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POLITICS OF OUR TIME - Bunglin government

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Robert Buddan

Electing a government is one thing. Having a government that understands the process of governance; adheres to the proper rules of that process; appreciates the capacity of government and the limits to that capacity; knows the scope of power and its proper constitutional exercise; properly calculates the trade-offs between national and political objectives; engages in credible planning and analyses; practices trust and openness with the people; demonstrates consistency and clarity in thinking and communication; and shows fairness and honesty, is quite another thing.

If government does not know how to govern, we will have bungling. Bungling government is bad in good times. It is very bad in bad times. It is costly to the economy. It creates confusion and anxiety. It fails people's trust and confidence. It invites unrest. It reacts late or does not react at all and, in either case, misses opportunity. It simply does not appear to know what it is doing.

A society and economy need a predictable environment within which to function. The management of policy, the rules of conduct, and the signals of government must be clear, consistent, fair, effective and credible if that environment is to be achieved. This is what it means to have a sound business environment, a society of law and order, government by social contract and constitutional government. It is never easy to achieve but always desirable, especially in times of deep crisis.

Bungling government, by whatever name (inept, inexperienced, unwise, naïve, amateurish and incompetent), means lacking the necessary skills for effective government. Bungling government gives the very idea of government a bad name. Conservatives seize on government ineptitude to argue that less government is best government. Placed in the wrong hands, government can come across as oppressive, wicked, insensitive, destructive and dangerous. The more it tries to do, the worse it makes things.

Crisis environment

The present Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government has failed to recognise and consistently acknowledge our crisis environment. Neither did it properly understudy and prepare itself for government. It failed to make realistic promises as to what it could do and what should be done. It placed the wrong people in charge of many ministries and removed or reassigned too many experienced public-sector managers for the wrong reasons. It has not made the consistent plans that would have resulted in a predictable environment. It has wasted its inheritance and blames its predecessors for its poverty.

Already, less than halfway through its first term, there is talk of succession, not just of the minister of finance, but indirectly and ultimately of the party leader. Andrew Holness and Christopher Tufton are being spoken of more openly as immediate options for the one and, ultimately, for the other. Probably the jockeying in the party has already begun and the powerbrokers are preparing for the horse-trading.

Get management right

Whoever the people are in government - JLP or People's National Party (PNP) - they need to get the management of the process of government right. Take the economic management of the country. We have had four missed deadlines for an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), six different tax packages, three ministers in the ministry of finance and a de facto minister of finance, two Bank of Jamaica governors, three financial secretaries, and four lead negotiators with the IMF. Yet, we still don't have a Government of Jamaica letter of intent, a medium-term economic plan, an IMF agreement, a credible Budget, and there are more taxes and another Budget to come in three months' time. All the economic indicators have badly deteriorated and we have moved from crisis to deeper crisis.

Karl Samuda, rather incredibly, claimed that the recent tax package had been "well thought through". None of the tax packages were. They all missed their targets. The last one was called back within 72 hours and recalibrated within days. The Opposition questions the very legality of the taxes, saying they did not follow required procedure. Its spokesman on energy pointed out that the new electricity taxes could not be collected before March and the Jamaica Public Service has confirmed this. Its spokesman on finance said the taxes can't all be collected and Government has printed $23 billion in the last two months to pay its expenses because it can't get loans from the market.


The problem is not merely that of a fumbling government. A Gleaner editorial (January 2) spoke of "fumbling over policy in recent months". It repeated its call for Audley Shaw's removal as minister of finance. The truth is that the problem goes deeper than Shaw's competence. As the editorial itself says, the Government must bring "clarity to the new tax measures", "coherently make the Government's case" for or against the opposition's proposals, "deliver a credible plan" to cut expenditure, "reform the civil service to enhance efficiency", "unveil a workable debt-management strategy", outline measures to "drive economic growth"; "outline a programme for the critical engagement of civil society", concentrate less on interference and more on policy saying that "the civil service must be allowed to get on with [its] job of management".

This is asking a lot more than we can get just by removing Shaw. Much of it implicates Golding himself. I have said before that we need a government structured to manage crisis. It must be a government structured to mobilise people and production. It must mobilise for economic development, safety and justice, human resources, supportive international alliances and it must do all these things in a participatory, accountable and responsible way.

After we have removed Shaw, what about crime and murder? What do we do about our worsening corruption ranking? Who turns our poverty and inequality around? How do we get people to pay their taxes?

The problem is not merely that of fumbling government. It is non-transformative, bungling government. Indeed, The Gleaner editorial of January 3 corrected its editorial of the previous day, saying the problem was not merely a fumbling government after all, but a bungling one. The JPS tax foul-up was typical, it said, of "a consistent bungling on tax and fiscal policy during the current fiscal year" and the latest tax package, which lacked consultation was "another round of bungling". Fumbling is clumsiness. Bungling is incompetence and failure. Our system of government is structured for failure - worse when it is managed incompetently.

Opposition's job

One of the values of the Opposition in any country is to show what government is doing wrong; how it is undermining the quality of life of the people; how it is eroding the structures of production, social stability, and democracy; and what it would do instead. That opposition should also give confidence in its own preparedness or readiness for government.

In last Sunday's Gleaner, A.J. Nicholson, opposition senator and spokesman, echoed Omar Davies on what the PNP's alternative would entail. It would entail consultation, burden sharing, rebuilding technical capability, international support and a plan to realise the 2030 national objectives. Nicholson's party recognises our crisis environment. He repeatedly spoke of "deep crisis".

At least Dr Davies maintained a credible technical team, the PNP did build a supportive international alliance, practised consultation under memoranda of understanding, and its poverty reduction programme did share the burden of its policies. Where there is a will, there is a way. In democracy, the will resides in the people and the way resides in government. We need to bring the two together.

Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona campus. Email: Robert.Buddan@uwimona.edu.jm or columns@gleanerjm.com.