Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Martin Henry | The first duty of government

Published:Sunday | March 26, 2017 | 3:00 AM
Martin Henry

Mr Speaker, the first duty of government is to protect, preserve, and promote life. All other rights follow from the 'right to life.'"

- Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Budget Debate 2017.

 

I'm glad I am alive to hear a prime minister say this and not dead from non-communicable diseases, violence, or road crashes.

The prime minister devoted a considerable portion of his three-hour-long contribution to the Budget Debate to what his Government plans to do "to protect, preserve, and promote life" as the most basic duty of a responsible Government."

I listened. Not just because of commentary duty or out of a decades-long habit despite the shared cynicism. I listened - and then read the script - because the head of government is quite right in his introductory observation that "the PM's presentation in the Budget Debate sets the priorities and gives details of the plan of action to achieve them". And "it is also an opportunity to showcase achievements of the closing year".

 

FISCAL DISCIPLINE

 

From the prime minister's wide-ranging address about what his Government has been up to and plans to do, it is his right to-life commitments and his Plan Secure Jamaica that I want to zero in on.

As Holness has pointed out, the Government of Jamaica has been entrenching fiscal discipline, and across administrations, deep structural reforms have been made and are being made. The willingness to give credit to the past Government for policies and programmes started was noteworthy.

In spite of special-interest howlings, including that of the Opposition, the Budget, with its modest tax-increase package which the PSOJ has supported against some of its members, and which CaPRI has deemed fiscally responsible, has held firm and was passed in the Parliament minus the Opposition.

But the point of the economy, as outgoing Leader of the Opposition Portia Simpson Miller has made the mantra of her political career, is to benefit people and to increase human welfare.

"Government has a duty to actively ensure that threats to life are minimised and the rights and freedoms that determine quality of life are expanded. Anything that threatens life, and the enabling freedoms and security to enjoy life, must get the direct and instrumental attention of Government's policies and actions."

So the Government, the prime minister says, is taking a broad approach to securing life: health, violence reduction, and reducing road fatalities. And this within the broader 10-point 'Plan Secure Jamaica'.

 

MAJOR ASSAULT

 

The top five leading causes of death are lifestyle non-communicable diseases and assault, accounting for some 46 per cent of all deaths, and all of which are amenable to state action for reduction. Vehicular crashes are the 15th main cause of death.

Doctor Holness led a major assault against sugar consumption in his sugar-producing country but could have gone further without being longer by linking domestic food production to good nutrition and to health. Any day Jamaican agriculture focuses on producing healthful local foods for its own population, it will receive a major economic revival. Not to mention nutraceuticals for export.

The Government is moving to improve road safety and to reduce the loss of life from vehicular crashes. A major part of the strategy is to ensure that road infrastructure is safe. Any drive in this direction would also be a significant boost for economic activity, including at the low end of manual labour as people are put to work to improve infrastructure.

Assault is the fifth leading cause of death, accounting for one-third of all deaths in the age group 15-35 in a country not at war. "The Government is sensitive and concerned about violence and its negative impact on the right to life and the fundamental freedoms and security of our people." Ah, ah, ah!

The prime minister set out a plan for 'Community Safety, Public Order, Violence and Crime' and tabled a bill to back up the plan: "An act to provide for special measures for upholding and preserving the rule of law, public order, citizen security, and public safety within certain geographically defined areas of Jamaica; and for connected matters."

"This legislation," the prime minister said, "is designed to give effect to a well-established and practised security and community-building strategy termed 'Clear, Hold, Build'.

The plan is targeting communities where the levels of crime and violence are elevated beyond normal law enforcement, and, already concerns about human rights have been raised, which the prime minister has sought to allay in his post-Budget media conference. But I want to suggest again to the prime minister and the Government that the country could get a big bang for the buck through normal law enforcement seizing control and maintaining control of town centres, starting with the parish capitals and the capital city, and restoring public order in these places. A powerful message against lawlessness and public disorder would sweep through the country from the centres of governance and do more than most other interventions to reduce crime everywhere.

The prime minister's Plan Secure Jamaica covers the 10 domains of:

1. Violence and crime

2. Public order

3. Corruption

4. Community safety.

5. Territorial integrity.

6. Crisis response and resilience

7. Justice.

8. Cyber defence.

9. Critical infrastructure protection.

10. Economic security.

The plan hinges on "coordinating the myriad plans and activities crafted and executed by various arms of the State. Some of these plans are not new some are already being implemented but lack focus and coordination, and some are currently being shaped and scoped. The broad range of plans include:

1. Legislative commitments

2. Plans to improve the leadership and management of the security forces

3. Plans for funding and resourcing

4. Plans to build foreign-partner support.

5. Plans for community intervention.

And a host of other initiatives, which when taken together provides a synergistic plan to Secure Jamaica.

This, in my view, is a good thematic organisation of public policy from the very top. But the Budget was not organised that way. It is still very much doling out of money to ministries, departments and agencies of government, of which there are some 200, the prime minister said, when successful Singapore has just around 50.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.