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EDITORIAL - Seeking fuller context from PJ

Published:Monday | December 22, 2014 | 12:00 AM

P.J. Patterson not only has a good brain, but is an astute politician who, as prime minister of Jamaica, spoke deliberately, weighing his words with seeming care. He was known to explain to people who complained about his style that it was better that way. It was more difficult for him to be taken out of context.

We would hardly believe that though in official retirement, Mr Patterson would have jettisoned this standard. For he remains, in Jamaica and elsewhere, an important figure whose statements carry weight.

It is against that background we are surprised by, and seek clarification of, recent remarks of the former People's National Party (PNP) leader about Jamaica's current relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the administration's meeting the Fund's quarterly economic performance targets, the sixth of which was confirmed by the IMF's executive board on Friday, unlocking a further US$68 million to the country.

Speaking at the opening of a sport complex in the southwestern town of Treasury Beach a week ago, Mr Patterson raised the issue of economic growth, or the lack thereof, in the context of the IMF agreement.

Acknowledging the constraints of the programme and the need for the Government to establish priorities, Mr Patterson said: "... Everybody has to understand, passing of the test is one thing, but getting growth and development must be the main objective."

"Without growth and development," Mr Patterson went on, "the economy is going to stagnate, and we are not going to provide the jobs which are necessary for the people to earn for themselves, rather than depend purely on social programmes which put the MP (member of parliament) under constant pressure."

Mr Patterson's logic, on the face of it, is unassailable. But there is more. In which event, Mr Patterson's remark seems like a populist call for government spending, which it can ill afford and is unlikely to have been the former PM's intent.

Should this have been an aberration caused by a slippage of memory, it may be useful to remind Mr Patterson of the reason why the Government has to run a primary surplus of 7.5 per cent of gross domestic product, thus sharply curtailing its ability to spend.

REMINDER

At the time that Jamaica was negotiating the agreement with the Fund 30 months ago, Jamaica's debt was nearly 150 per cent of GDP. The cost of borrowing was unaffordable, well over 50 per cent of the Government's budget went to service the debt, and few people were willing to lend to Jamaica. For more than four decades, annual economic growth averaged less than one per cent. It was an aberration when the Government balanced its budget.

Of course, we have come close to beginning to get things right. In the 1990s, when Mr Patterson was prime minister, Jamaica successfully completed an agreement with the Fund. But shortly after Mr Patterson publicly bid the IMF "goodbye, ta-ta, au revoir", the fiscal spigots opened, followed by the financial-sector crisis of the mid-1990s and the Government's assumption of bailout debt.

The fiscal and other reforms contemplated by the IMF are prerequisites for the investment, jobs and growth for which Mr Patterson longs. And there are signs the policies are beginning to bear fruit, begging fuller context in the speeches of influential people.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.