Columns

A fighting Holness and a cool, calculating Portia

MARK WIGNALL

Saturday, June 07, 2014    

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I rarely find myself in the position that I am moved to express agreement with either the words said or a stance taken by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.

Last week during a question-and-answer session in the House between herself and Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, I found myself siding with her in the verbal sparring over the failed EWI bid to build out a 381 megawatt gas-fired power plant.

Holness has obviously been released from what some saw as his comatose performance in the post-general election loss to the People's National Party (PNP) in 2011 and his need to prove that he has been re-made as an avenging angel, following his win over Audley Shaw in the race for Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leadership.

The recent verbal fisticuffs in the House was not so much about the PNP's bungling and bowing to the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) and, more importantly, the way forward (again), as it was about Holness showing those who watched and listened that he has the 'right stuff' needed to make the PNP Administration a one-term Government.

In all areas of his brain, but especially in the forefront of his mind, must rest the imperative to stick to the PNP what the PNP stuck to him and the party he led in 2011. It may be said and even accepted that as much as the JLP under the leadership of Bruce Golding did well enough to stabilise the economy and maintain sound macroeconomic numbers in one of the most difficult periods in the history of the country (2007 to 2009), most other matters that were dealt with were almost designed to make the JLP a one-term Administration.

These were: keeping high-level PNP activists in key civil service positions to undermine the Government, more than a smidgen of governmental arrogance, the prime minister's active involvement in trying to decelerate the extradition of Jamaica's most powerful crime boss, the Government's bungling of the IMF agreement, and a highly public 'trial' of the JLP in the Manatt enquiry.

Once Golding threw in the towel and the party arranged the hurried entrance of Holness to the office of JLP leader and prime minister, the JLP was already a spent force.

That said, it is more than symbolic that to the public, it was Holness, as prime minister, who called the election too early. It was Holness who was prime minister when the JLP in the 2007 to 2011 period became the first one-term Government in Jamaica's history.

On the basis that no one had put a gun to his head and forced him to occupy those posts in the latter part of 2011, and the single one he now occupies as opposition leader, he is forced to own all of what went before and not just conveniently selected parts of it. That is what true leadership imposes on those who dare to go beyond the grand aspiration.

Many JLP supporters would have been proud of him as he stood up like the proverbial Jamaican 'bull bucker', stared down the PM and came across like an arrogant schoolboy unafraid of the imposition of a conduct detention by trying to prove in class that the aged teacher was too much into old, over-worn methods of teaching and theories.

For just a short time it reminded me of the latter part of 2006 when then Opposition Leader Bruce Golding made an ethically sound but politically impossible call for the then PNP Government to resign over the most shameful and embarrassing revelations in the Trafigura matter. Matters which still remain uninvestigated but deliberately stalled by the refusal of key PNP personnel to answer important questions.

What I saw in Holness was not his grand concern for the high electricity rates faced by manufacturers in this country struggling to maintain that nebulous 'level playing field' with their trading partners in the region and farther afield. I didn't see him making out a case for the householder paying a monthly light bill that moves one way while the pay packet remains the same, and what is left over purchases less than the month before.

What I sensed in the opposition leader was not so much a need to get answers to the important questions he asked or even his politically unlikely call to see Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell divested of his post. I saw in him his need to prove that he could stand up to the prime minister, screw up his face, lean forward and shout questions at Jamaica's first female prime minister.

It may have bordered on sheer rudeness, but he has been remade, and in the House, shouting, banging on desks and generally indecorous behaviour are the norm anyway. Plus, JLP supporters need to see him at what they may believe is the top of his game.

As the prime minister calmly answered his questions and sat down, it may have been lost on him that he bordered on winning a battle, even as she turned her face away from him, a much younger opposition leader who could afford a racing pulse beat.

It may be early days yet, but he knows that come the next elections it is likely that the calmer one with the slower beating heart who is herself certainly no stranger to being a combative person where it counts -- on the stump -- may just be setting him up for a war which he cannot win.

The stakes are high, but he knows that after a JLP loss in 2016 it is not so much the nation which will be unwilling to give him another shot at redemption, but inside his own party a long night of long knives will ensure that his continuation is made impossible. He has one shot, and last week's display was all about that crucial date with his political destiny.

The real facts on the energy situation

Planners in the OUR and those in the know, in big business, manufacturing, the 'thinking class,' journalism and a few among the general public recognise that come 2017, 249 megawatts of generating capacity will have to be retired.

