Martin Henry | They're all in one accord
Budget season is a time for political posturing. You can expect the competitors for political power to expend a vast amount of energy and time to emphasise how different they are - and who's better. But as I have pointed out several times before, the government and the opposition sides of Parliament, the PNP and the JLP, agree on more of the fundamentals of governance than they disagree on or that they are prepared to let on.
If we start at the top, at least from 2008, across all administrations, there has been a common economic programme with political agreement for an IMF pact. The fiscal management successes of the programme has allowed the country to move from a borrowing agreement to a standby agreement with supervision. The achievement of a no-new-taxes Budget this year is a major cross-administration achievement that happens to come up on Audley Shaw's watch as finance minister and the JLP's watch in Government. And this despite Mark Golding's blustery criticism in his maiden Budget speech as opposition spokesman on finance.
A major part of the country's commitment under the IMF agreements is the compression of the public-sector wage bill to be accompanied by public-sector transformation. There have been public-sector wage freezes across administrations and only minimal wage increases when granted. Despite the great show of sympathy for public-sector workers, particularly for the politically powerful teachers and police, and criticisms of the Government's negotiation and wage increase offer, the Opposition very well knows from its own time in Government up to only two years ago that there is absolutely no room for the kinds of increases that the public-sector unions have placed on the table. Rank-and-file workers also know that.
Conspiracy of pretence
The Opposition, whoever it is, has also joined the Government, whoever it is, in a conspiracy of pretence that public-sector reform will not necessarily involve retrenchment of some workers, allowing paying more to fewer people for greater output. Both sides very well know and can agree that public administration has to be radically restructured for greater efficiency and productivity and cannot continue to be used as a labour mop in a stagnant economy. They have both half-heartedly attempted various reform programmes over many years.
Government and Opposition are in one accord on a crime plan, such as it is. The zones of special operations law had strong opposition support with 100 amendments accommodating their concerns. The abandonment of the ZOSO approach and reverting to the use of states of emergency to deal with out-of-hand crime in St James and St Catherine North has opposition support. So is the appointment of the third military magician, Major General Antony Anderson, to head the Jamaica Constabulary Force as commissioner.
The absence of a robust alternative anti-crime proposition from the Opposition indicates a general acceptance of the Montague Five-Point Plan, which is nothing more than a digestion of earlier plans into a memorisable structure.
Dr Peter Phillips came to the presidency of the PNP and to the leadership of the parliamentary Opposition with a proposal for a land commission. That commission has already done some serious work and Dr Phillips included in his own Budget presentation a proposal to use long-term uncollected refund money from the NHT to drive a comprehensive transformation of squatter communities across Jamaica.
First step would be to survey the lands in the communities and allot titles to the occupants. With the occupants acquiring titles, this would give them the opportunity to access their own financing.
The money from the uncollected refunds at the NHT would be used to upgrade the infrastructure in these informal settlements such as sewerage, water and power.
The leader of the Opposition pointed out that in many squatter settlements, there were NHT contributors who make monthly payments at their respective workplaces and as self-employed individuals. Many of them were not able to get a benefit for various reasons, including lack of formal access to land for a house. Or too low or too erratic an income to meet the qualification threshold for
NHT financing as standard mortgages.
Phillips, now safely isolated from action in Government, insisted that something far-reaching must be done to halt the process of the proliferation of squatter communities across the country.
Prime Minister Holness, armed with his own review report on the NHT which was led by its chairman, that other magician Nigel Clarke, made essentially the same proposition to lawfully use money from the NHT to deal with the problem of squatting.
Holness went further and announced a major land-titling programme to generate some 20,000 land titles over the next three years. That's only 6,666 titles a year. A significant jump over the few hundred titles a year that the Land Administration and Management Programme (LAMP) has been delivering over its years of operation under both JLP and PNP governments but completely insignificant against the tens of thousands of parcels of unregistered and untitled land in the country.
Listening to the rantings and ravings of the Opposition over the appointment of an acting chief justice, it would be easy to think that Prime Minister Andrew Holness had staged an executive coup against constitutional democracy.
At the heart of the prime minister's stated intent was a push for judicial efficiency and accountability. Phillips made exactly the same call in his Budget presentation. He proposed a stronger oversight role for the Judicial Services Commission to achieve this desired end.
A declining number of 11-year-olds, due to the falling birth rate, endured the GSAT crunch last Thursday and Friday, battling for scarce access to a good school.
Next year and beyond those who follow them will be distressed by what ought to be a PEP, the Primary Exit Profile. Spread over more years of primary education, PEP will only distress the children stronger for longer, as long as secondary school quality remains so uneven.
But there is hardly anything that they, Government and Opposition, JLP and PNP, agree on more than on spending big on education as the primary ticket to national development. Some years ago they had agreed on a target of 15 per cent of Budget, the largest slice. Never achieved in any administration but agreed as desirable.
They can agree on the reform of the Students' Loan Bureau. And they have agreed in principle on removing the inequities of unreasonable and unjustifiable differentials in financing tertiary institutions, a situation in which UTech is at a distinct disadvantage to the UWI.
The Government killed the Fitz Jackson bank fees regulation bill, but only out of political malice. They both agree that bank fees are iniquitous and should be constrained. How precisely to do so while honouring market values may be a point of minor difference.
Government and Opposition, with the rotation of the two political parties in both, have laboured long and hard together since 1979 to make the Electoral Advisory Committee/Electoral Commission of Jamaica work for the elimination of political chicanery and the cleansing of the electoral system. Talk of "the growing level of political influence affecting the organisation" which influenced the resignation of the director of elections, Orrette Fisher, is unnerving.
The finger is pointed at the JLP representatives on the Commission as PNP representative General Secretary Julian Robinson has publicly concurred with the "influence" argument and distanced himself and his party from it and they have not. The JLP, now in Government, is playing with fire and should get burnt if they don't desist.
We could go on with more things that they agree on.
There is promise and anticipation of the renewal of the Vale Royal Talks between the political parties/Government and Opposition. But not anticipation or support by me, a constitutionalist. The Parliament is the constitutionally legitimate place for that discourse on the people's business. And when they come to meet extra-constitutionally at Vale Royal, they will find that there is little that they disagree on of any consequence to the good governance of Jamaica, if disagreements are not concocted out of political rivalry. And, more and more, voters will have to decide by personality and party, not policy.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator.