Finance minister says he will review tax measures

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Minister of Finance Peter Phillips, while addressing a meeting with a number of trade union leaders Thursday morning, indicated that he will be "conducting a review of the announced revenue measures and will shortly announce if any adjustments will be made". A release from the ... Read more

Columns

Keep the bad news to yourself, Peter Phillips

Wignall's World

Mark Wignall

Sunday, January 06, 2013    

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IT is useful for us to accept that politics is a game of power.

If perchance it intercepts with principle, then principle will be an extremely poor loser. A leader like former prime minister and leader of the JLP, Eddie Seaga, must have come closest to understanding the rules of the power game in politics.

Known for his much vaunted 'strength' and no-nonsense approach to shepherding his flock, that is, the second-tier leadership of the JLP and the wider constituency of the people of this country, many of us have mistakenly believed that it was something in Seaga's personality, a certain 'presence' or even moral suasion that made his word law in party and government circles.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While Seaga was MP for Kingston Western, which included Tivoli Gardens, the most heavily armed and organised community in Jamaica, Seaga was always ready to remind the nation that the crime rate in Tivoli was close to zero.

Of course it was, that is, in terms of what was made open to the public. But even without Tivoli's secret kangaroo court system, crime in that community was somewhere between negligible and zero.

Why was that so? Simple. If you have 10,000 lbs of dynamite in your basement, it is hardly likely that you will want to strike a match.

As much as Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips would like to report to his prime minister and lay on the harsh, unpalatable truth that is likely to be the pre- and post- conditions for a new IMF agreement, it is my understanding that the prime minister has told him that she is not in any mood to accept bad tidings from that end.

In other words, only come to me, Peter, when you have better news.

But what does this have to do with Seaga and Tivoli?

First, Tivoli Gardens was hand-made by Seaga and I often used to laugh out loud whenever he would cherry-pick all the good about that community and delete from his mind the real dangers it posed to our polity.

Tivoli was first fiercely loyal to Seaga then somewhere down the line it gave the JLP its blessings of loyalty too because, well, Seaga, in addition to absolute leader inside Tivoli Gardens and MP for Kingston Western, was also leader of the JLP.

The vast majority of Seaga's strength came from the Tivoli machinery. Whether it was in providing a 'security detail' at JLP conferences and mounting advance mobile units at mass meetings, the Tivoli machinery was his calling card.

And, oftentimes, he didn't have to actually issue any orders. We can remember when the Gang of Five episode rocked the JLP, Seaga infamously reminded the five — Karl Samuda, Pearnel Charles, Douglas Vaz, Ed Bartlett and the late Errol Anderson — that it was not too late to "light a candle, sing a sankey and find your way back home".

And we remember the bottle flung in the face of Pearnel Charles outside the National Arena at a JLP conference in the early 1990s as the Tivoli 'security detail' was in place.

As much as bad news may eventually have to be swallowed by the prime minister and her Cabinet, the PNP has no similar machinery to (Tivoli Gardens) to stave off the possibility of civil unrest. Indeed, not only could Tivoli in its heyday stave off such unrest, but it was known to be the silent, effective partner behind many of those while the JLP was in Opposition — which seems to be the norm for that party.

That five grown men could bow, bend, break and eventually return to the party tells me that they had something very real to fear.

Dr Peter Phillips cannot go back to his constituency filled with economic depression and sell them an ultra-austerity budget this March, on top of the stringencies of a new IMF agreement. In his days Seaga would be able to do that and once Tivoli understood what was at stake, then the entire Cabinet and the rest of the MPs and caretakers would fall in line.

Ah, politics is indeed a power game and Seaga mastered it. The PNP has no similar political enclave to which its leader can retreat and lay out the bigger plan needed to control the dissenting voices. No such PNP constituency exists. So, with no buffer between we the people and the politicians running the state machinery, the PNP Administration will be forced to give us the bad news as soon as it is dished out.

Finsac deaths are nothing new

I have no hard evidence that the elderly couple found hanging in their home in Manchester committed suicide as a result of what newspaper reports call, 'problems associated with Finsac'.

But we fool ourselves if we should believe that the hangover and the pain do not persist.

A Finsac Report would have thrown much light on actually what took place in the financial meltdown of the mid-1990s, how many businesses were affected and the possible alternatives which could have been adopted.

Years ago, I sat with a small group of ruined businessmen — men who had dragged themselves up by their bootstraps and grown wealthy as a result. These men were once living abroad but returned to the land of their birth to 'give back' and to make money while doing so.

One man unashamedly told the gathering that he had grown impotent (with wife and young girlfriend) after the troubles had descended on him. But that was a small, relatively insignificant problem.

Another man told me that on the day that he was about to lose his mansion, his wife called him at the office where he had been frantically trying to make contacts with any and everyone to stave off his creditors. The bank rate had moved on him from 18 per cent to 70 per cent! He was desperate.

The call from his wife was troubling because, unlike the last few times when they spoke (she no longer slept with him) she was actually sounding quite happy. She requested that he hurry home.

He did just that, walked through the house towards the back where the swimming pool was. He saw his wife seated at a pool table, all dolled up in finery. On the table was a bottle of whisky.

Now, his wife didn't drink at all. It was then that he saw his pistol.

He gingerly walked over to her, asking, "You OK, honey?"

"Of course I am," she said. "Why shouldn't I be?" She then stared him straight in the eyes, lifted the gun to her head and shot herself.

How does one recover from a scene as tragic as that? Certainly, it lives with the person forever.

Civil society has fallen down on not pressuring the PNP Administration to source the funds and summon the political will to complete the Finsac Report. It has to raise its game because it's becoming quite obvious that the PNP would prefer that the conduct of Finance during that period of the early- to mid-1990s be kept hidden.

Bunting for Finance Ministry?

A reader is of the opinion that Peter Bunting would have been better in the finance portfolio while suggesting that Peter Phillips was placed there as a masterstroke by the prime minister.

He writes,

"I just read your January 3, 2013, Observer column. It was very interesting and well written. I like Mr Phillips, but truth be told, Mr Bunting would have been the better minister of finance.

"Frequently, excellent attorneys are appointed to be judges and they manage their judicial duties quite well, and steer clear of conflicts of interest. They do not end relationships or friendships they have developed with fellow members of the bar because they are now jurists.

"Why could Mr Bunting not have done the same if appointed minister of finance? The PNP source who informed you why Mr Bunting was not made minister of finance by the PM has put forward an illogical and groundless argument in my opinion.

"I think Mr Phillips was made minister of finance by the PM for purely political reasons. One, to show unity in the party, since Mr Phillips and Mrs Simpson Miller are rivals. Appointing Mr Phillips minister of finance is a statement by the PM of her unity with Mr Phillips.

"Beside the PM, the minister of finance is the most important minister in government, in my opinion. The second reason for the appointment is, if Mr Phillips fails, then he ceases to be a serious rival to Mrs Simpson Miller from a political point of view. Those are the reasons why he was appointed minister of finance, not because Mr Bunting had conflicts."

It is my view that both Peters have been placed in impossible situations. The security ministry has been a nightmare for all comers and, as long as Jamaica is economically straitjacketed as it is now, the finance ministry is likely to end the political career of anyone placed there.

Although the prime minister has challenged all Cabinet ministers to have 'all hands on deck' I would like to see a more proactive stance from the PM herself.

As for the mechanics of that, well, she is the prime minister. She ought to devise that machinery.

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