Still to get a firm grip

Published: Friday | April 20, 2012 Comments 0

By Peter Espeut

In his column three days ago, PNP insider Daniel Thwaites writes: "There is some evidence that the People's National Party (PNP) was as surprised by its win as the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was surprised by its loss. So there are two parties, along with functionaries and commentators, stumbling about wondering, 'What happened?'" (Outrage of a different colour, April 17, 2012). I think this is an excellent description of the first 100 days of the Government - and the Opposition: 'Stumbling about'!

No party plans to be in opposition, but surely each party plans what it will do if it wins the election and holds the reins of power. Might it be fair to say (based on Thwaites' inside information) that the JLP planned to win, and the PNP expected to lose?

My impression is that the first 100 days of this new Government have been somewhat unfocused, with only one or two Cabinet ministers really getting a grip. It goes to show that even with a Progressive Agenda and a slick manifesto, you can win an election and still not know what next to do. A manifesto is a platitudinous wish list, not a step-by-step work plan, and we wait to see how long things will take to improve.

Sticking to manifesto

With respect to environmental matters, the Government has begun by sticking close to its 2011 manifesto, which in Section Five speaks of 'Physical Infrastructure, Housing, Water, Land, the Environment and Climate Change'; the last four headings have become the name of a new ministry. This configuration is an improvement over previous portfolio marriages, which produced profound conflicts of interest. The optimal strategy to avoid such conflicts is to create a stand-alone ministry, but failing that, I guess this conformation is a good move.

The appointment of veteran politician (some would say, dinosaur) Bobby Pickersgill as the minister was a little disappointing; many long for an environment minister with some training in environmental issues, or at least in science. Mr Pickersgill holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and a diploma in education. He is also a qualified solicitor.

His previous Cabinet appointments include: minister of public utilities and transport; minister of public utilities, mining and energy; and minister of transport and works. These portfolio areas involve some of the most negative impacts on the natural environment, causing massive deforestation and other degradation, and putting millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Is it too much to expect that someone with this experience and background will be able to do an about-face? It would certainly require a steep learning curve.

Here is what the PNP manifesto commits Minister Pickersgill to implement: "The PNP ... is committed to ensuring the protection of Jamaica's environment and the conservative use and protection of its natural and historical heritage resources. The PNP recognises that environmental quality bears a strong and crucial relationship to an improved standard of living, human health, economic and social advancement, and quality of life for our citizens and visitors alike." Maybe 100 days is too short a time to expect much in this area from someone on a steep learning curve, so we will have to wait for the second 100 days.

Reduce atmospheric emission

The PNP manifesto goes on: "Air quality: strategic interventions will be taken to ensure that continued improvements in ambient air quality take place. A major initiative which will be pursued is to significantly reduce atmospheric emission and capitalise on foreign-exchange earnings from the trading of carbon credits. This will be done through the use of least-polluting technologies in energy generation."

The colossal fire at the Riverton dump led to massive deterioration in air quality. The report released by the state environment regulators shows that the public health of hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans was severely compromised over the first 100 days of the Government, in addition to the climate change implications. Minister Pickersgill cannot be blamed for the fire; his job in the Cabinet is to bring his colleague ministers in line with the objectives of his portfolio responsibility. It is too early to tell how good he will be at this.

Surely he could not be happy with his Cabinet colleague minister, Paulwell, who declared: "We are going to encourage the bauxite companies to establish their own energy facilities, to utilise whatever fuel source that they wish ... we want to give them that freedom so that they can take correct business decisions." They will be permitted to use coal, one of the dirtiest energy sources. So much for "the use of least-polluting technologies in energy generation".

Get a grip, Minister Pickersgill!

Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and natural resource manager. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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