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PUBLIC AFFAIRS: 2010: Crisis and possibility

Published:Sunday | January 3, 2010 | 12:00 AM

A. J. Nicholson, Contributor

We have now entered the final year of the first decade of the 21st century. It is a time of crisis and a time of possibility. Here in Jamaica, although we have ambitiously set the year 2030 as that moment in time when we should mark unprecedented levels of social and economic development as a country, we are yet to project the vision, long term or otherwise, as to the route that we should travel. That has to change post-haste; we have only a short 20 years to go.

At the best of times, a long-term plan is an essential requirement. In times of deep crisis, such as now, patchwork plans and the guessing and blame game only serve to deepen the dilemma. It is surely time to turn away from that course.

A sustainable long-term plan can only be developed with the input of all sectors. And it can only be carried through with all hands on deck. Sadly, we have not even placed ourselves at the starting blocks by coming to that realisation, which is a sine qua non for us to begin our desired pilgrimage.

It seems like light years ago that the prime minister, at the beginning of his administration, promised a journey of consensus building and togetherness in our national approaches. So much has taken place to the contrary since then. The recent further hopscotching manoeuvres over the taxation packages have certainly not caused us to forget the spirited outburst of the minister of education, Andrew Holness, concerning members of the public service dancing to the tune of the political directorate. For, that has been the signature approach of the present government.

Holness, of course, was merely following the lead of the primus inter pares, the prime minister. That is the path he has laid out, and his education minister is not the only one of his lieutenants who has been faithful to that call and action. When a prime minister and political party leader exhorts his party's young brigade to target opinion writers and political commentators who do not subscribe to his party's way of doing things, what is the expected outcome other than the type of unfortunate attack on such commentators by a young government backbencher in the Upper House, for example?

But, I dare to tender some advice to Holness for two reasons. First, despite his unfortunate outburst, he appears to be one of the young persons in the political arena who is prepared to receive and act upon sound reasoning. Second, it is his generation that must develop and own VISION 2030, which should be seen by them as the real possibility for Jamaica coming out of our deep crisis, with education and its off-shoots constituting the anchor and the centrepiece for the journey.

He should, however, be made aware that within the Westminster system of government to which we subscribe, a change of administration does not, and cannot, mean inevitable changes within the top echelons of the public service. That is a phenomenon of the executive presidential system such as is practised in the United States. That is a model that works well in that system, which, as he should know, is not easily, or has been successfully, exported.

Within our model, there is no such thing as 'the Prime Minister's Men' in the manner of 'the President's Men' as exists in the United States (US). In the Westminster system of government, the successful minister is usually one whose permanent secretary has the gumption to say "no, minister", simply because he or she is protecting the minister from pitfalls of which the minister would not be aware. And, it is a wise minister who is not quick to displace, and who is prepared to listen, particularly, to a voice of experience that he happens to find in such a slot.

Again, struggling Jamaica, unlike the US, for example, is not blessed with the vast wealth of human resources as to be able to jettison, at will, individuals who are "suspected of not singing from the same hymn sheet as members of the political directorate", as apologists of the present administration have been all too quick to suggest. That is a recipe for chaos and hop-scotching, and the kind of musical chairs that we have experienced of late, and, what is more, it serves to deepen the partisan political divide that has unfortunately become embedded in our country.

All of this has perhaps sprung from a view held by the National Democratic Movement, which was founded by Holness' present party leader, that the United States system of government is best suited for Jamaica. As it has turned out, since that is not likely to receive much traction in the Jamaica Labour Party, the next best thing has been to attempt to engraft some of its elements on to the system of governance that we seek to practise.

We have witnessed the upheaval that this has caused in almost every government ministry, department and agency, beginning, as it did, in the Attorney General's Chambers. We encourage Holness to abandon that path.

high interest rate

We go further! This business of claiming that the previous administration did nothing positive for Jamaica's development must be allowed to pass on with 2009. I recall my family spending a Sunday afternoon with a friend, in 1996, at Four Paths, just beyond May Pen. We left her home about 7 p.m. to return to the Corporate Area, only to join the crawling line of traffic at the Glenmuir roundabout. As a result of the blockage at Old Harbour, we reached home some minutes to 10 o'clock.

That is a journey, these days, because of Highway 2000, which takes a little over half an hour. The prime minister bellyached in the House of Representatives, recently, that too much money was borrowed at a high interest rate for the construction of the highways across Jamaica. I suppose the country buses, the market trucks, the trailers laden with goods, the taxis, the working commuters and the pleasure and leisure seekers, and those travelling to visit family and friends should still be 'fighting up' with the people plying their wares, the handcarts and the like through Old Harbour's narrow main street.

And even the celebrated Usain Bolt will agree that Highway 2000 was the Patterson administration's way of saving millions of travelling hours per year for Jamaica's development. It is the 'P.J. Patterson Highway', even Bolt will tell you. For, in truth, only mean-spiritedness could point one, including a government, in any other direction.

In the midst of our deep crisis, there are possibilities. I had the good fortune, recently, of listening to Dr Omar Davies speaking publicly to five ways in which a People's National Party (PNP) administration would have sought to take a route that is different to the hopscotching of the present government.

First, there would be consultation. A government cannot seek to impose harsh burdens without meaningful consultation; consensus building is not possible that way. And, there can be no doubting Dr Davies for history is surely on his side. From Michael Manley's continuity approach after the change of government in 1989, to Patterson's celebrated consensus seeking thereafter, to Simpson Miller's openness in governance, the past administration set a pattern.

Second, there would be a process of burden sharing. This a desirable option in normal times; in times of crisis, it is an essential prerequisite. Third, there would be a settled process of harnessing and husbanding of our technical capabilities. For us, in Jamaica, these are scarce commodities. There can be no question of firing and displacing our best and most expe-rienced professionals.

Fourth, a PNP government would continue to court its international friends. It is certainly amazing that a party which was in Opposition for almost two decades can hardly point to any foreign government that would go to bat for it in the international arena. Support from international friends does not necessarily manifest itself in direct monetary or investment support. In today's global marketplace, it would certainly strike one as odd that the international support of any kind that looks in Jamaica's direction appears to come only from peoples whose friendship has been courted by the PNP over the years, in or out of power.

meaningful stimulus

And fifth, a way would have to be found for government activity to accommodate some type of meaningful stimulus. It cannot be that, at a time of painful job losses, with the prospect of increased unemployment, there is no think tank or any structured meeting of experienced minds for the development of any stimulus or ideas, whatsoever, as to how our people may embark upon new approaches concerning their way forward.

So, the year 2010 has dawned, bringing possibilities in the midst of deep crisis. The promised change of course has not served us well during the last two years. The constant blame game has only served to take us into a deeper predicament. It can hardly be doubted that Audley Shaw should be relieved of his present portfolio responsibilities. His has been the Lot's wife performance par excellence. In truth, his budgetary offerings have been nothing short of pillars of salt for the vast majority of our people, and there is no evidence that he can be part of the possibilities of 2010. He should have faded from the finance ministry with 2009.

A. J. Nicholson is opposition spokesman on justice. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com.