Mark Ricketts | PNP’s weakness is JLP’s strength
The signals were loud and clear coming from the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) 76th annual party conference. Exuding such confidence that Jamaicans would say they were “in their ackee”, chairman Robert Montague, engaging and entertaining, was followed later by his prime minister regaling the audience with performance delivered and plans and promises to be delivered.
Their swagger in response to the intensity and maddening noise of the crowd when roll call was in session was unrestrained. The audience, boisterous to themes capturing the moment, facilitated music with words, “Stand up Jamaica when you hear the bell”.
One thing about annual party conferences, whether the People’s National Party (PNP) or the JLP, the passion and the electricity restate confidence and undergird heightened levels of delegate strength and party support. But even so, the Andrew Holness-led JLP party elevated crowd excitement to decibel levels consistent with an understanding that this is the last annual conference before the general election.
The chairman cautioned, “we are not there yet”, in terms of calling the election, but the articulated policy measures, the groundwork, the advanced preparation, said something different.
Such confidence coming from the JLP is puzzling, especially as its rival only lost by one seat in the 2016 general election and once bragged that Jamaica was PNP country. Moreover, the JLP government, being embroiled in so many scandals and missteps, meant contesting a general election anytime soon should be a low priority.
Crime, violence, and lawlessness continue to damage the nation, withdrawing credence from Holness’ commitment to ensure the safety and security of his people.
Adding to the party’s woes are; the bushing scandal; bad hiring decisions; cronyism, multimillion-dollar claims by many for unjustified dismissals; the O’Brien car scandal, which deprived the police of timely delivery of badly needed vehicles; a forced resignation of a minister; Petrojam; and the arrests of the minister of education and the head of a tertiary institution.
The PNP should be in the driver’s seat enjoying the luxury of a JLP administration terrified to go to the polls. Bolstering the PNP’s position would be the economic underperformance of the JLP government when stacked up against its prosperity claims and its election and post-election promises.
Growth should have been trending towards the ‘5 in 4’ instead of slipping below ‘1 in 3’. Exports were forecast to be 60 per cent higher, but they faltered, leading to a horrendous trade deficit.
DEBT STUBBORNLY HIGH
Our national debt has remained stubbornly high, around US$15.2 billion.
The trending down of our debt, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), will be stymied this year because our economy has hardly grown and our dollar has devalued. To explain: our national debt is huge and a lot of it is in foreign currency. When our dollar devalues, our national debt, ‘in our money’, increases, and we have to find more Jamaican dollars to repay that debt. This means that our economy must grow big time to cover that extra money. If it doesn’t, our debt as a percentage of what we produce every year (GDP) might not decline.
The combination of high debt/low growth, and devaluation strangles us.
With the ammunition arising from such evident weaknesses and the policy miscues of the JLP administration, the PNP should be “licking its chops”.
That is not the case as the PNP’s weakness is the JLP’s strength.
Jamaica is a highly indebted country, guided by garrison-style arrangements, with a strong attachment to the politics of personal affection. It has a third of its people living on captured land, and the ideology, democratic socialism, that Dr Peter Phillips and his party embraces, lacks robustness and a sufficient emphasis on wealth creation to generate the modernisation of institutions and produce the annual output advances that Jamaica needs.
In the top 50 per capita income countries in the world, there is not one socialist or communist country. And if you looked at most African, Latin American, and Caribbean nations that had romanticised socialism after their independence, performance did not ratify expectations.
Why does the PNP believe it can take Jamaica with a very low per capita income and bereft of an abundance of first-rate entrepreneurs and innovators, and achieve the growth and productivity numbers needed for sustained development under democratic socialism? In post-independence, the PNP had numerous chances, yet growth was uninspiring.
The party has not addressed this, and every year it trots out, essentially, the same menu of policy recommendations, which makes no provision for the size of the country’s indebtedness and our decades of underinvestment.
Furthermore, the unnecessary leadership contest characterised by deep divisions was the most asinine thing to have happened when a general election is any month now.
PNP NEEDS A NEW VISION
The PNP has to upload a new vision and define the hallmarks of a leader who can make tough choices such as Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Tony Blair in England, the late Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Deng Xiaoping in China, and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta.
The JLP enjoys an advantage over the PNP because of having its ear to the people and the comforting way it responds to issues.
Regardless of the problem with health and how much the minister is to blame, you can’t get better than Dr Christopher Tufton with his bedside manner for listening to the public; or the quiet, measured response from Kamina Johnson Smith, who is in a tight balancing act in the world as is. As for Ed Bartlett, there is not a problem his smile can’t overcome or a tourism target it can’t achieve.
The prime minister, even when everything is falling apart, brings an innocence, an inviting stare, a furrowed brow, a well-prepared presentation articulated with finesse that elicits sympathy, empathy, and support. His artful engagement with and favourable treatment from many heads of state speak volumes to his strength in diplomacy while securing benefits for the country.
Adding to the JLP’s confidence is the phenomenal growth of BPOs, the improvements in infrastructure, and the continued strong performance of the hospitality sector. The employment gains are strong, although education, training, and certification need to be better aligned to drive enhanced value-added prospects in the economy.
With credit eased and interest rates lowered, the JLP is hoping that business will be sufficiently incentivised.
However, the downturn in the mining sector, which badly affects export earnings, is painful. The government’s continued unwillingness to make the tough choices necessary to deal with social dysfunction, lawlessness, crime, and violence, is equally painful.