Sat | Dec 15, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Politics, Economics and Jamaica’s Independence

Published:Sunday | August 5, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (left) chats with (from second left) Dr Andrew Wheatley, former Cabinet minister; PCJ chairman Russell Hadeed; Floyd Grindley, former general manager, and Dr Perceval Bahado-Singh, former chairman of Petrojam Limited.

Tomorrow, Jamaica celebrates its independence. It is 56 years since the country took full charge of its own affairs. One would have thought that by this, we would have got better at leading and managing, but we haven't.

One would have also thought that the prime minister, young, personable, engaging, bright, and exceptionally articulate when analysing and advancing issues, would have been able to take the tough decision necessary to break the logjam between tribalism and competence, between loyalty and merit, between permissiveness and integrity, but we are still where we were decades ago.

What is interesting is the prime minister's ability to convey innocence, hurt, pain, and sympathy as he expresses his heartfelt concern and outrage over some of the difficult issues he is forced to grapple with. The public empathises and buys into what they perceive as his sense of really trying and wanting to do the right thing, but it is the phenomenon of personal rule, the politics of affection, and the overdevelopment of politics as against technology, finance and economic management, literally the same things the late Professor Carl Stone identified from the '60s and documented in his 1985 book, Democracy and Clientelism in Jamaica.

When the story first broke on Petrojam, the allegations were very serious, and as more damaging charges started coming to light, Prime Minister Andrew Holness underestimated the gravity of the situation and spoke about people's emotions getting the better of them. Instead of taking quick and decisive action, he insisted on a preliminary investigation of the allegations. Incidentally, that investigation was completed weeks ago, and the public, the parliament, has yet to see its findings.

How could the prime minister - as head of the government which is suppose to set the tone as regards transformational leadership; as head of a cabinet, which, as a collective, is suppose to emphasise a culture of excellence, thereby influencing good governance practices in the public sector, and even the private sector - make such an error in delaying action?

It is even more startling when one considers the following:

 

LARGEST CORPORATION

 

Petrojam is our largest corporation and as such should be in the forefront of sound economic, financial, and corporate governance practices. This way, even the slightest forewarning involving egregious behaviour and practices on the part of the chairman of the board, as well as resignations of senior professional staff, warranted immediate action.

When a chairman starts bypassing rules and protocol and getting refunds, that is serious because others in the organisation must have been complicit, and that is as bad as a fire starting in a crowded theatre - you don't wait, you act

Second, under our Westminster model, the cabinet, as the principal organ of policy, literally governs (that's why the phrase cabinet government) and this puts enormous oversight responsibility and final accountability on the portfolio minister. With current technology, appropriate systems in place, and the relevant chain of command, the minister has to know. It was clear that Dr Andrew Wheatley did not know, or did not want to disclose what he knew, so action had to be immediate.

Third, Dr Wheatley, based on the contractor general's findings, had already been embroiled in the debushing scandal.

Fourth, the number of firings and the degree of interconnectedness, which Dr Wheatley instituted in the various agencies under his control, should have been a no-no from the beginning as that would inevitably lead to secrecy, cover-up, and malfeasance.

The warning signs were there - as they have been in so many instances under both administrations - where nepotism, tribalism, and cronyism rear their ugly heads, but oftentimes, the party leading the government chooses to ignore them at their peril.

 

DEBTS EXCEEDED

 

The foregoing begs the question, why did the prime minister wait a month for Dr Wheatley to no longer be in the cabinet and why the prime minister could not have grasped the full implications of poor corporate governance in entities for which the minister had portfolio responsibility?

In Jamaica, at this stage of our Independence, where our overall debt exceeds our total production for the year, where growth for most of the last 40 years has been lacklustre, economic management designed to increase employment, income, and production has not been as action-driven as our penchant for talking.

Interestingly, during our 56 years since independence, our continued weak capability to effect sound corporate-governance practices, institute appropriate economic management policies, modernise our public sector bureaucracy, offset our huge infrastructural deficits, have occurred while we were expanding state-owned enterprises. Today, the government has nearly 200 state-run entities, which, as the finance minister, Dr Nigel Clarke, opines, "that means the government has to be responsible for nearly as many boards of directors," and this involves oversight, accountability, transparency, probity, and responsibility.

Having made passionate appeals to the electorate more than two years ago, to give him a chance to demonstrate good corporate governance, the prime minister couldn't get our biggest company, which is so critical to so many areas of the economy, to do the right thing, then as a society we have a problem. But this isn't just a case of the absence of best practices, which would have sharply improved asset-valuation. it was how bad things were from the top down.

While the parliamentary committee and the media houses have done a lot to keep the allegations alive, and the public can hope that MOCA (Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency) and the Auditor General will make right what is wrong, we should despair somewhat when we think of the promise of many of these state-run companies had there been an emphasis on proper capitalisation, asset management, human resource expertise, and good corporate governance.

Our knowledge resources remain underdeveloped because of migration or insufficient attention in our educational system in areas such as digital technology, finance, microeconomics, and corporate governance. With limited availability of high-level executive management and professional talent as well as highly skilled and specifically trained personnel, the accepted bias by both political parties to hire party loyalists means that they are drawing on an even smaller talent pool. So we persist with mediocrity and a culture of permissiveness choreographed by little big men and women awed by the exercise of their new-found power.

Since Independence, garrisons and the institutionalisation of tribal politics, which influences much of the hiring practices in the public sector, especially in state-run enterprises, have been our worst nightmare. Until there is a cultural shift and a leader strong enough to institute systems with an emphasis on integrity, competence, and fairness, which will be adopted, Independence is a political reality, but an economic disappointment.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com