Fri | Dec 14, 2018

Martin Henry | JLP in top gear

Published:Sunday | November 18, 2018 | 12:41 AMMartin Henry
Martin Henry
Party Leader Andrew Holness and JLP Chairman Robert Montague on the campaign trail. The JLP is hosting its annual conference this weekend on a high.
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Where are those pollsters when you need them most?

 The 75-year-old Jamaica Labour Party, now in Government, is holding its midterm annual conference today. And my political instincts tell me that the party is going into conference from a position of relative strength compared to their political opponent. Which is unusual for midterm. But some numbers would have been nice to have.

It is widely believed that the feel-good $1.5-million income tax threshold was a winning factor in the marginal victory of the JLP in the February 2016 general election. The party is heading into its midterm conference with the Government’s tactically astute nearly $1-billion works programme announced just the week before in Parliament by the prime minister and which just “so happens to coincide with Christmas”.

The works programme, which “will assist many Jamaicans, especially those who are on the margins of society and who probably would not have a chance of having any employment and receiving any funds at all for Christmas”, is appropriately dubbed the ‘Government Disaster Mitigation Works Programme’. It’s not a vote-buying, ‘bollo work’ public works programme, we are led to believe. It’s ‘disaster mitigation’.

And having learned from the scandalised bush-clearing programme linked to the last local government election, the JLP Government has inserted “a high level of accountability”. The very same Integrity Commission [the OCG at the time] that had been roughly repelled from monitoring the bush-clearing programme, which just happened to coincide with the local government election, has now been requested to provide assistance in verifying the work upon completion.

Reflecting the bipartisan-supported Constituency Development Fund, which takes state money away from independent public-service agencies and places it under the control of parliamentarians, every MP will be getting an equal pop. The PNP Opposition, which understands this political game very well, has had the grounds of complaint dug from under them. The parliamentary Opposition has welcomed the programme, only raising concerns that the funds allocated to each constituency were inadequate.

Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips said the works programme would help parliamentarians address “some portion of the tremendous demand for work across their constituencies”. But unemployment is trending down, hitting single digits under this administration, and now standing at a historically low 8.4 per cent. Never mind that the groundwork has been laid over the last many years and across administrations.

After initial spikes, crime is now down 20 per cent, although the gruesome murders, particularly of children, keep citizens immersed in fear. Ordinary citizens are more welcoming of the too-few zones of special operations and states of emergency than they are hostile to them.

While the PNP Opposition has properly raised human-rights concerns and the long-term standing of the operations as crime-fighting measures, these criticisms have simply not done any significant political damage. Nor, in my view, have the series of scandals and charges of mismanagement brought against the present Government. Again, numbers would help here.

The fact of the matter is that scandals don’t really bring down governments here. People, in the main, vote for their party and for their pockets and for promised benefits down at the personal level. And elections are won by the votes of the segment of the population that is the direct beneficiary of programmes like the Disaster Mitigation Works Programme sprung on the country last week just ahead of today’s JLP conference.

The Samuda Mombasa Grass scandal has failed to grow. The Local Government Bushing Programme scandal failed to cut. The Cornwall Regional Hospital sick building issue was medicated by a highly engaged and popular Minister of Health Dr Christopher Tufton. The Petrojam scandal burned Energy Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley out of office.

 But political observers can advise Wheatley to give that famous Patterson repartee, “I shall return.” Others on that side have survived their scandals with no real damage to the electability of their party – Karl Blythe and Operation PRIDE, Richard Azan and the Spaldings Market shops, Dr Fenton Ferguson and the dead preemies.

PRETTY GOOD JOB

Leader of the Opposition Dr Peter Phillips’ last stint in Government was as minister of finance. And he did a pretty good job consolidating that famous and slippery thing called ‘macroeconomic stability’, which has been on stream since the JLP’s Audley Shaw headed Finance 2007-2012. Back at Finance at the start of this administration, Shaw was booted in favour of the Oxford mathematician ,Dr Nigel Clarke, earlier this year in a Cabinet shuffle. The bold, strong-talking Robert Montague was shifted out of National Security by the prime minister purely for political appeasement.

 Timing matters a great deal for greatness. Dr Clarke will have a hard time to distinguish himself as a Minister of Finance. The heavy lifting for achieving macro-economic stability is basically over, and Finance is in tweak and maintain mode.

Every single macroeconomic index for which Phillips laboured at Finance is now either stable or improved. The exchange rate has bounced around a bit but within a fairly narrow range, despite the media excitement over slippage. The NIR is holding firm. The country, after passing 13 consecutive quarterly IMF tests, terminated a borrowing relationship ahead of schedule under the present Administration and safely switched to a Standby Agreement.

 No need to bore you with other indices which some of us hardly understand. But, critically, inflation is at historic lows and is set to come in at 4.8% this year below the 5.1% projection. In fact, the inflation rate is so low that it is worrying the Government!

Inflation is the primary determiner of price. Now if the Government can follow through and bring down prices and bank interest rates as one of the most crucial prices and can push down unemployment even further it will be hard to beat. If you add to the positive economic trends, crime reduction, the two biggest concerns of voters, the strength of the JLP in Government can trend up even further. And we can expect even more works programmes with nice names in the second half of this administration.

POOR VOTING DETERMINES ELECTION OUTCOME

As debt-servicing costs trend down more money will be freed up for works and social benefits transfer to the voting poor who determine election outcomes.

 The prime minister is promising more ZOSOS after telling the country that only a couple could be afforded at any one time. And it would be hard to miss the PR song and dance last week over the three new aircraft acquired for the JDF’s newly established Maritime Air and Cyber Command. More money has been funnelled to National Security in the Budget.

Dr Phillips came to the presidency of the PNP with certain handicaps vis-a-vis his counterpart in the JLP, Andrew Holness. For one thing, the party is out of Government, unlike the Manley-to-Patterson transition and the Patterson-to-Simpson Miller transition. Dr Phillips is much older and much less techno-savvy than the post-Independence baby with biometric-operated phones he’s up against. And even PNP people will quietly admit that the Comrade leader has less personality.

Swing voters won’t care a lot about length and breadth of service. The two parties have collided in the political centre. And as they say on High Street where many shops sell the same products, service makes the difference. In the absence of the polls, it does seem to me that the Opposition PNP, pushed on the defensive back foot, has to drum up a case of being able to deliver better on the critical measures while hoping for serious missteps by the JLP Government in the second half. But as they say, in politics, a week is a long time. What, say, 2 ½ years.


- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.