Claude Clarke, Contributor
Nine months after it was swept into office on a promise to solve Jamaica's unemployment problems with jobs by the 'JEEP-load', we are left to wonder if the PNP's message is about to outstrip the JLP's 'jobs, jobs, jobs' mantra of 2007 as the epitome of empty election promises.
With unemployment on the rise, the PNP's JEEP, like the JLP's 2007 jobs pledge, has been shown to be devoid of economic reality, with no greater depth than the breath needed to mouth the acronym.
The JLP's blithe embrace of the previous administration's macroeconomic policies following its 2007 election victory demonstrated an ignorance of our dire economic circumstances, which might explain why it made no attempt to change course until well into 2009, when it finally woke up to the reality of the global financial crisis.
Having spent most of its 181/2 years in Opposition locked in political infighting, the JLP had given little attention to the deepening economic hole into which the country was falling during the 1990s and 2000s. It failed in its most important duty as a political Opposition: that of preparing itself to correct the failings of the administration it hoped to replace.
In its just over four years in office, the JLP did little more than play nightwatchman over the macroeconomy it had inherited. With the Jamaica Debt Exchange, it did manage to give it a tweak. But it was far too little and much too late.
The PNP's failure to use its relatively brief turn in Opposition to prepare itself to tackle the further economic deterioration resulting from its largely unchanged macroeconomic policies is much harder to explain.
Its election loss in 2007 could have proven to be an act of providence for the party, had it used the safe space of the opposition benches to develop corrective strategies to counter the economic policies it had authored in the 1990s and 2000s. Its unique perspective of being both architect and reviewer of the policies that shaped the country's economic course for 18 of the last 20 years gave it a better-than-average chance of developing strategies that could begin the process of correcting past mistakes and charting a new course towards real economic development and job opportunities.
The PNP's previous economic stewardship had moved the country from being among the region's leading economic performers in the late 1980s to becoming the worst economic performer among the 47 economies in the Americas and the Caribbean by 2010, with the sole exception of Haiti. Its policies had severely weakened the economy's productive capacity and ability to create employment.
But the party squandered this rare privilege and instead spent its time engaged in producing reams of paper enumerating desirable economic outcomes unrelated to the reality of the country's economic dilemma and the urgent need to radically change the perilous course on which we were set. This is clearly evidenced in the fact that, so far, the long list of wishes so colourfully presented in its Progressive Agenda are hardly recognisable in anything the administration has done concretely since returning to office nine months ago.
That there has been no tangible progress towards the outcomes enumerated in its Progressive Agenda is not surprising. As I pointed out in two articles on the subject at the time, the document was devoid of substance. Now we know that setting desirable goals in its 'Agenda' has left the party no better prepared to tackle the country's economic problems than it was when it demitted office in 2007.
One had hoped that having witnessed the consequences of the JLP's unpreparedness to deal with the economic challenges it faced in 2007, the PNP, with its intimate prior knowledge of the economic conditions, would have been prepared to address them if given a new opportunity to lead. One expected that there would have been plans to reduce the burdensome cost of government on the productive capacity of the country. It was not unreasonable to have hoped that the new Government would be ready with plans to restructure our fiscal, monetary and trade policies to improve our economic competitiveness, increase economic output and provide greater economic opportunity for our people.
It was more than reasonable to expect that the promise to renegotiate the International Monetary Fund agreement within two weeks of coming to office was based on an intention to put at least the outline of a coherent economic development plan to the Fund on coming to office. Had the time in Opposition been used more productively, the new administration might have been able to reach an understanding with the Fund to inform the 2012-13 Budget and the hard climb to a meaningful economic recovery might well have been under way by now.
But the party seemed to have come to office with little more than dreams of jobs and the delusionary idea that proper employment can be created without incremental economic output. It is an incongruent formulation. Net jobs cannot be created by stamping JEEP on every public-works and 'make-work' project.
And although it might not have been intended, the prime minister, in her speech to the PNP's 74th annual conference, admitted to the bankruptcy of the idea when she pointed out that the country had to spend 58 per cent of the entire Budget to pay debt this fiscal year. "The Government has little money to do anything. That is the plain truth, and I am here to tell you the truth," she said.
Why wasn't the prime minister made aware of this truth during the four years the party sat in Opposition? How could her economic advisers not have known that without completely reorganising the major macroeconomic pillars of the economy, the promise of real net jobs could not be delivered? Did they not tell her that the policies that were in place in 2007 and continued by the JLP administration had undermined the economy's productive capacity and compromised the ability of the people to find economic opportunity? Did they not tell her that the spiralling public debt was the result of governments during the last two decades using expensive new debt to pay interest accumulating on old debt, much of which had produced nothing?
Jamaica's economy has been grossly mismanaged over the last two decades. The Global Competitiveness Report for 2011-2012 continues to show our macroeconomy to be the worst of the 142 countries surveyed. This condition cannot be changed without improving our global or at least our regional, competiveness.
The depth of our economic crisis cannot be denied. Yet nothing we have seen suggests that the Government is seized of the urgency of the situation and understands that what is required is honest, meaningful reform of our macroeconomic arrangements with concrete steps to achieve productivity and competitiveness, attract capital to production, and increase economic output.
But are our leaders now prepared to set realistic development goals and chart a pragmatic course to achieve them? Successive administrations over the last 20 years have failed to make the practical connection between the reasonable expectation of our people for a quality life and the nuts-and-bolts economic strategies required to achieve it.
Perhaps because it has been too easy to influence the electorate with baseless promises and illusory goals, Jamaica has for too long been the victim of directionless leadership. And our politics over the years has been nourished on the false promises of politicians sucked up by a gullible public.
It is to be hoped that now that the IMF is likely to be demanding coherent economic plans, not only to ensure fiscal discipline but to create an economy with the capacity to repay its debt without a social explosion, the Government will at last craft the kind of strategy that will lay the foundation for Jamaica's development and creation of genuine economic opportunity for our people.
Nothing is more glibly said by our leaders than the now-clichéd mantra, 'Our people are our greatest asset'. Yet they undervalue and disrespect nothing more than our people.
Leaders have been more prepared to sell us pie in the sky at election time than to show us the respect of telling us the truth about what must be done to achieve the results we desire.
We are fortunate to now have in place a prime minister whose ability to influence the ordinary Jamaican is legendary. There has never been a Jamaican leader better able to deliver the message of enduring short-term economic pain for long-term gain. That message is desperately needed now. But nine months into the Government's term, this message is still to be delivered. Is the Government having difficulty making the transition from political fantasy to economic reality?
Claude Clarke is a businessman and former minister of trade. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.