BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter email@example.com
NEAR panic about the rising numbers of the jobless, unanswered questions about the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement, dissention in its ranks over scarce benefits and spoils, and a persistent social media campaign clamouring for more public pronouncements from its leader are among the issues likely to take centre stage at the highly anticipated public session of the 74th Annual Conference of the governing People's National Party (PNP) today.
PNP President and Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller is expected to use her main address to respond to critics who have been contending that her Administration has failed to deliver on significant promises made in the run-up to last year's General Election and which helped to propell her party to its landslide victory.
In a similar address one year ago, Simpson Miller, who was then Leader of the Opposition, created waves through a bombshell announcement in which, she promised jobs under an initiative dubbed
the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP).
"Comrades and fellow Jamaicans, while they fiddle and fumble, there have been rapid increases in unemployment among young people, unemployment among women, unemployment among the unskilled and among graduates of secondary and tertiary institutions. Comrades, you know the importance of having a job, jobs are avenues out of poverty. Being gainfully employed gives the people a sense of independence," said Simpson Miller as she provided details of the job creation plan.
"Comrades, we have called it the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP)," said the PNP President to rousing applause from the thousands of party supporters who were attending the organisation's 73rd Annual Conference on September 18 last year.
The announcement created a frenzy because of the extent to which it resonated with thousands of jobless Jamaicans. However, several members of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) rubbished the proposal, describing it as an "empty election promise".
The sudden resignation of then prime minister and leader of the JLP Bruce Golding was followed by the swearing-in of Andrew Holness as prime minister. Holness then called the General Election, more than a year before it was constitutionally due.
Holness, who had been in office for under two months, declared that the election was needed to "get certain things out of the way," referring in part to the aggressive election campaign that was being led by the PNP, and the need to create an atmosphere that would facilitate crucial decisions linked to discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Holness's plan backfired, and on December 29, his party suffered a humiliating defeat to Simpson-Miller's PNP, which officially took over the reins of government after the successful campaign that had the JEEP as one of its main deliverables.
Despite officially launching the JEEP, and although claiming the programme has already created some 15,000 jobs, the Simpson Miller Administration has not been able to make any clear statements on how it intends to address the plight of the increasing number of job seekers.
Based on figures released last month by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), the country, in April of this year, recorded its highest unemployment figures for more than a decade.
According to the data, 180,000 people are actively searching for a job, nearly 8,000 more than last year's recorded average.
STATIN, in its overview, attributed the results to employment declines in several groups, including construction, education and wholesale and retail.
Today, thousands of party faithfuls, along with Jamaicans throughout the country are expected to devote their attention to Simpson Miller as she takes on the challenge of restoring hope to many crestfallen supporters.
For party Chairman Robert Pickersgill, Simpson Miller, will be using her presentation to motivate Jamaicans.
"I am convinced that after the party leader's speech, hope would have been kept alive and some meaningful pronouncements would be made regarding jobs, housing and other kinds of prospects," said a confident Pickersgill as he addressed reporters at a pre-conference briefing on Thursday.
But for one academic, Simpson Miller is partly responsible for the debacle, as she should not have reinforced the promise that the Government, under her leadership, would be creating jobs for the thousands of unemployed persons.
Lecturer in Financial Management and Economics at the Northern Caribbean University (NCU) Kirkland Anderson says instead of focusing on job creation through the JEEP, and other similar initiatives, the Government should spend time creating the environment in which people can create their own jobs. "My view is that the Government, especially the PNP, is wrong, as their duty is not to provide jobs, but to create a platform for job creation, and that's the mistake in the first place," Anderson argued.
"Why not focus on educating people about the types of ventures they can explore. One example is agriculture; people should focus on agriculture and that is where we can capitalise and encourage our people to produce food. You want people to come up with jobs for themselves, look at providing start-up grants," said Anderson who disclosed his reservations about the JEEP, which according to him facilitates a waste of taxpayers' money, in some instances. "Fifty per cent of people employed by the JEEP should not be employed. Where I live, you have 8 -10 people just walking on the road doing the job that two persons should be doing. That is a waste of taxpayers money," added Anderson as he voiced his support for embattled PNP member and East Rural St Andrew Member of Parliament, Damion Crawford, who has come under fire from some of his constituents who believe he should spend less of his constituency funds on educational initiatives and more on other activities including the disbursement of vouchers to party faithfuls. "When people are educated, they are more likely to think about doing something for themselves, rather than waiting on somebody to take care of them," Anderson argued.
For Danny Roberts, the head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute, Portia Simpson Miller will have to use the conference to present a strategy that will provide a buffer against what he cited as the pain and distress that is likely to result from the pending agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
"We are going into an IMF agreement that is likely to result in further pain and distress. People need to brace for that, it is an inescapable trap that we have to recognise. The IMF policies and conditionaities are clear, they are about contraction," said Roberts.
He told the Sunday Observer that the PNP president should seek to use the conference platform to mobilise Jamaicans to grow the economy.
"What the prime minister must give is a parallel track that will involve a mobilisation similar to that which took place in the 1970s, in which you bring together all stakeholders around a common focus. How do we grow the economy? How do we enhance the Gross Domestic Product? In the same way we were focused on the 50th anniversay and the Olympics, we need growth as the new focal point for every individual and agency; public and private," said Roberts.