Ian Boyne | Holness in the Arena
It has sort of crept up on us - the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Conference this weekend at the National Arena. But the Government of the JLP has had more than its fair share of 'distractions' to deal with.
Not only has it been hit with the floods of Montego Bay, but also the flood of concerns over the National Identification System (NIDS), which has produced a perfect storm for the Holness administration. As though the crime monster were not enough to terrify Jamaicans, NIDS has landed civil- and human-rights activists in bed with Christian fundamentalists and Rastafarians, cowering in fear over potential loss of liberties and of receiving the Mark of the Beast.
Suddenly, the People's National Party (PNP) has found something other than crime to stir the people's sense of outrage, which is what I have always maintained would be just what the Doctor (Phillips) would need in order to mix Holness' bitter medicine. Party Leader Andrew Holness steps on to that stage in the National Arena today carrying a mixed bag. He certainly has some goodies.
Just last week, the Planning Institute of Jamaica's (PIOJ) boss ,Dr Wayne Henry, revealed that in July this year, Jamaica recorded its highest employment increase in a single month - an increase of 29,200 persons. Prior to this, the previous record level of employment recorded was in October 2008. Eleven of the 16 industry groups recorded increases. Unemployment is declining and is now at its lowest level in eight years.
Ordinary people are picking up jobs not only in business process outsourcing (BPO), but in restaurants and the wholesale and retail trades, as well as in the repair of motor vehicles and equipment. Female unemployment is also decreasing.
The PIOJ boss also announced recently that Jamaica has recorded economic growth in the last quarter, dispelling any notion that the economy was in recession. These are cold, hard facts which Andrew Holness can pull today to show that he is managing the economy and, more important, that it is not jobless growth. Tomorrow, hundreds of high-level officials, including heads of government and the heads of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as the head of the United Nations World Tourism Organization will be in Montego Bay for a major tourism conference, a big fillip for this Government.
Gross tourism earnings for the first 10 months of this year was US$2.34 billion, representing a 10.8 per cent increase over the corresponding period last year. We welcomed 3.3 million visitors during the first nine months of the year, an increase of nearly 10 per cent. This has been the most buoyant period of tourism growth ever.
This major tourism conference comes on the heels of the visit of the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Madame Christine Lagarde, who, in her statement at the conclusion of her visit, said, "During my discussions with the Jamaican authorities, I commended the prime minister and his team for their ownership and commitment to economic reform. Jamaica is a leading example of policy commitment for other countries beyond the Caribbean."
Don't ignore the facts
In assessing the Holness administration, it is important to do so with a data-driven, fact-based approach. Blast the administration where it is justified, but for heaven's sake, don't ignore the facts or treat them as irrelevant. The Holness administration did not introduce fiscal responsibility or all the macroeconomic reforms . The IMF chief was careful to stress on her visit what was done "across administrations". Peter Phillips, with the full backing of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, took some very difficult decisions and did some very heavy lifting, which put this country on a path to fiscal prudence.
The PNP broke with a tradition of fiscal recklessness across administrations and we must commend that party for that. But PNP supporters must not be disingenuous and fail to acknowledge that this Holness administration has continued and stepped up the reform programme - and should be highly commended for that. The IMF, in its second review issued a few weeks ago, praises the administration liberally for its commitment to economic reform and its concrete achievements.
The IMF says, "Commitment to the economic reform programme remains strong ... Economic indicators (are) at historical highs, supported by a favourable macroeconomic environment." The IMF continues, "Unemployment is falling, new jobs are being created ... . Inflation and the current account are low ... ." All these are runs on the board for Holness as he addresses his party conference today.
The bauxite-alumina industry is poised to deliver thousands of jobs as it rebounds, and just last week it was revealed that more than 87,000 jobs are expected to be created through the logistics hub. The PNP, of course, and Anthony Hylton in particular, did a lot of the work for a logistics-centred economy, but the fact is that Holness has kept with it and is set to benefit. The problem with neo-liberal IMF policy prescriptions has traditionally been that it produces jobless growth. It reduces macroeconomic imbalances, but usually at the cost of inclusive growth.
As the IMF chief said to me in an interview, "Your example here is different. You are producing new jobs and reducing unemployment." All that Andrew Holness can crow about today. And the Jamaican dollar has stopped its whining! There is no sense of economic gloom in the country.
With regard to crime, the party leader and prime minister will be less convincing today. This has been the major, colossal failure of this administration. In my view, the administration has snot demonstrated the toughness and decisiveness to deal with crime. Criminals don't get a sense that the Government is serious about bringing the fight to them.
NIDS will prove to be a major challenge to this JLP administration. If Holness does not navigate this one sensitively and masterfully, it could do him in. When an issue brings Wayne West and Susan Goffe together, you know it's serious! As I have always pointed out, the human-rights lobby is extremely powerful in Jamaica, with significant international connections and support. (Holness is acutely aware of this, and that is partly why he is moving so cautiously on the crime issue.)
Civil libertarians are a very powerful force with pervasive, reflexive backing in media. If you do anything that seems to threaten the right to privacy or individual liberties, you are dead in the water. Individual rights trump national security. Irrespective of the economic, business, investment benefits of NIDS; irrespective of its utility in fighting crime and corruption, if the powerful human-rights and civil-liberties lobby is not satisfied and appeased, you can't sell NIDS. It gets worse. Once you mix that with apocalyptic religious hysteria, you have the perfect combination to deliver a political knockout.
Nothing has commanded the interest of ordinary people across various demographics recently as has this discussion over NIDS. The biblical book of Revelation, that frightening apocalyptic work that talks about receiving a mark without which you can neither buy nor sell, sounds too strikingly close to this NIDS the prime minister is introducing, the man on the street is saying. He is deathly afraid of "prophecy fulfilling" on him. The PNP knows it's no such thing, but the party is cashing in on this paranoia.
Religion is a powerful force of control over people's minds. Holness is not just battling civil libertarians and their own secular concerns. He is coming against deeply ingrained religious apocalyptic sentiments. That's deep in town and country. And is not amenable to reason or to town-hall and social-media campaigns.
But Holness is a master chess player. He gave the powerful environmental lobby their much-lobbied-for Cockpit Country legislation on the day he knew he had to displease their fellow travellers with NIDS. Holness will find a way to dodge the NIDS bullet. NIDS and crime will be his two biggest challenges as he speaks today. But he will remember the words of Teddy Roosevelt: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles; or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena ... ."