Tue | Dec 6, 2016

It looks like rain

Published:Friday | January 16, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Peter Espeut

It was Edward Seaga who famously said: "Elections don't set up like rain", referring to the propensity of opportunistic prime ministers in the Westminster system to call snap elections when the opposition might least expect it.

The People's National Party (PNP) seems to have painted itself into a corner. The government it forms is passing International Monetary Fund (IMF) Test after IMF Test, to the utter delight of their creditors, but the electorate is choking on the bitter medicine.

National opinion polls from two respected polling organisations show the PNP losing any election called around now by a landslide.

The presidents of the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have both visited in recent months to encourage the government to stay the course, to "lift their sagging arms" and "strengthen their feeble knees" in the face of the temptation to "run wid it".

Further austerity measures, designed to cut the spending power of the public (i.e. to increase poverty) will only make the government more unpopular. How do they spin themselves out of this one?

Lower oil prices

Global crude oil producers have decided to depart from their long-standing policy of restricting output to keep prices high. In June 2014, the price of the benchmark Brent crude was around $115 per barrel. as of January 5, 2015, it had fallen by more than half, to $52 per barrel.

Whatever reasons they may have for this strategy, it is having the effect of lowering prices at petrol pumps, lowering the price of electricity and lowering prices of anything with a high energy component. Things are about to get a little better, at least in the short term.

You don't have to be an opportunistic Westminster politician to see a window of electoral opportunity. Not knowing how low oil prices will go, and not knowing how long low prices will last, means that the opportunistic Westminster politician must act quickly.

To take full advantage of this political windfall, the government must be seen to be intervening on the people's behalf. Since politics is 90 per cent perception, the politicians must take to the streets and loudly appear to be trying to ease the economic burden on the suffering public. And so the energy minister must loudly encourage the Petrojam oil refinery to pass on the low prices to the public and the oil companies must be stridently persuaded to pass on the lower ex-refinery prices to motorists.

Not only must the light and power company reduce the price of energy to reflect lower crude oil prices, but there must be a show of requiring it to lower its expectation of profit. The requirement can be reversed on appeal, after the election.

Elements in the private sector close to the government must be persuaded to reduce their prices. It is only a temporary measure, they can raise them again after the election.

Over the last three years, public-sector workers who had agreed to a wage freeze, found themselves suffering under a raft of price increases. What they agreed to (couldn't they have foreseen it?) was a substantial lowering of their standard of living. It was politicians who contracted the unsustainable debt, but public-sector workers were called on to pay the consequences.

Insufficient increases

As the time for the triennial round of horse-trading approaches, the civil service is in a militant mood. Winning elections is all about managing expectations. The government will loudly proclaim that there will be no further wage freeze, but, because of IMF conditionalities, public-sector workers must somehow be persuaded to accept wage increases lower than the inflation rate and lower than the rate of devaluation of the Jamaican dollar. That is not going to win the PNP any elections.

Therefore, it is important that the government make the right sounds about how the wage increases will go, but that elections be called before the next round of wage negotiations are complete. I am sure the unions will cooperate.

The public-sector unions (if not the workers themselves) are known to be sympathetic to the governing party. They have taken some strange positions recently - like supporting flexi-week legislation, which means less wages for workers, and a lower wage bill for management. It will not be the first time the unions have sold out the workers.

It looks like it is setting up for rain. But then, weather forecasting is not an exact science.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.