Daniel Thwaites, Contribuor
As I write, Mr Holness is in Parliament insisting on that the Government has breached some unknown rule by seeking judicial guidance about the Contractor General Act. Everyone else's mind is squarely on the IMF deal. Patrick Atkinson calls his attention to the separation of powers, but Holness doesn't relent. Eventually, the prime minister instructs him to mind his manners and not point at her.
In the midst of these IMF convulsions, the opposition leader's focus on the Contractor General Act is either simple-mindedness or deep strategy. I believe it's the latter, and so my admiration for the man is growing.
Permit me a flashback. I was in Parliament's gallery in 1999 when Omar Davies announced the gas tax. First, Parliament caught fire. Then within 24 hours, the country was ablaze. This has not happened with Mr Holness, who is instead roaring mightily over a mouse in the corner and not the elephant in the room. Some say it's political weakness. I say it's nationalist sentiment.
Apart from a few extreme voices that envision Jamaica essentially seceding from the world economy, it's understood that the IMF arrangement is inevitable. With debt at 140 per cent of GDP, we've run out of people to trick into lending us money.
Now while there's a part of me (and, I imagine, most people) that wants to chase those crazy International baldhead M-Fer's out of the town and set up a Rasta republic, another part doesn't want to ride donkeys to Westmoreland because there's no foreign exchange to buy petrol.
We all have our weaknesses that link us into the web of international commerce. I recall a conversation with a 'community leader':
"Young Twait! Guvament fi stop import everyting. Yute inna de ghetto nah werk!"
"I agree," I said, "but what about that bottle of Hennessy?"
"Nah, man! Dis cyaaan drunk mi! When mi done dis mi drink couple beer!"
My point about import substitution fell flat. So I like gasolene, he likes Hennessy, and we're off to the IMF! They have the loot; they set the rules. Rule number one is that we set up shop so we can pay them back.
Hopefully, this crisis may cause us to reconsider our profligacy, particularly that part of it where political kudos are lavished on those most willing to whip out the credit card and spend other people's money.
This is an aside, but remember way back in the day when the PNP were socialist spenders and the JLP said you had to have money before you spent it? What a long time ago! Nowadays, we have arrived at bipartisan agreement about one thing: freeness - across the spectrum of acceptable political beliefs!
The political class seems agreed to state-sponsored ('free') education from pre-K straight through high school (and even PhD, you'd think); state-sponsored ('free') universal health care throughout; and a state-sponsored ('free') social safety net from birth to earth. Not surprisingly, as mountains of evidence and any casual conversation will reveal, there's also near unanimity among the populace that someone else should pay the bills, and everyone (including yours truly) resents paying taxes.
In this context, if the year-old administration had been looking for a single symbolic issue to discredit itself, it could alight on few more fertile strategies than to purchase a fleet of new SUVs for incoming ministers. Never mind if the outgoing rascals carried the motor cars with them. Everyone, absolutely everyone, knew that Mr Holness' 'eucalyptus oil' was on the prescription pad, and it just tastes 'bitter-er' if administered by a man in a crisp suit, shiny shoes, and an expensive 4x4.
All the same, I am basically optimistic. Because it seems another bipartisan consensus is emerging: we've maxed out the credit card. Four characters are at the epicentre of deciding the economic future: Portia and Peter, former rivals, on one side, and Andrew and Audley, future rivals, on the other. The dynamic is fascinating.
Mr Shaw is emerging as the weakest head in the mix. It was he, after all, who put this IMF train on the tracks while assuring us it was the best source of low-interest-rate funds. And although he's now shocked at the IMF conditionalities, he must have been intimately familiar with them after numerous quarterly failures. If you fail a test enough times, you at least should have learned what the testers were asking for.
Holness, on the other hand, is surprising me. Prior to his elevation, he was, it seemed, a young minister reaping benefits from the very profligacy that created the mess. Anyone can administer the revamped 'free' education policy to applause. Then he surprised me by mounting a platform in front of supporters and explaining that "bitter medicine" and hard decisions were coming. Honestly, I was taken aback at the faux pas. The definition of a faux pas in politics, the world over, is telling unvarnished truth.
Opportunity to debate
Of course, there's been a little slash-and-burn since the NDX and tax-package announcements, but mostly, it's been about the timing, the opportunity to debate, and the raid on the NHT. These are legitimate concerns. Plus, as far as I'm concerned, that's bushing on the safe side of the fence and not likely to disturb the cultivated acreage when all is said and done. After all, Mr Holness has his own position to secure and constituency to appease, and in so far as he does this in a minimally destructive way, it's VW ad territory: "Respect, boss man."
Difficult decisions happen like this. Recently, I read how Democrat Lyndon Johnson developed Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen as a key ally as he struggled to get civil-rights bills passed. Johnson's skilful manoeuvring kept Dirksen on-board when it really counted. Johnson reminded Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat piloting the bills through the Senate, about Dirksen: "You have to let him have a piece of the action. He's got to look good all the time."
So when Mr Holness is raising ruckus about the Contractor General Act, we must assume it is craft. Give him some room for harmless poses, piques, pirouettes and glissades. He's entitled to a piece of the action. He's looking all right. And the streets aren't on fire.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of the Thwaites Law Firm in Jamaica, and Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York. Email feedback to email@example.com.