Editorial | Tinkering in the Cabinet
Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ latest effort at refreshing his administration was, for the most part, underwhelming.
That, however, does not mean that the people who have been slotted into new portfolios cannot do transformative things. We refer especially to Pearnel Charles Jr, the new minister of labour and social security; Floyd Green, who gets a new stint in agriculture, this time as a full minister; and Dana Morris Dixon, whose first foray in government is a minister without portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister, with responsibility for skills and digital transformation.
Mr Holness had long telegraphed his intention to shuffle the Cabinet. It came in the midst of the backlash against his administration’s decision – which was broadly supported by this newspaper – to award large pay increases to parliamentarians. Much, therefore, rides on these changes. Good performance by ministers could give the Government a chance at clawing back people’s trust.
Fundamentally, though, part of what Mr Holness did merely filled vacuums, ensuring that there will be more than narcoleptic whimpers and involuntary, muscle-memory roars from segments of his administration.
So, Audley Shaw, the mining and transport minister, and Karl Samuda, most recently remembered for harrumphing because security guards demonstrated at his office, are heading to the backbenches. It would have made sense if they were accompanied by Mr Shaw’s deputy and perennial second man, the twice-disgraced J.C. Hutchinson. He is now assigned to the Ministry of Science, Energy, Telecommunications and Transport, headed by Daryl Vaz. The transport bit is new. Telecommunications was always in Mr Vaz’s portfolio, falling within the technology segment of the ministry’s old name.
It is not clear if any portion of technology is left with Mr Vaz, or if it has all gone to Ms Morris Dixon, whose oversight of digital transformation is a crucial posting. Indeed, Mr Holness said that her assignment includes completing the implementation of the National Identification System (NIDS), which will provide, on a voluntary basis, a unique identification number to all Jamaicans. If it works, a NIDS ID will be critical for doing business in Jamaica. Importantly, the system will support the digitalisation of the island’s economy, thereby enhancing efficiency, which should encourage investment and growth.
But much of what Ms Morris Dixon might achieve will depend on one of the projects for which Mr Vaz had oversight: completing a national broadband roll-out by 2025-2026. It would, on the face of it, make sense that Ms Morris Dixon – especially given her background of project management/policy implementation – also had responsibility for the broadband project and similar programmes.
Regarding her oversight of skills development, Mr Holness stressed her mandate to work with the HEART/NSTA Trust, the agency that focuses on vocational education and training. That should be expanded to working with the University of Technology (UTech) and its new chancellor, Lloyd Carney, to reverse UTech’s drift towards the social sciences and return to being a specialised polytechnic university, and ultimately an elite institution that combines practical technological and technical training with in-depth research and innovation.
Mr Charles – having been bounced about the Government like an Indian rubber ball – should, in his new job at the labour ministry, work closely with Ms Morris Dixon. But he must first perceive the ministry not primarily as a labour dispute resolution agency, but as a key economic agency, critical to the advancement of labour market policies for a 21st-century economy – one driven by digital technology and artificial intelligence, rather than built on low wages to support, as Don Robotham put it, “low value-added, extractive raw materials and raw services activities”.
Future labour market
Mr Charles must therefore have a strong sense of where technology is headed and set his technocrats to work with a raft of government agencies, including the education ministry and the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), in determining future labour market needs and labour environment in which the new jobs can thrive.
Floyd Green, hopefully, has grown beyond his the-adults-are-away days of schoolboyish behaviour of raising toasts to having broken COVID-19 lockdown rules. With his shot at being the top man at agriculture, he should grab the opportunity to accelerate the modernisation of the sector, to enhance the island’s food security and deliver on Jamaica’s potential of slashing the island’s US$1.2-billion food import bill by up to a quarter.
With respect to the other segment of his portfolio, Mr Green should reimagine the mining sector, starting with frank conversations with all stakeholders in the bauxite/alumina industry – including its environmental critics – on the way forward. He must also urgently fashion a new pricing/royalty regime for bauxite, taking into account the value of any secondary metals – for example, rare earth elements – which may reside in the effluent from refining bauxite to alumina.
The biggest question from the shuffle hangs over the transport sector. Under Mr Shaw and his recent predecessors, it lacked the strategic direction that is required for an industry that is so critical to the functioning of the economy. Perhaps Mr Vaz will surprise Jamaicans with the evolution of public transportation.