Tue | Apr 23, 2019

Martin Henry | The Holness gov’t three years on

Published:Sunday | March 3, 2019 | 12:15 AM
The swearing-in address of Prime Minister Andrew Holness on March 3, 2016, was pregnant with promise
Foreign affairs minister Kamina Johnson-Smith has held a clear, steady and pragmatic foreign policy course in turbulent waters.
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Today is the real day. The real start of the Holness administration, with the swearing-in of the prime minister on March 3, 2016. True, the general election was on February 25.

There was only a little media motion around the election date last week. I was invited to comment by The Gleaner, for example. But the fact that there was no major and sustained performance-review effort tells its own story. The story of a government plodding along without dramatic success or spectacular failure.

But beyond gut instincts, short-term memory, loyalties and animosities, how do you proceed to assess a government fairly and squarely?

There are a number of key things to consider.

What the political party puts in its published manifesto is a good place to start. The swearing-in address is a good place to continue. The annual Throne Speech anchors the Government’s policy commitments for that parliamentary year.

The comparative out-turn data put out by independent public agencies tasked to monitor government performance provide a particularly good base for assessment. The performance of individual ministries against set targets can be monitored.

Does anyone, including the leader of the Jamaica Labour Party and prime minister, remember the 10-Point Plan for Partnership for Prosperity?

A critical factor affecting the performance of any administration and which must be factored into assessment is operating conditions. Each government would have inherited economic and social conditions it did not necessarily create and has to operate in a political environment it does not control on its own. And, of course, external circumstances.

Political parties and governments in democracies everywhere overpromise and underdeliver. It’s one of the serious and damaging features of elections-driven ‘democracy’.

The 10-Point Plan is a good place to start. The Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation has been created. But the reform of government for efficiency has not even been seriously attempted. Within the reality of prevailing conditions, the Holness Administration has presided over a historic decline of unemployment into single digits, (small but visible growth as reported by the Planning Institute of Jamaica – PIOJ), a drop in inflation and its stabilisation at historic low levels.

NO NEW TAXES

On Swearing-in Day, March 3, 2016, the exchange rate was J$121.88 to the US dollar. On February 27, this year it was J$129.6, a mere 6.3 per cent decline overall over three years, despite the public panic over declines in the rate.

The Junior Stock Market has been restored but achieved nothing significant by way of growth of small and medium businesses.

Tax reform remains a big-ticket item largely unpursued, largely unrealised. But the Government did deliver, and quite quickly, on raising the income tax threshold to $1.5 million. The realities of operating conditions forced compensatory adjustments in tax collection elsewhere. But it has to be a significant achievement that the 2018-2019 Budget had no new taxes. The first in 14 years.

The 2019-2020 Budget has only 34 cents earmarked for debt servicing, continuing the trending down of debt costs over the last decade or so from a high of 66 cents per Budget dollar for debt payments.

Divestment of Government entities is stuck on the To-Do list. I can’t recall even one. Listing state-owned companies on the Stock Exchange remains only a good idea.

With two major pipes serving the Corporate Area busted in recent days, the water woes of the entire country have worsened, not improved. ‘Strategic capital investments in water’ remains a pipe dream.

Nothing dramatic has been done for housing. Not counting the “review” of the National Housing Trust (NHT). The track record of the NHT of building a few thousand ‘housing solutions’ per year against a demand of 20,000 units continues. That great idea of a 50-60-year inter-generational mortgage, which seems to me easy to implement with the stroke of an executive pen, remains stuck on paper.

A couple of “investment ambassadors” were named, Dr Nigel Clarke and Aubyn Hill, but then they got sucked into the maw of Government and are now as forgotten as ambassadors as the Economic Growth Council.

Training for jobs has seen some traction. The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF)-run National Service Corps is up and running but with far too few in numbers of beneficiaries to make a big difference. The merger of the HEART Trust, Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL), and National Youth Service (NYS) has taken place without visible efficiency results yet. But a good move.

Digitisation of government records and business processes has mostly remained a virtual reality. A little here, a little there, a low-hanging fruit, but nothing dramatic and transformative.

Town centres, pledged to be revitalised and rebuilt, remain centres of congestion, chaos, and disorder. But this Administration is presiding over the most extensive infrastructural works at any one time in the history of the country, transforming the landscape and creating jobs, including at the lowest manual level.

The Ten-Point Plan can’t get very many points out of 10.

PREGNANT WITH PROMISE

The swearing-in address was pregnant with promise.

“Andrew, do the right thing” – partnership for prosperity, fixing government and building trust, families, tackling zones of political exclusion, rule of law, targets, accountability, citizens’ security, referendums, removal of tuition fees in high schools and user fees in health service facilities, education bond, national health insurance, improved social safety net, reduced tax burden … .

A spotty checklist at the end of year three. But far from a disaster in the flow of administrations.

In assessing the ministries, you get the distinct impression of a purposeful Cabinet going about its business in a business-like fashion. With the exception of Andrew Wheatley, who was burned out of office over the Petrojam affair, it is hard to pinpoint any disaster minister.

The superministries, with their flung-together portfolios, have added no real value to Government. With the exception of having to replace Wheatley at Science Energy and Technology, the ministerial changes have been largely cosmetic.

With the economy on the right track, if not out of the woods, crime is the number-one problem confronting the country. To the Government’s credit, it has made the largest increase in the National Security budget for the upcoming financial year. The Administration’s introduction of the zones of special operations law was a watershed in anti-crime legislation. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about its weak and timid implementation.

The clash of Government and Opposition over the extension of states of emergency underscores the point of how the political environment affects the operational manoeuvre ability of an Administration.

PERSONAL PICKS

While there is no disaster ministry/minister, I have my personal performance picks.

- Foreign affairs minister Kamina Johnson-Smith has held a clear, steady, and pragmatic foreign policy course in turbulent waters.

- Delroy Chuck has been muscling his way through Justice Reform with some visible and commendable results.

- Ed Bartlett has been breaking all records, reeling in the tourists.

- Audley Shaw has been a strong ‘Man A Yaad’ at both finance and Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries.

- Bobby Montague has taken bold and practical change steps at both security and transport and mining.

- Christopher Tufton has been a personable steady hand at health and as a former researcher, is perhaps the most data-driven minister outside of finance.

 

By any fair comparative measure, the Holness Administration has done moderately well under operating conditions. But could have done very much better against its own promises and targets.

The Administration, like others past, has faced its fair share of scandals, Petrojam the biggest of them all. But in the nature of Jamaican politics, there won’t be any long-term political damage.

The party, backed by largesse from state resources, has managed to increase its seat count in the Parliament. The East Portland by-election, a People’s National Party (PNP) stronghold, will be a strong Year Three referendum on the Government. The margin will speak loudly. Last time, it was 8,580 to 6,345.

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