The price of normalising dysfunction

Claude Robinson

Sunday, October 14, 2012    

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THE resumption of the partnership talks offers a small, but important, opportunity to reset our human development and economic growth clock. It's been showing the wrong time for too long.

Reconvening the National Council of the Partnership for Transformation at Jamaica House last Wednesday, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller reportedly said, "Now more than ever, the partnership is critical, given the need for us to work together. Those of us in this room must make the change."

Those in the room included a broad-based representation of Government, Opposition, private sector, trade union, academic and civil society leaders, all of whom are central to taking and implementing decisions that give hope to a society where this is a scarce commodity. The news in recent weeks confirms the prime minister's comment on the urgency of now.

Jamaicans are simultaneously angered and saddened by the painful spike in child molestation and child murders; increasing incidence of mob killings are also deeply troubling; jobs are hard to come by; the dollar slides, and the economy remains weak.

For those in doubt or denial about the perilous times, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted in its World Economic Outlook last week that Jamaica will grow at 0.9 per cent this year and by a mere 1.5 per cent by 2017, five years away. The latest projection slashes its previous forecasts roughly in half. Clearly, the fundamentals are misaligned.

So it's good that the prime minister reconvened the partnership council to help build a national consensus on the way forward.

The council had been on hold since several members decided to stay away in protest against then Prime Minister Bruce Golding's inexplicable decision to squander his political capital in defence of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke, now serving a long prison sentence in the United States for racketeering.

Unlike most other occasions in the past, there seems to be basis for forging a national consensus on what needs to be done to get the economy moving: Government, Opposition and the other stakeholders at the table agree that necessary to securing a deal with the IMF is taking prior action to distribute the tax burden more equitably, making everyone pay their fair share; reducing the public sector wage bill; reducing the unsustainable public debt; and requiring public servants to contribute to their pensions.

On several occasions, going back more than a decade, the country has been treated to on-again, off-again 'Vale Royal' consultations and partnership for social transformation talks. Generally, these arose after violent explosions in troubled communities that threatened serious social disorder or economic instability. We seem to be in the midst of one of those periods again.

As we always do, each escalation of unspeakably violent criminal behaviour is met with a collective national vow to find and punish the perpetrators of yet another atrocity.

The police deploy more investigators and assault forces; the national private sector leadership offers cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of those responsible; pledges of zero-tolerance to violence — especially violence against women and girls — come from all quarters; some march, pray and hold vigils; people on talk shows and Internet postings struggle for superlatives to express their revulsion. But not much changes.

So even as we applaud the resumption of the partnership talks as necessary to ensuring greater sector understanding of, and support for, the agreement that is likely to emerge from the current negotiations with the IMF, the partnership talks and a deal with the IMF are not sufficient conditions to resolve the fundamental problems that have frustrated economic growth and made our society dysfunctional in many ways.

Reset the course

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, last Tuesday, asserted that "after 50 years, Jamaica is today facing the future without a credible vision", and challenged Jamaicans to reset the course and return the country to the promising path it was on in 1962.

"A generational change is needed to return to the spirit of earlier pioneering years, to start again to map a new course to avoid prolonged distress," he said during a joint sitting of the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament to pay tribute to him.

Obviously, we cannot start from 1962 as if the intervening 50 years did not happen. The evidence and the consequences of average economic growth of one per cent a year for the past 40 years mock our cherished 'independence' every day.

Some illustrations: The phenomenon of garrison politics and the links between politics and organised crime persist; criminal gangs wield enormous influence in some communities from which the state had almost retreated; the criminal justice system creaks along; corrupt or careless management of public resources go unpunished; public debt and unemployment are way too high; many schools are underperforming and many of our young men have chosen the illegal hustle over education as the way out of poverty.

These signs point to a dysfunctional politics which has spawned wider dysfunction in the society. As the longest-serving parliamentarian over the past 50 years, Mr Seaga knows that our political system and practice have contributed greatly to the present situation.

Political tribalism, failure of policy continuity on key national issues from one Administration to another, little transparency and accountability in managing the public purse are some of the obvious deficiencies.

So, if we do not get governance right this time we run a real risk of normalising dysfunction: When things reach a new low we wail our usual nine-day lamentations and then settle down to accepting this new low as the 'new normal'. Some might say we have already normalised discontent.

I am not sure we are there yet. But even if we are, it is not too late to reverse course if there is bold leadership to unite the country around some things that will really improve governance and make those in authority more accountable.

Let's start with the upcoming agreement with the IMF. The Administration has, quite correctly, engaged stakeholders in the process. Indeed, leaders of the trade union movement, the private sector and civil society have been involved in direct discussions with the IMF.

The next critical step is to engage the Jamaican people. What are being euphemistically called tax reform, or pension reform, or fiscal responsibility framework must be explained for what they are. Many workers will have less money in their pockets at a time when the Government will have less to spend on social goods like health, education and infrastructure.

Obviously, Government cannot negotiate in public. But if they want public buy-in they have to communicate the real situation to the Jamaican people. It is not enough to assert there is no alternative to the IMF. People must have a real sense that burdens are distributed fairly, that we are beginning to turn the economy around, that mismanagement and corruption do not go unpunished.

We need also to reach a general understanding of how we got here and that we are not going to get out of his mess by doing the same things as we have done before. It's not an IMF thing; it's good, honest political management in the public interest.





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