Ian Boyne: Andrew’s master-class speech
"There is no majority for arrogance.
There is no space for selfishness.
There is no place for pettiness.
There is no room for complacency and
there is no margin for error."
With an eloquence and rhetorical flourish that many believed he never had, Andrew Michael Holness delivered a memorable and delectable inaugural address as prime minister on Thursday evening, with the signature lines quoted above. If you are cynical, you will say they are just words and we must be weary of them. Mouth mek fi seh anything. But saying the right words at the right time can be supremely important, and at the inauguration of our first one-seat majority prime minister, it was important that the right words were chosen. They were.
"We have not won a prize. Instead, the people are giving us a test." Not the International Monetary Fund (IMF); the people. And there was a palpable sense throughout the speech that Andrew Holness knew that he was on the thin ice of history, with the weight of cynicism, mistrust, disillusionment and alienation on his shoulders; making it so easy to skid. There was this sense, too, that he was seized with the urgency of the now, the summoning of history and the necessity of his surrender to the cause.
Breaking this cycle of hopelessness and mistrust cannot be a mere dream for Andrew Holness. He must make it reality. This was a speech that gave me much delight as a political progressive. In it, the new prime minister talked of "inclusive economic growth" and "meaningful job creation", and explicitly rejected the neo-liberal, minimalist of notion of the State. He said Government's role was not just to ensure the rule of law and provide security and a good macroeconomic environment, but to "make markets where none exists". That's significant. He could have said Government would only step in to deal with "market failure". No, he recognised that there is a role for the State to create market opportunities, a point brilliantly argued by former Clinton Labour Secretary Robert Reich in his recent (2015) book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, not the Few.
COMMITTED TO NO-FEES POLICIES
Holness reiterated his commitment to the much-criticised no-user-fee policy in health, as well as the no-tuition-fee policy for second schooling. The People's National Party that used to champion these kinds of causes has now been hesitant to defend them, hobbled by neo-liberal IMF prescriptions. I accept that the State cannot be fiscally irresponsible and commit to things that are unfundable, but I remind, as Ronnie Thwaites used to, that the Budget is a theological document: It reflects a government's priorities. It is not value-neutral. And there is a way in which a government needs to say these are the minimum things we need to do for our people and money must be found to do these basic things.
There is no class-neutral policy, contrary to the myth of neo-liberal ideology, which masks itself as non-ideological. But where Holness really caught my attention was when he spoke to the necessity of building social capital and inculcating enabling values and attitudes.
We have tended to talk up the importance of economic, political and constitutional reform, but have marginalised issues of values and attitudes and culture, broadly defined. I have always stressed that no matter our economic and political reforms and irrespective of how much we change our constitutional arrangements, if our ethical infrastructure and ways of relating to one another don't change, sustainable economic growth will elude us.
Our social capital deficits act as major binding constraints on our development. Andrew Holness addressed that frontally on Thursday. "We have to be more active in promoting civic responsibility, volunteerism and giving back, particularly among our youth." He is a social-media enthusiast, so he knows. Hear him again: "We must teach our children that there is no wealth without work, no success without sacrifice. We must remove the belief from the psyche of our children that the only way they can step up in life is not by how hard they work but by who they know." Andrew is going after the jugular of the culture - the get-rich-quick, bling culture; the culture of 'bly' and dependency, instead of meritocracy.
He showed courage in that speech, too: "Couples must be responsible in having the children they can afford." We need leaders to talk on these social issues. They impinge on economic growth. Study the Far East and its economic miracles. They were not unrelated to the values of its Confucian culture of family responsibility, cooperation, trust, thrift, nationalism. The prime minister made it clear on Thursday that partnership is not paternalism. His was one of the most important speeches ever delivered by a political leader here. It was not lengthy, but it was most comprehensive and thorough. "We will enhance our social safety net for vulnerable families and will provide support for parents in crisis, but you must be responsible and send your children to school. Our men must take care of their children ... ."
If you think those are just nice platitudes, you don't understand economic history. The father of capitalist thought, Adam Smith - who was a philosopher - not only wrote The Wealth of Nations but The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he talks about the importance of moral foundations.
Andrew Holness last Thursday displayed a cosmopolitanism in thought and reflection that was as refreshing as it was enthralling. It was a master-class speech, eagerly devoured by throngs of willing "students". Andrew Holness is espousing what is known as compassionate conservatism.
His economic policy is more Keynesian than neo-liberal. That $1.5-million tax-relief plan - whose fiscal prudence I can't yet vouch for - is Keynesian through and through. Ralston Hyman and I support Keynesianism. We have advocated giving a stimulus to the economy and adopting counter-cyclical policies. Holness' plan to put money in people's pockets so they can spend to stimulate the economy is not bad conceptually. It is a counter-cyclical measure that most countries have adopted to deal with recession and a stagnant economy.
But Ralston's point that it could feed our appetite for imports and create the unintended consequence of fuelling devaluation is not foolish and, in fact, was addressed subtly by Holness on Thursday. In an important part of his speech, he said, "Our Government will ease your tax burden, but you must spend and invest wisely ... ." He then encouraged people to buy a house and buy Jamaican-made goods. He knows Ralston is not speaking nonsense or just partisan propaganda when he said this tax plan, if our people's propensity to consume foreign things holds, could backfire. Hence his encouragement for us to spend wisely on local production, not foreign goods.
I like Holness' partnership concept. It can create a virtuous cycle. It can resuscitate community spirit and civic engagement. It can pull people out of apathy and away from learned helplessness, to use psychologist Martin Seligman's concept. If Holness succeeds in his mission, Jamaica could be a vastly different place. If we buy into his dream.
Cliff Hughes asked me on radio on Thursday evening how I explain this metamorphosis of Andrew Holness. I said it was not really a metamorphosis. It is just that many people, including media, had misunderstood and mischaracterised him. They listened to his detractors.
In March 2012, one of my favourite columnists, Mark Wignall, said of Holness: "It seems to me that Andrew Holness ... is not sufficiently charged with the mental fortitude to weather the present storm clouds in the JLP. I do not expect him to survive much beyond beyond the beginning of 2013 ... ." No wonder Holness likes Nesbeth's song My Dream so much! Go listen!
In my column of February 1, last year, I wrote: "I don't share Mr Holness' critics' negative assessment of him. I reject the view, for example, that he is vindictive, petty and insecure." I said: "There is this perception, this narrative, that Andrew Holness is just not ready, that he is not appealing, that he does not have the wow factor, that he is too weak. People just don't seem to believe in or feel him. I don't share their view." Look at me now, as Nesbeth says in that song.
Holness brought together a team of rivals in his party and pulled off a victory over a super-confident and stunned PNP. We must now hold his feet to the fire and force him to walk the talk. We must give him no honeymoon. And we in media and civil society must keep this speech and ensure there is no gap between rhetoric and action. He must not allow the people's dream to become a nightmare.
- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.