This stock comprises Old Harbour units two, three and four, plus the old B6 at Hunts Bay. For years these units have been plastered over, sewn up, parts replaced and kept together somewhere between poorly efficient and highly inefficient. Come 2017, these units must be taken out. The scrap iron industry will be the better off for it.

There is, however, a caveat. The retirement of these units is predicated on the basis that by that time the country will have added 360 megawatts to bring the net capacity addition to 351 megawatts. In terms of the total capacity, the plan is to have the total generation at just below 950 megawatts with a respectable reserve capacity at 42 per cent.

Planners have to take into consideration many factors. Various levels of projected growth in the economy, the price of electricity, the trend in consumption patterns, urban drift and population growth are just some of the most obvious factors that would readily come to the fore.

It would be quite foolish if the JPS has about 950 megawatts of generating capacity with a reserve of 42 per cent, that is a safe margin over the peak demand, and no one came to the economic party. In plain language, the JPS and any other player in the energy generation market wants to sell what they manufacture.

Even the small shopkeeper in a deep rural district knows that if she stocks flour, rice, cornmeal, sugar, chicken back, saltfish, tinned mackerel, toilet paper, kerosene oil, coal, cigarettes, ganja and other goods that move fast, although on most of them the margins may be small, as long as the traffic moves, that is, the consumption patterns remain the same or increase, she may not get rich overnight but she will do a reasonably good job in surviving.

At the same time, she doesn't want to stock her freezer with beef, oxtail and goat meat when the price is guaranteed to automatically suppress the demand for the goods. She doesn't want to tie up her cash in dead stock which actually costs her each day just to keep them marketable while she cannot tag on any increase at the time of sale.

So JPS and any other player would not want to bring added capacity to the table while the economy remains in the doldrums, that is, there is no added wealth in households and business activity remains static. The energy players cannot afford to be caught with dead stock.

At the same time, the Government and its surrogate, the Office of Utilities Regulation, cannot afford a plan that does not include added generating capacity, no matter the extent to which Government brings bad policy to the table which does not attract investment. More importantly, added generating capacity along with cheaper rates will send a very powerful signal that this country is serious about doing business with new investors -- local and overseas.

Plus, the investors who are already here would dearly like to use some of the savings from cheaper rates of electricity to put into new capital investment.

The JLP messed up in 2010 when it bowed to the OCG

A politically weak Bruce Golding with few seats to play with in 2010 and some of the holders said to be citizens of other countries, had to govern as if he was walking barefooted on a concrete floor laid out with many shards of broken glass.

From 2010 onwards, he was susceptible to noise from the Opposition PNP, demands for greater power from JLP insiders with clout and, as agencies like the OCG made it known that it saw the Exmar consortium deal as unsound, Golding had to bow.

Plans made from 2010 were never realised, and just recently plans made for new capacity were again derailed, with the OCG again the destabilising agency.

What may not be known by the man at street level is that over the last four years demand for electricity has been on the decline! On second thought, with business activity at a basic standstill and poverty levels on the rise, this ought not to be any surprise.

Probably the only strong demand for electricity over the last five years or so has been among those who have been stealing it, as a somewhat suppressed anarchy works its way across Jamaica.

The JLP spokesman on energy, Karl Samuda, is in general agreement with the objectives recently taken by Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell, even if he hasn't dotted every i and crossed every t.

One assumes that Opposition Leader Holness appointed Samuda to the post, so, again I must ask the question, how can Holness so strongly question Paulwell's position when his own man has indicated agreement with Paulwell?

If the country has a life beyond the IMF, and it is serious about opening up business and making a firm attempt to link itself with the global supply chain re the logistics hub, energy requirements over the next 15 to 20 years must be based on four per cent growth year over year, at the very least.

Again, that assumes that government policy will indicate that an economic party is to be held and that those policies will automatically create the invitations to potential investors.

Political sparring in the House is a sideshow, and I agree with Prime Minister Simpson Miller that Holness's stance was mere grandstanding.

With a new energy committee formed by an old guard of the PNP, the onus is now on the PNP to prove that it is serious about its new direction, that is, if there really is one. The PNP has only a few months to prove to the nation that any new bidding process will go through to completion.

And if it doesn't, the opposition leader will have good reason to charge ahead, mow down, rail up and go much further than grandstand. His party bowed to the OCG in 2010. The PNP allowed the OCG to derail the EWI deal.

Oh, I forgot, I am sorry. The OCG is in the background just waiting to derail any new deal. Seems that that's what the office is best at.

Meanwhile, the country limps along in its failure to find its collective strength, the kind of strength Jamaicans discover and display once they leave our shores for good.

— observemark@gmail.com

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