The reality of the Holness Administration — Part 3

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The reality of the Holness Administration — Part 3

Canute Thompson

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

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I have been assessing the performance of the Andrew Holness-led Administration. In Part 1, published on December 5, 2019, I highlighted, among other things, that the Government's record for the past nearly four years has been dismal on the economy, corruption and crime. I noted that while the economy is stable, this Administration inherited a stable economy but has failed to produce the five per cent per year economic growth miracle promised and was barely achieving one per cent.

Since the December 5, 2019 publication we have had a chance to see the full crime statistics for 2019. These statistics show, in the area of murders, that 2019 was worse than 2018. This despite seven limited states of emergency (SOE) and two zones of special operations (ZOSO) in place. In specific terms, 2019 saw a 3.1 per cent increase over 2018, with 1,332 murders, compared to 1,287; or 49 murders per 100,000 population compared to 47 per 100,000. This is the first time ever in Jamaica's history — at least since the counting of murders — that we have had so many security measures and resources in place, yet so many murders. This stunning reality must be a grave concern to every Jamaican.

Obviously bothered by the foregoing numbers, the Government has sought to deflect attention by suggesting that the figure for 2019 was one of the lowest in the last decade, and has even sought to compare the decade of 2010 to 2019 with 2000 to 2009. Who that helps, God alone knows. But the claim that 2019 was one of the lowest in the decade is simply not true. There are six other years that are lower than 2019, namely 2011 to 2015 and 2018. In other words, 2019 is the year with the fourth highest number of murders, but the only year with as many as seven SOEs and two ZOSOs.
While these harsh realities should give comfort to no one, it does not help for the Government to try to make this ugly reality look less ugly. Public relations will not solve our crime problems.
In Part 2, published on December 31, I examined the Government's performance in the areas of health and education. In relation to health, I argued, among other things, that optics and public relations more than results have characterised the operations of the ministry, even though some minimal progress has been made. I contended that crisis management in the areas of dengue and Cornwall Regional has been poor.
The big news in education, even bigger now, is that the ministry, which ought to be the centrepiece of our development strategy, does not have a minister, but a Cabinet caretaker, and there are several crises across the sector. But what is even more distressing is that the Government in boasting of its achievements in education. Yet, in the prime minister's new year's message he could not mention a single transformative act or policy. The list of so-called achievements included adding two days to the school feeding programme (from three to five days), increasing Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) benefits, upgrading canteens, and launching the Primary Exit Profile. That the focus is on these rudimentary and maintenance activities shows the Government's limited understanding of what transformation of education looks like and how progress is measured.
The review continues.
Poverty and taxation
The JLP's slogan in 2016 was the catchy and unforgettable “From poverty to prosperity”. No one would expect that with this as a slogan anti-poor policies would be pursued. But the fact is the Government did unleash $34 billion in taxes on all Jamaicans to pay for a middle- and upper-class tax break of $1.5 million. No poor Jamaican benefited from this tax break, which put more money in the pockets of a mere 78,000 Jamaicans. But even so, recipients have paid back the break in increased gas and property tax. So, 100 per cent of the people were taxed for the benefit of 2.6 per cent. The reality is that the taxes have led to an increase in poverty for 2017. Subsequently, the 2019 Legatum Prosperity Ranking Index has shown that Jamaica fell two places in the rankings from 62nd position in 2015 to 64th in 2019.
But the Government's anti-poor policies were made worse in 2019/20 when it gave a tax break of $14 billion mostly to the rich. Of that amount, nearly half was in the form of reduction in property transfer taxes, which saw a 60 per cent cut from five per cent of the selling price to two per cent. While a poor and lower middle-class person may benefit from this, the majority of those who will benefit are those billionaire real estate developers. The ostensible reason for these tax breaks is economic stimulus in the mode of trickle-down economics, whereby those developers (and others who benefited from the tax break) would plough back those monies into the economy, thus triggering economic growth. The cold fact is that no growth has resulted and 2019/20 is expected to see a mere 0.7 per cent economic growth.
With a bonanza of $14 billion available in 2019/20, and having the regard to the whipping and whopping $32 in taxes, which was used to afflict the poor, would it not have been more thoughtful and strategic to use this $14 billion to support small businesses to triple the support for tertiary education and research? Unsurprisingly, the business class welcomed the tax break. So, with the promise of “from poverty to prosperity”, the Government must answer the question: What has it done in the last four years to sustainably end poverty?

The minimum wage
The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), in its 2016 manifesto, promised to double the national minimum wage. This promise was oft repeated by Audley Shaw on the campaign trail. But, as it is turned out, that promise was as bankable as the promise Shaw gave to nurses in 2007 when he also promised to increase their salaries by 100 per cent and this doubling would be “just a start”. We are almost four years into the Holness Administration and minimum wage increase promise is not fulfilled. But, having not taken the Holness Administration to task for making or breaking the promise, the media are all over Peter Phillips for his proposal to do what the JLP promised to do four years ago.
Many people I know pay above the minimum wage. With the ravaging taxes which the poor suffered early in this Administration, and with the ranks of the poor swelling, it is beyond understanding that the minimum wage limps along with many earners struggling to afford a meal some days. The Government's performance and its treatment of the poor and refusal to increase the minimum wage are simply unconscionable.

Accountability
The country awaits the report on Jamaica's standing in relation to corruption for 2019. In 2018, Jamaica slipped two places, according to the report published on January 29, 2019. In the second half of 2019 various polls and research showed that the public's perception of corruption in Jamaica was at an all-time high, with 83 per cent saying they believe the Government is corrupt — according to one local poll — and 78 per cent, according to a regional study.
In 2019 Minister of Education Ruel Reid was asked to resign. There are matters involving him presently before the courts. There was also the cancelling of the US visa of two JLP Members of Parliament, one of whom is a Cabinet minister. In 2019, access to the 2017 and 2018 Integrity Commission filings of the prime minister was expected, but we saw only 2018. In my considered view, if there is nothing to hide the prime minister should have willingly released a report of his assets for 2017.

Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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