy that Holness did not back down from this progressive policy. He insisted that the poor had a right to educational access and that the State had an obligation to provide that access. And he increased funding for education from $2.6 billion to $5.3 billion. This was a major plus for Jamaica's children and economically battered parents. And the prophesied gloom and disaster to our schools failed to materialise.

Schools were funded, and, in fact, got their subventions ahead of the time, averting the predicted cash-flow problems. High marks to the Holness administration and Education Minister Ruel Reid for an unqualified success in this area. We are not even talking about auxiliary fees anymore. Such has been this policy's successful implementation. Millions have been spent on textbooks and more than $300 million was allocated to hire part-time sixth-form teachers.

On crime, Holness' irresponsible and reckless statement in the election campaign about if you want more on crime vote PNP and being able to sleep with your doors open under his administration have come back to be his worst nightmare. That should teach him and all politicians a lesson about not politicising crime. The solutions are not as easy as they seemed when the JLP was in Opposition. They are learning the hard way.

 

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

 

Holness has waited too long to unveil his crime plan, and his piecemeal approach has frustrated many. Let's hope that he corrects that bigly in his Budget presentation. I am disappointed in his efforts at public-sector modernisation and transformation, his protests about doing things "quietly" notwithstanding. But my biggest disappointment with Andrew Holness and his administration in terms of actions has been his use of $600 million of taxpayers' money for supposedly debushing, but which helped to weed out the PNP in the local government elections. He must not repeat anything like that in the coming year.

But my biggest concern in terms of lack of action is the prime minister's lack of articulating a comprehensive, holistic vision for Jamaica. He needs to articulate something wider, more engaging than simply 'prosperity'. Prosperity is not a vision. It is a goal. A too-limited goal. A country needs an overarching vision, a set of values that defines that nation. The prime minister must tackle the country's serious cultural problems - our social capital deficits, our appalling values and attitudes. The reaction to Lisa Hanna's suggestion about that criminal Vybz Kartel is just the latest indication of our deep cultural sickness.

Our domestic violence, child sexual abuse, savage murders, indiscipline on the roads, Anancy, 'bandooloo' mentality, and penchant for corruption are other indications. You can't build a quality economy if you don't have quality people. Andrew Holness failed during his first year to inspire us to a broader vision of a new Jamaica. Get the economy and job creation going, yes, but man can't live by bread alone. I suspect that if the PM does not step up in this area, Peter Phillips might step into that vacuum.

Andrew Holness had a generally good year with solid achievements. And he has the generosity of spirit, emotional maturity (including the ability to take criticism), and leadership acumen to weather the storms ahead.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.