3 years into this JLP Administration

Post-truth, 'whataboutism', and Government's scorecard

Canute Thompson

Sunday, March 03, 2019

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Jamaica is in a post-truth era (which is the case with other countries). According to the English Oxford Dictionary, post-truth is generally used in reference to politics and denotes the socio-political condition in which objective facts are less influential and less important than emotion and personal belief. In a post-truth era, fiction, confusion, lies, cherry-picking of data, and public relations replace engagement with hard, cold facts.

Jamaica's post-truth political condition is characterised by public relations, suppression of criticism, revisionism, and diversion. These are deployed largely together rather than as discrete strategies. A few examples will suffice.

February 25, 2019 was the Government's three-year anniversary and, in discussing the Government's achievements, spokespersons have been unwilling to speak to targets which were set versus what has been achieved. The communications director at the Office of the Prime Minister Robert Morgan categorically denied on Monday, February 25, 2019 that the Government had set a target of 250,000 new jobs over five years or 50,000 per year. It must be that Morgan was in the dark on this. But with economic growth and job creation being a ministry all by itself, and headed by Morgan's boss, it defies common sense that the communications director would have been unaware of this target. It was repeatedly carried on Nationwide News Network during February 2016 after Audley Shaw made the grand announcement in January that year. Morgan's denial that this target exists is an example of post-truth. But having denied that that target was established, Morgan's focus was on the fact that 65,000 new jobs have been created, but he was unable or unwilling to say what the target was.

Another classic post-truth act by the Government has been its slick withdrawal from “5 in 4”. Having found that the target was unattainable the Government now claims that it was Economic Growth Council Chairman Michael Lee Chin's aspirational target.

A third example of post-truth is the Government's communication on crime. Prior to taking office, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) announced that it had a crime plan. But on taking office it demanded that the police produce a crime plan. Although claiming to have a crime plan, former minister of national security, Robert Montague, presented a five-pillar strategy in April 2017, and it was not until June 2018 that his successor, Horace Chang, presented a crime plan as reported in the Jamaica Observer on June 24, 2018.

In January 2017, following the demitting of office by Police Commissioner Carl Williams, Montague had announced that the new commissioner must come to office with a crime plan. The Government's narrative is that 'Plan: Secure Jamaica' is the crime plan, but that was not what Horace Chang unveiled in June 2018.

Confusing issues, revising stories, moving targets, and refusing to own targets are all part of what post-truth is. Post-truth reasoning is a way of evading responsibility and accountability. There is always the element of deniability.

Whataboutisms and personal attacks

Another unfortunate feature of Jamaica in the last three years is the birth of 'whataboutism'. Whataboutism is the tendency to deflect valid criticism of oneself and ask, what about the other person who did so and so? This practice has been engaged by political loyalists who shrug off criticism of the Government by pointing to when the People's National Party (PNP) did it.

Let me make my position clear. Every alleged act of corruption or other unlawful behaviour by the PNP should be thoroughly investigated and the chips should fall where they may. But the Government having promised to do better than the PNP in growing the economy, tackling corruption, spending public funds wisely, fighting crime, and improving the education system cannot now defend itself by pointing to what the PNP did.

Whataboutism represents a lowering of the bar on leadership and takes us on a race to the bottom. As one physician said, it amounts to debating whose flatulence is more offensive. More painfully it is a tacit admission that the Government is either unable to keep, or has no intention of keeping its solemn promises.

As despicable as the “what about” arguments are, the parallel conduct of engaging in personal attacks on Government critics is even more disgraceful and silly. Personal attacks on critics usually indicate that the critic is on to something. Many of these attackers hide behind pseudonyms on social media, and some, ironically, use human images which show a face with an open mouth with teeth missing (toothless tigers, perhaps). These bloggers need to know, however, that using pseudonyms and false faces does not protect them from being identified.

This ought to be a message to those individuals who knowing that what they are doing is wrong do so under the cover of pseudonyms. The technology exists that can establish the location from which the post is made. As I said in a postscript on February 24, 2019: With this God-given and constitutionally-affirmed right to freedom of expression comes the accompanying and inescapable obligation of personal responsibility.

Holness's scorecard

In terms of overall performance, the Government may be commended for sticking to the economic programme it inherited, which had produced stability. The Government should also be recognised for achieving economic growth (albeit below the promised five per cent). On the crime front, 2016 and 2017 were terrible years, with 2016 seeing a 13.2 per cent increase in murders over 2015, and 2017 some 22 per cent over 2016. But 2018 showing a 21.9 per cent reduction in murders was a better year, so my assessment is: improving.

My vote for the best-performing sector is tourism. In 2016 there was a four per cent increase over 2015, and 12.1 per cent in 2017 over 2016. When the data for 2017 were being debated and Delano Seiveright was taking credit, I had argued that the performance for 2017 was due mainly to the diversion of cruise ships to Jamaica because of bad weather conditions in the Caribbean. Thus, that level of performance could not be sustained. The 12.1 per cent performance was against global and regional projections of between three per cent and five per cent I had, therefore, argued that Seiveright should not claim credit, especially since the industry was growing prior to his arrival at the ministry. For example, there was a 7.4 per cent growth in 2012 over 2011, which was repeated in 2014 over 2013 when there was a 7.03 per cent increase.

In relation to my prediction that the unusual 12.1 per cent growth in 2017 could not be repeated under normal circumstances, I was correct. The performance in cruise ship arrivals, which was mainly responsible for the growth in 2017, was down in 2018, falling from 1,923,274 in 2017 to 1,845,873 — a decline of four per cent. In the stopover visitors' segment, there was a growth of five per cent; moving from 2,352,915 visitors in 2017 to 2,472,727 in 2018. Thus, the four per cent decline in cruise ship arrivals was offset by the five per cent increase in stopovers, to produce an overall marginal one per cent improvement over 2017 — with 2017 recording 4,276,189 visitors compared to 4,318,600 in 2018.

But while growth in the sector was marginal in 2018, there are some other positive developments, including large, new investments. This fact, plus having grown, even marginally, on top of what was an unusual performance, is commendable. Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett and his team should take a bow.

In September 2016 and February 2018, I assessed the Government's performance drawing on items from the JLP's manifesto. Performance management cannot be done in a vacuum, it must be based on what the targeted performance was. In reusing the table which I used on two previous occasions, I have added two items (15 and 16). Using these promised targets, I assess the Government's performance as follows:

Achieved: 25 per cent

Partially achieved: 18.75 per cent

Overall score: 43.75 per cent or C

Not achieved: 56.25 per cent

A review of the Government's promises in its first 100 days will reveal that:

Achieved:

• Raising of tax-free threshold to $1.5 million on April 1, 2016

• Creation of investment council

• Remove mandatory school fees at secondary schools by increasing funds per child in the national budget

• Increase annual maintenance allocation to all schools to support building of sufficient classrooms

Partially achieved:

• Creating a safer environment through the reduction of crime

• Immediate restoration of the Junior Stock Market

• Enact or amend laws making provisions for increased use of non-custodial sentences with strict supervision conditions, including electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders.

Not achieved:

• Making tax-free threshold retroactive to April 1 if not implemented on April 1, 2016

• Introducing legislation for fixed election date

• Raising the minimum wage to $12,000

• Swift and appropriate sanctions for breaches of the laws which relate to public service and governance, particularly as they relate to the Corruption Prevention Act, etc

• Enact or amend laws making provisions for mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent criminals and certain dangerous categories of crime

• Amend the plea-bargaining law to increase the incentives for criminals to testify against their accomplices, especially those involved in gang activities

• Provide job descriptions for all ministers

• Grow the economy by five per cent each year

• Create 50,000 new jobs each year

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, 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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