Over the last couple of weeks, the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI) and the Gleaner have engaged in a detailed analysis of the manifestos of the Jamaica Labour Party and People's National Party.
Our purpose was to lift the political debate - just a little - from questions of which party leader should go dance in a club, or which leader was a flip or a flop. By putting objective research on the table, we hoped to turn the talk towards the actual issues Jamaicans say they wanted addressed - crime, unemployment, health, and the economy among other things.
In this process, a group of - dare we say - very bright people worked tirelessly to dissect the manifestos so as to estimate - especially in instances where the parties had not bothered to do so themselves - the cost of their big promises.
In a short space of time, they had to read through many books, articles, essays, scan through piles of tables and graphs, make 'plenty, plenty' calls local and overseas - all to research cases that might reveal something to us about the likely impact of the kinds of policies that are being proposed for Jamaica.
We would not be so arrogant as to claim the outcome of all this work was absolutely perfect - but it is the first time such an exercise has ever been done in Jamaica and we believe it has produced the most informed analysis of party platforms.
Your own feedback has fulfilled our hopes. Responses sent to the Gleaner (see page B14) have yielded neither partisan diatribes nor blind criticism. Instead, you have joined the debate by making suggestions as to the sorts of policy change you think the country needs. One such suggestion dated August 16 reads: "If the global market requires people in the fields of information technology, engineering and general management, investment and financial services, should we continue to provide subsidies for tertiary students who enrol in degrees irrelevant to those areas?"
Some may be feasible, some not; but all represent sincere efforts to treat the country's challenges, not by railing against unnamed foes, but by the strength of new ideas. One question that recurred frequently is why didn't we - claiming as we do to have such competent and innovative minds on our team - put forward a manifesto ourselves? That answer is simple. The task of proposing a manifesto is the privilege and responsibility of a political party - and that is something we intend never to become or be confused for.
Laying out the facts
Where we found places that both parties had glaring omissions in their own manifestos, we called them to task on it. For instance, in their treatment of crime, the parties have not adequately dealt with the link between political power and crime, i.e., garrisons.
In our analysis of the economy, we revealed that to achieve full employment, the country needs to attract at least one trillion dollars, and such an investment would require a highly skilled labour force which would in turn require further investment of billions dollars, but both parties glossed over it. Again in our research we discovered that though unemployment is a big problem, underemployment can be a greater challenge.
As for education, we will simply say the big argument about free tuition is nothing but a red herring. The next government will face bigger challenges, like building additional vocational training institutions if they are really serious about increasing the school-leaving age.
Improving early childhood education is another desperate need, as the majority of teachers at that level are untrained and in all likelihood do not know what they are doing. We also found that both parties gave scant regard to human rights of the socially excluded.
Lastly, health-service delivery, we now know, cannot be improved solely with more hospitals or mobile clinics, but by addressing human resource constraints - doctors and nurses - as well. The debate over user fees was another red herring, as they only account for approximately $1.6 billion in a $15.7 billion budget.
By laying these facts out before the citizenry, we now trust in the wisdom of the Jamaican voter to make their own personal and informed choice. Citizens might want to ponder those areas where there were significant disparities between the two manifestos - for example in the treatment of school fees, public health care, treatment of political garrisons, corruption in public office and creation of an institute to advise citizens on legal redress.
Nevertheless, the thing which struck all of us at CaPRI was the degree of convergence. Those who remember with fond nostalgia the days when clear ideological distinctions set the two parties apart, and when there were real battles over the country's direction, might find this dismaying. In the 2007 election campaign, both parties are broadly calling for continuity. The differences lie in the details of policy, rather than the outlines. Think of it as a common strategy, but different tactics.
Most noteworthy are shared positions on labour market and tax reforms, justice reform, constitutional reform, support for small and medium-size enterprises, restructuring of the police public complaints authority, establishment of a national investigative agency, improvement to primary health care and promotion of quality early-childhood education.
Also, the old notion that one party favours
big government, and the other minimalist government, is belied by the data. Despite the claims and counter-claims the parties fired at one another throughout the campaign, our estimates reveal that both propose to spend roughly the same amounts of money over the next term of government. We have kept a running total in the "thermometer" produced on this page. While it shows that the parties may differ in policy details, overall, their costing totals line up fairly closely.
The temperature continued rising as we estimated the cost of some of the parties' pledges, and the mercury burst through the thermometer early in our exercise. This is worrying since CaPRI used a very generous estimate on the rate of economic growth - 3 per cent this coming year, gradually rising by 0.5 per cent and peaking at 5 per cent by 2011-2012. This, incidentally, assumed not only that growth would suddenly be more than it has been for over 40 years, but that existing programme spending would remain fairly contained. Regardless, the thermometer revealed that both parties' programmes would exceed future government revenues by large margins. Whatever promises the parties are making to the electorate, fiscal restraint does not figure prominently.
What, then, would be the options for Jamaica's next government, given that it will take office with a reach that outstretches its grasp? Option one would be to deliver an even greater rate of growth than our optimistic projections, filling its coffers with the tax receipts needed to fund its pledges. However, the record shows that it's far easier to promise high growth than to actually deliver it. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that a high rate of non-inflationary growth would result under a government that exceeds its budget targets by substantial amounts. Such a policy framework would more likely crowd out investment and dampen growth.
Option two would be for government to reallocate spending to fund its promises. There is scope for initial reallocation. A future government might slash existing programmes, thereby freeing up some resources to fund new ones. However, neither manifesto suggested it would consider anything more than incremental reform in this regard.
Option three would be for the government to borrow the money to fund its promises. It might try to justify this by saying that the anticipated future growth yielded by these investments would generate the future revenues needed to pay down the new debt. Jamaica is among the most indebted countries in the world. New debt will make it impossible for the country's already high interest rates to come down. And that means future investment, and with it future growthwill probably slow rather than increase. There is, in short, not much room left to manoeuvre.
The fourth, and final option, would be to simply break its promises. This might be unconscionable. However, if voters do not query the parties about their promises, it is hard for politicians to resist making them in a cavalier manner. CaPRI is trying to do our bit to minimise this temptation with our manifesto-analysis exercise.
In the end, therefore, given that the parties have produced broadly similar campaign platforms which will probably have to be whittled down once the new government is sworn in, the decision facing voters will probably come down to one of two considerations. Some Jamaicans may find one or two issues so dear to their hearts that it suffices to make up their mind. The rest will want to consider the following: Given the limited options facing the next government, and the continued challenges facing Jamaica, which leader, and which team, has most impressed you with its competence to adapt to these challenges?
BROUGHT TO YOU BY
GLEANER AND CAPRI
We welcome contributions from our Gleaner readers, please e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI) is a think tank which works to promote evidence-based national dialogue and create better policies. CaPRI is the legacy of the Taking Responsibility Project, which released the first post-independence review of Jamaica's economic history in Emancipation Park in December 2006.