Political capital too valuable to waste
Claude Clarke, GUEST COLUMNIST
Clearly, my feeling of gloom and foreboding must have been showing because a Comrade sought to console me: "Yu a de bes' one fi do it. Di people dem like yu."
It was at the beginning of the People's National Party (PNP) administration of 1989. A special meeting of ministers and the party leadership had just ended, and the stark facts of Government's fiscal predicament and a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) diktat that subsidies - which for decades had held down the prices of imported basic foods - had to be abandoned, were revealed. Price increases, some over 100 per cent, would result. The impact on the cost of living and the lives of the poor would be devastating.
It fell to me as the responsible minister to administer the 'bitter medicine'. It was my first task on assuming the portfolio of minister of industry and commerce in the new administration. My heart sank.
Accepting the fact that I had no choice but to deliver the painful potion, I first got the prime minister's agreement for the subsidies to be reduced gradually over time and set about to apply them as painlessly as possible. Constant communication with the public would be a central part of my strategy.
But it didn't start well. When I made the announcement in Parliament, it was my very first statement in the grand chamber, and I was met with howls of protestation from the Opposition. It was like being surrounded by a pack of wolves.
To the surprise of many, public reaction to the several doses of revolting medicine that followed was muted. Even before going to Parliament, I had begun a programme of speaking engagements to prepare the public. My message was two-pronged. First, if subsidies were to be removed, the administration would do everything possible to lighten the burden; and second, pointing out that if imported foods were not subsidised, Jamaican foods produced by Jamaican workers and farmers would be more competitive, the country could produce more, and we would all be better off.
In the end, after implementing what would have been the steepest programme of price increases on basic foods in modern times, an action that would normally have amounted to political suicide, my public popularity remained second only to that of Portia Simpson.
The effort to bring the people to understand and accept the need for, and the ultimate benefit of, removing subsidies from imported basic foods was the spoonful of sugar that made the medicine go down.
Although the harshness of the conditionality expected in the pending IMF agreement will be far greater than removing basic foods subsidies was in the Michael Manley administration 23 years ago, the critical importance of winning public acceptance is no different.
I supported the candidacy and campaigns of Portia Simpson Miller to head Jamaica's Government, over both Peter Phillips and Bruce Golding, because of my conviction that the very severe measures that must be applied if there is to be any hope of turning Jamaica's economy around, and setting us on the road to development, will require political leadership that the people are prepared to trust and support.
The people's trust is the most important asset of political leadership, and Mrs Simpson Miller certainly has it. But if this asset with which she is so bountifully endowed is not used when it is most needed, her value as a leader will be severely diminished.
There is no short-term special welfare or jobs programme that can better protect and advance the interests of the Jamaican people than a well-thought-out economic programme that will attract increased investment in production, expand economic output, and create greater opportunity for sustainable jobs. If these are the things the Government wants to achieve, the prime minister must understand that they cannot be realised without economic reforms that will initially cause pain to many.
The circumstances now require her to fully invest the political capital represented by the people's belief in her. She must leverage the people's unmatched trust in her and win the public's support for her Government to lead the country to economic recovery. To do this, she has three critical responsibilities.
The first is to ensure that the proposed reforms can, in fact, achieve the desired economic outcomes. Finance Minister Peter Phillips must present her with a clear contrast between what the people's economic future is likely to be under the proposed reforms and what they will certainly be without them. The reform programme must be evidently capable of achieving a decisive turn in economic direction within a reasonably short period. It must be comprehensive and self-sustaining.
An arrangement that merely imposes austerity to satisfy the IMF imperative of servicing foreign debt cannot be satisfactory and must be resisted at all cost because it can only impoverish, not improve, our economy.
The country's economic health and vibrancy is the only determinant of the possibility of our people having a good life. But our economic condition has been dire and is fading fast. The days of living on borrowed money are over, and we are now drowning in a sea of debt. Crime-based finance schemes, including the notorious lottery scam, which have buttressed our consumption-focused economy for years, have all but dried up. The cost of our bloated and obstructive bureaucracy is sapping our productive substance while the existing regime of incoherent economic policies limits prospects for production to increase and is denying our people economic opportunity.
no economic growth
Unless our tax code is reformed to attract capital, there will be no economic growth; nor can sustainable jobs be created. Without monetary, fiscal and trade policies that will reduce the attractiveness of imports and increase demand for domestic production, our people will not have the foundation on which to improve their economic well-being.
Mrs Simpson Miller's second critical responsibility is to introduce ameliorative measures for the poor that will enhance, and not inhibit, the effectiveness of the economic reforms. The health and growth of the overall economy are the only reliable bases on which to improve the lot of the poor, but specific measures must also be introduced to address poverty.
In my article, 'The price of poverty' (Sunday Gleaner, February 26, 2012), I suggested that we might learn from Brazil's Lula da Silva's policies that are successfully uplifting the economic conditions of the poor of his country in tandem with policies introduced to foster economic growth. Programmes that provide financial incentives for mothers to keep their children in school and guide health care, arrangements to give poor households access to credit, and programmes that provide employment to slum dwellers in modernising the infrastructure of their environment all contributed to an economic dynamism among people who were previously economically marginalised.
These programmes have already been tried, tested and proven, and I hope the Jamaican Government has by now begun planning to introduce similar initiatives in collaboration with the Brazilian government and international agencies that are prepared to support and assist with financing.
The third of the prime minister's critical responsibilities is to do what she is better suited for than any other politician in Jamaica today. She must secure buy-in from the average Jamaican. It is the raison dêtre of her premiership. It is her time to demonstrate the real core of her strength: her unequalled ability to motivate, inspire and lead the ordinary people. She must use this invaluable asset to assure those who believe in her that they can trust her to guide them through bitter medicine to economic health.
Portia must look to her legacy. Will she be remembered only as the first woman to hold the office of prime minister; the girl from Woodhall who rose to occupy the country's highest office? Or would she rather have the distinction of being the person who led the Jamaican people from economic hopelessness to a future of opportunity and prosperity?
Her choice will tell us most eloquently whether her political career was about Portia or about the people she is reputed to love.
If she chooses to promote the message of change, she will not be preaching to a hostile audience but to one willing to give her a receptive ear, one from which she has glowing adoration and one anxious to see her succeed.
If she were to seek the advice of my consoling Comrade, she would probably be told, "Yuh a di bes' one fi do it. Di people dem not only like yuh, dem trus' yuh."
George W. Bush once famously said, "I've earned political capital and I intend to spend it." Our prime minister's political capital is far too valuable to waste.
Claude Clarke is a businessman and former minister of commerce. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.