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Aubyn Hill | The economics of the elections

Published:Thursday | October 22, 2015 | 12:00 AMAubyn Hill
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.

Some thought that by now, we would have been finished with the general election.

Many who contend that they are in the know are of the firm opinion that if Finance Minister Peter Phillips had his way, the voters would have gone to the polls already - on the old voters' list.

Well, clearly, he has not had his way - even though he was appointed campaign manager for the People's National Party (PNP) for the next general election. He was not even allowed to speak at the public session of the recent PNP annual conference.

There appears to be a tug of war in the leadership of the PNP over when to call the next election. Peter Phillips and his supporters in the party, and in the private sector, would like to see the election called much sooner - already, if they could make the call - rather than later.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, the only person who can make the call, is weighing carefully the timing of the general election.

No doubt she has a number of pressing issues to consider. Despite the breezy rhetoric on the economy that she releases in her prepared speeches, she knows from her political operatives on the ground that Jamaicans have been facing extreme hardships since she came to power in December 2011. This is in spite of the many promises - now very broken promises - she made in order to win the last election.

So the no-growth economy, over which her popular-in-some-quarters finance minister has presided over, has put the prime minister in a popularity and election bind.

And there she was, very reluctantly at first, praising Peter Phillips for passing International Monetary Fund tests, while refusing to heed the advice that austerity and debt consolidation would only produce hardship and economic stagnation or contraction.

No-growth finance minister

Simpson Miller was apparently obliged to listen to wrong advice, to date, that was being served to her by her resolute and wrong-on-the-growth-issue finance minister. She and he listened to his advisers, and some of his appointed and prominent Economic Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC) members, who repeatedly claimed that Dr Phillips' austerity programme and his ever more aggressive taxation policies and legislation would lead Jamaicans to growth nirvana. Growth hasn't happened.

Many, if not most Jamaicans, feel poorer now than when they voted in December 2011 for 'oxtail instead of chicken back' - or for that matter, fish back, which has taken an even lower station in the staple diet of many than the lowly chicken back, and certainly instead of the promised oxtail!

These economic matters - I mean the chicken and fish back staples and poverty and no-cash among so many Jamaicans, not the macroeconomic numbers in which Dr Philips deals these days - are weighing heavily on the head of the prime minister that wears the proverbial crown. She and her handlers cannot be all that happy with Dr Phillips at this time.

Peter Phillips wants the election called so that he can deliver the very bitter and possibly poisonous economic medicine soon, maybe in the form of more destructive taxes and cutting civil servants' jobs. He badly needs the election before the next budget date in March next year.

The PNP's campaign manager and Jamaica's finance minister is not giving in easily. If you have any doubt, get the Observer newspaper of October 16, 2015, and look at the front page. Under the very bold headline 'Call it' are the pictures of a passionate, almost stern, Richard Byles across the page from a composed if unsmiling Prime Minister Simpson Miller, The sub-headline reads: 'Byles tells Gov't (that has to be the prime minister since she is the only one with the legal authority to make the call, and all know that Byles speaks to the minister of finance regularly) to take country out of limbo'.

Hesitant PM?

EPOC's co-chair Byles is quoted on the front page: "If it is coming, then it should just happen and be done with. The last thing Jamaica needs at this point is a stop-and-start process, first yes, and then no, prolonging the period of political uncertainty".

It is obvious that many believe, like the Observer portrayed, that Richard Byles was telling the prime minister to get on with it.

On economics and finance, it has often appeared that Richard Byles speaks for Minister Phillips. With such an in-your-face call, Mr Byles has merged finance, economics and politics in one no-nonsense front-page headline.

Notwithstanding the EPOC co-chair's very public push on the prime minister's prerogative, she has other than economics and finance to assess as she decides on the election date. She has to consider that time is needed for healing in Minister Lisa Hanna's constituency; so, too, in members of parliament Raymond Pryce, Lloyd B. Smith, Damion Crawford, Dr Bloomfield, Attorney General Atkinson and Hugh Buchanan's constituencies.

That's a long list of disturbances in, believe it or not!, PNP constituencies. There is a whole bunch of very upset PNP supporters for her to contend with. Some blame her personally for the mess. Mr Byles may be exquisitely protected from these political and many of the microeconomic realities that the prime minister must face in making the call.

After all those challenges, Prime Minister Simpson Miller has to deal with the very lonely issue that she has lost the vast majority of her personal popularity among Jamaicans. That popularity, after all, was the major asset she brought to the party - double entendre intended.

All that while the polls say many more Jamaicans want Andrew Holness to be prime minister than want her. She has a tough call on her hands.


Aubyn Hill is CEO of Corporate Strategies Ltd and chairman of the Economic Advisory Council of the leader of the opposition.

Twitter: @hillaubyn