HATS off to Simon Crosskill who, in the wake of the Government's announcement of the National Debt Exchange, provided viewers with a vivid alignment of the pronouncements by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Minister Omar Davies who constituted the Opposition party at the time the first such project, Jamaica Debt Exchange, was announced by the then minister of finance, Audley Shaw, on the one hand, and the current pronouncements by these individuals and the leadership of their respective parties now that the roles have been reversed.
By this stroke of genius, he has made us aware in a vivid way of the futility of attributing much credence to the political games and one-upmanship which are being played out between the politicians in the midst of this very crucial and profound moment which we now face as a nation.
The posturing which we have witnessed from the parliamentary Opposition in recent days should be seen for what it is — mere posturing. The first debt exchange under their leadership was to be a step toward satisfying the conditionalities which the International Monetary Fund was imposing in order to make available to the country a drawdown on the Extended Fund Facility for US$750 million to assist in our debt-ridden situation.
The failure to effect the terms and conditions on which they agreed with the IMF cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be treated as an honourable discharge of their responsibility to the people of Jamaica, even if it were conceived to be a route to gaining favour with the Jamaican electorate at the polls. The truth is that the attitude of mistrust and seeming arrogance and disrespect with which the IMF has been approaching this second round of negotiations is directly related to the way in which the Opposition, who constituted the Government the first time around, handled the matter.
If they had acted in the way that was required at the time, the medicine we would have had to swallow as a society would have been no less bitter, but it would have gone down with a greater level of self-respect than the current round is imposing on the Government and the people of our nation.
The real point is that neither the Government nor the parliamentary Opposition can expect to score any points with the Jamaican people around the imposition of the conditionalities which the IMF is now requiring of the nation. The fact is that the national debt has reached the level of 140 per cent of Gross Domestic Product because of a failure of governance on the part of successive governments since Independence, and no amount of disclaimers by either political party can change that reality.
That having been said about governance, we must now deal with ourselves as individuals and as a nation. We have had the governance we have experienced because of our complicity or reticence to hold our politicians accountable, and we have not been prepared to make the concessions which are necessary for the good of the entire society on an equitable basis, embracing all social classes in the nation.
The voices are many at this point in attributing blame and advancing ideas as to who should bear the brunt of the sacrifices which have to be made. In this regard, we should pay attention to the voices which are declaring where the fallout will take place in relation to the implementation of this IMF deal. It is usually the prelude to the request for exemption of certain interested individuals and groups from the tax net or the effects of the debt exchange programme.
What is clear is that with all of these restrictions and tax measures, they will not be imposed in an equitable manner across the society. Some institutions, such as banks, will simply pass on any new charges which are being imposed by the new measures announced by Government, through increased fees and rates to customers, in order to maintain their current level of profits or even to maintain their annual rate of increased earnings.
Debates regarding the current measures announced by the Government are merely exercises in unaffordable luxury. The measures are drastic, and that is precisely what our sick economy requires for resuscitation. To even tinker with the package is not to present alternatives as to who will bear the brunt of the burden, but to tweak the channel or instrument by which it will come to us.
If the present Government were to fail in their responsibility to fulfil the demands of the IMF which are before us, they would only be exercising the option followed by the Opposition party, and which only postpones the treatment of a critically ill nation. It is for this reason that every citizen must take an interest in ensuring that the so-called private sector group that is to be set up to monitor the programme on which the Government is embarking, as well as their recommendations, are adhered to by the Government and not circumvented in the interest of political expediency.
What must be of equal concern to us is the matter of growth of the economy. The present focus of the Government is on dealing with the debt, but this can only be one part of the equation. The Government has not been very convincing in articulating a growth strategy for the country. The creative and dynamic leadership which this may require could mean a second look by the prime minister at those who constitute the Cabinet and middle level of leadership in governance if this is to become a reality.
Additionally, it must be clear to all and sundry that those potential areas of growth in the economy should be at the centre of our national focus, and that no effort should be spared in removing the bureaucratic red tape that always seems to be more intent on retarding than facilitating investment. In this regard, for example, one should not at this time in our national life be reading of a company which has come to this country with an interest in converting the waste in our landfills to electricity, offering bureaucratic inefficiencies as an explanation for considering withdrawing their investment from the country.
Neither should we be hearing of returned residents, George and Thyra Ross, who quit their jobs in Bermuda and relocated to Jamaica, and who have invested in the hospitality industry, and who now find their investment and business opportunity being stymied by the tardiness of a government agency. This cannot be the way forward for a nation that is serious about growth and moving beyond our current level of indebtedness. Obstacles to productive enterprises and growth must be systematically removed.
Likewise, the nation has heard of the prospects of transshipment port development in Kingston with the expansion of the Panama Canal and the accompanying prospects for a dry dock facility to deal with this increasing shipping need. There have also been the recently announced prospects for the extraction of rare earth metals from bauxite mining waste, which should not only be a source of excitement, but one which should see every human and material resource mobilised to make this a reality.
At the same time, projects of this nature, if they are to receive public support, must be undertaken in a context of consultation with citizens and not just be pushed ahead without due respect for the life of people who may be affected by the implementation of these projects in the long run. Let the experience of residents surrounding bauxite mining plants be an example from which those in governance can learn.
Finally, the present climate in which the debt-ridden state of the nation is our primary focus, is one in which citizens are not only worried about their savings and their investments. I believe such anxieties are not conducive to growth-producing commitments.
From the perspective of a novice in the field of economics, I believe that the Government, in pursuing the options which make for growth, should explore how the kinds of projects cited above can not only involve the government and foreign investors, but also make room for local citizens to be able to share in partnership in these ventures, such as the rare earth metal project which has the potential for generating wealth.
We are fully aware that one strategy of the IMF is to press for government divestment of enterprises, which often may mean foreign ownership and the absence of participation of Jamaican citizens, as has happened with the Jamaica Public Service.
Life beyond our debt must of necessity involve growth, but that growth, while guided by Government, cannot be the exclusive domain of Government and external investment interests. If it is to really bring growth and development to our nation, it cannot be only about foreign investment or local big business.
In the same way that the ordinary citizen is being called upon to bear the brunt of the current debt burden, so must he or she have an opportunity to share in and benefit from the growth potential of viable projects.
— Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands