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Martin Henry: Election watch - saving Jamaica

Published:Thursday | November 19, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor

Today should have been the public session of the annual conference of the JLP. In an unprecedented move, the party has cancelled the conference to be out in the field campaigning to 'save' Jamaica. Some have suggested that the cancellation is more about saving money on a weak funding base. We have heard from the PNP in government rejecting the recommendation of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica for state financing of political campaigns on the grounds of its lack of popular support. It would be useful to hear from the JLP, now the Opposition.

An increasing number of voting-age Jamaicans are of the view that what Jamaica most needs is salvation from its politics and its political parties. They have simply withdrawn from endorsing either party.

South West St Ann, created in 1959 and a traditional JLP stronghold during the long Gallimore years, but now held by the PNP's Keith Walford, must be of special significance to the party to be won back in its 'save Jamaica' campaign. How else does one explain the party staging a mass rally with national reach in the backwoods of Alexandria where even the little hospital there had long been downgraded by Seaga's JLP government of the 1980s?

The Gleaner-Bill Johnson polls of September (a little dated now in the accelerated tempo of election season) showed the parties in a dead heat, with 27 per cent of voters saying they would vote for the PNP and 26 per cent, the JLP. The really significant numbers, though, are the undecided (30 per cent) and those who refused an answer (16 per cent), who with those who would not vote add up to nearly a half of the electorate. Relatively small numbers of those fence riders could determine the outcome of the 17th general election.

JLP propaganda would have us believe that the prime minister is delaying the calling of the election under the pretext of waiting for a word from the Lord, but really because the PNP's own internal poll is indicating loss of public support for the party which could translate into electoral defeat. Propaganda doesn't have to be false; it just has to serve the propagator's interests.

The party president told her party crowd in Portmore last Sunday, "I hear everybody guessing whether I'm going to call election or not. You will be appropriately informed when my Master touches me and say, 'My daughter, go.'" This is truly enchanting prophecy in its vague double meaning. It would make the Delphic Oracle and the New Year prophets who appear in this newspaper proud. Go? Does that mean, Call the election now? Or, back your bags and go?

Out in the remote bushes of Alexandria, the JLP leader laid out his priorities to 'save' Jamaica last Sunday as firm commitments, he said, to the three pillars of education, health and security. We await the parties' manifestos for what they are worth.

Holness has committed that a JLP government will remove contributions by students at the secondary level, so that no child will be unable to afford school. The former minister of education is forgetting that it is already the case that no child can be barred from school because of an inability to pay any fee required. He is also seeking to forget that the removal of user fees from Government health services has been credibly implicated in the further decline of the quality of service the public receives.

A JLP government is going to shift J$1.4 billion into education to offset the removal of fees. From where? And with what projected return on investment? The biggest obstacle to fully making use of education opportunities now is not in the weakness of state support for the sector, which takes the biggest slice of the budget after debt, but in the incapacity of parents on a weak income base or with no jobs at all to find the money for transportation, lunch money, uniforms, learning resources, and the other supporting costs.

What the people need are jobs, jobs, jobs. The PNP finance minister and campaign manager, Dr Peter Phillips, is promising 100,000 of them in the five years after the election if the PNP is returned to power. In-between bouts of 'kin teet' and tears, a little primary-school division shows that this is only 20,000 jobs per year against a 14 per cent unemployment rate, a rate which is horrendously higher among youth with some 50,000 of them exiting secondary education each year.

Even the IMF resident rep in Jamaica is singing the jobs song, having been insisting upon public-sector job cuts to balance the books to IMF specs. In his guest column in this newspaper on Wednesday last, Bert van Selm was lecturing us that "higher growth and more and better jobs are needed in order for Jamaicans to see the dividends from the Government's reform efforts in their day to day lives".

Whoever wins the election will have to continue dealing with the IMF. The combative relationship of the JLP shadow spokesman on finance, Audley Shaw, with the Fund raises some issues, not all of which are negative. Former JLP leader Edward Seaga claims to have faced down the IMF in the interest of the Jamaican people when he was prime minister and minister of finance.

In any case, Shaw's concern about the timing of the IMF relaxation of conditions in favour of Government spending with an election impending is not without credibility. Is the IMF lending its international poster child government a friendly helping hand to remain in office?

I hope van Selm, Phillips and Holness have read this news story buried in The Gleaner last Tuesday, 'High unemployment rates increase dramatically among UWI graduates'. And this is across the region. "The most recent graduate tracer study ... reveals that there has been a steady decline in employment rates across CARICOM countries since 2009, particularly in Jamaica and Barbados," the story said.

And that's not the end of the bad news. Students who earned degrees in agriculture, and science and technology, supposedly key economic drivers, joined those in the humanities and social sciences in below-the-average employment rates.

It is going to take a lot to 'save' Jamaica, part of which has to be cross-party collaboration on the big salvation issues. Christopher Tufton, heading to roll call in West Central St Catherine, is right in sounding the trumpet for our politics to 'grow up'.

"Political parties have not been willing to identify areas of common national interests and accept, where necessary, that they are willing to build on those gains that have been made as a country, irrespective of whether or not it was the individuals or party that was responsible for those gains. If we did, it would give Jamaica a sense that it's not just about partisan politics but about what's in the best interest of the country", he told supporters of his own party at a constituency meeting.

His party on the campaign trail and back in Parliament could take his advice and do less talking down of the substantial gains in fiscal management and reform which the Government has delivered under very tight circumstances.

Counter to the ill-advised commitment to removing education cost sharing, Mr Holness is on to something more prudent with his focus on security and justice among his triad of priorities. I have long argued that any Government planning to 'save' Jamaica must focus on the fundamental universal responsibility of all governments for the protection of life and property, for law and order, and for justice as its top priority. Everything else can flourish in a safe and orderly society, much by the people's own effort.