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Portia's speech, but no pound of flesh

Published:Sunday | January 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Orville Taylor, Contributor

"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest ... ."

You might not have recognised it, but that is the beginning of Portia's speech. Of course, it is the original Portia from the Shakespearean drama, The Merchant of Venice. In that play, a Jewish moneylender had loaned funds to a merchant, with the distinct condition that if there was forfeiture in payment, he would pay him a pound of flesh.

The heroine, Portia, successfully dressing and passing for a man, took the place of a judge and administered justice when Shylock, the Jew, literally was demanding his chunk of meat because the debt wasn't settled on time. Because the Jew had not shown mercy when he could have, even though the merchant had failed and the debt was still owed, he ended up losing all.

Over the past two weeks, we evaluated the Government, and unapologetically, I, along with others, gave it a failing grade for the first-year performance. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller herself got an FA, which is the grade a student receives if he or she does not present himself or herself for an examination or fails to turn in coursework at the required time. The first paper was set in 2012, and she had several opportunities to submit it for grading, but didn't.

Last Sunday's address to the nation was the most recent in historic or fabled speeches by a Portia. In truth, it is difficult to give a passing grade to a candidate who turned in the paper late. For me, that was the major problem with the address. To a country that had had stakeholders, academics, and detractors lamenting her lack of visibility over the past year, the speech came a little too late.

Nonetheless, unlike the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which is still in election mode, there is no need here to seek the pound of flesh. True, the speech was ordinary. But we all know that the prime minister is at her best when doing demagoguery and firing up supporters. Charisma does not have much place in addressing issues of a deeply technical nature such as the state of the economy. The question is, did she tell us anything?


Doubtless, the biggest failing and disappointment has been the lack of clarity regarding the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Saying, "We are committed to pursuing sound macroeconomic policies, not as a condition imposed by the International Monetary Fund, but as the only way out of our economic underdevelopment. We know that economic growth requires economic discipline, and we are prepared to exercise that discipline in the interest of our people ... ," is good rhetoric, but left us knowing nothing.

Naught was directly said as to the overall macroeconomic philosophy or the direction the Government is going to take and what the concrete deliverables are. After all, how can the prime minister simply shrug off the fall in an important variable such as the net international reserves (NIR), with a corny play on words about the reserve of the people: "The net international reserves also dipped, but not our reserve of courage, determination and resilience in the face of the international economic environment and domestic challenges."

If this were an essay in my developmental studies class, the student would be asked to rewrite, because one needs to know why the NIR declined and how it is going to be replenished. However, if it were creative writing, she would get an A.


In contrast, Bruce Golding, in December 2008, did address the nation, albeit a year and three months after his ascendancy. In any event, Golding had been more visible, spoke to the nation more often, and despite having an aura of bravado was never seen as missing in action.

Nonetheless, in that address, he showed an awareness of the task at hand. Speaking of the economy, he listed and discussed: oil prices, the Wall Street crash, Bank of Jamaica, foreign exchange availability and capital markets, all before highlighting re-engagement with multilateral institutions:

"From before the last elections, we signalled our intention to re-engage with the multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IDB. They offer cheaper money for longer terms. Even before we became government, Audley Shaw and I went to Washington and outlined to them our economic strategy. Since the elections, these discussions intensified, and they are now fully back on board.

"As Minister Shaw told you in a broadcast on November 23, since April we have secured US$350 million from these multilateral agencies. For the rest of this fiscal year, we will secure a further US$600 million."

It might have been fluff, but Golding did directly speak to the state of negotiations with the global economic powers. One should know that the blessing of the IMF and World Bank is essentially the same thing, because both were established under the same Bretton Woods Agreement and the approval or disapproval of one is always endorsed by the other.


It is a year since we heard that another agreement with the IMF was imminent, and justifiably the nation deserved to hear more. Yet, it might perhaps be unfair to ask her to say anything concrete about the negotiations or the impending agreement because there is nothing definitive to speak of. If that is the case, somebody is being disingenuous.

Nevertheless, there are elements in her speech that were prime ministerial, because she spoke about the various sectors and she did so with a straight face and no dramatics. The Hurricane Sandy recovery effort, and sugar workers' housing were outlined. Then a total of J$2.2 billion spent on road rehabilitation and special projects, including river training, repairing bridges and cleaning gullies. She reiterated the data on national security, touched briefly on labour, and gave good news on tourism.

Pinpointing the developments in education, she certainly did show an understanding of what Ronnie Thwaites was about. Much energy was spent on JEEP - the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (and can we stop saying programme after the acronym)? Yet we still do not know how the employment will be sustained.

Still, Portia cannot be faulted in her charge to the nation: "My fellow Jamaicans, this is a time for us to unite and build." And, despite the hackneyed religious biblical appeals, she handed to her opponents an invitation which only the diehard Portiaphobes can reject: "We must build on the efforts of those who went before. We must build on the institutions that exist so they can better work for us." That was a well-placed line, because hidden in that comment is the implicit acceptance that the JLP did do something that the present Government is using.

As in The Merchant of Venice, there is no flesh here to extract. True, the Government has a failing grade from Semester I. However, it has another few years to recover. Let's see what happens next year.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to and