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A conference big on optics ...but lacking in substance

Canute Thompson

Sunday, December 01, 2019

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A political party's annual conference, like the annual general meeting of a company, is expected to involve a frank and factual assessment of performance over the last year and to outline a specific set of actions for the coming year(s) in keeping with the party's philosophy and mandate. It is understandable that the presentation of the conference will be accompanied by stagecraft and optics, but these elements are intended to embellish not replace the substance.

Using those benchmarks, I would rate the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) recent conference, from the limited pictures I saw, as scoring a 7/10 — an A in some quarters — on stagecraft and optics, but a failing grade, 2/10, on substance. In relation to the substance, I took the time to read some reports on the conference as well as the party leader's speech.

Empty chairs

Any political party which is not able to mobilise its base for an annual conference is not worth its salt. When the political party is in power there is an expectation that it will be able to put on a great show. In that regard, that the JLP has earned high marks for stagecraft is nothing spectacular. For what is the real value of a good show? In my view it is merely the froth on the beer. It lasts for a moment and that is it.

One aspect of the stagecraft that was poorly managed, though, which led me to give the organisers a 7/10 (rather than 10/10) is that there were many visible empty chairs in the National Arena while the party leader was speaking. Various explanations have been advanced for this, including that the speech was long and boring, and that people left to collect their 'stipend'. Whatever the reason, that was a gap in the stagecraft.

Building Jamaica?

The theme of the conference was about building Jamaica. When I saw the theme I immediately assumed that it was about infrastructure. I was correct, and I am troubled by what I regard as the JLP's, and the Government's flawed notions about how to build a country. As I tweeted on the Sunday of the conference, while roads and other structures are needed, the construction activities only affect economic growth for the period of construction, but they do not, by themselves, alter the structures of the economy, and as such their capacity to contribute to sustained economic growth and development is limited.

In laying out what I considered to be the critical elements of the scorecard, one which would set the tone for building Jamaica, I tweeted a list of 10 things to which party leader and Prime Minister Andrew Holness should speak to. And, on the top of that list was education.

The key element of this plan for education was doubling the percentage of the workforce having post-secondary technical training; moving it from its current level to at least 60 per cent. This will not happen overnight. It will take us 10 to 15 years.

While Holness did address that subject, his presentation on the issue was shallow and insubstantial. His major offering was the building of centres of excellence. There was no compelling description of a plan of action to increase tertiary enrolment and improve the secondary, primary, and early childhood levels. In my view, rather than building new structures called centres of excellence, the Government should be seeking to impactfully improve the existing structures and the system. This could be achieved through, among other things, refurbishing some schools, upgrading lab facilities, fully funding the upgrading of mathematics and science teachers who do not have the requisite content and pedagogical skills, and supporting the tertiary sector to deliver training that is more aligned to global industry needs. In short, the prime minister's plan for building Jamaica did not place education at the centre, nor did he communicate that this was an urgent need. The treatment of education was as though it was just another item on a bucket list.

Corruption

The issue of corruption was the second item on the list of things I contended the prime minister should address. And, he did. But, again, he did not go anywhere near the lengths he should have gone to address this matter. In the first place he seemed to have excused corrupt practices, describing the behaviour as part of the learning curve. This will simply not fly, Prime Minister. Let us remind ourselves of how damaging corruption is: It is estimated to rob the economy of up to seven per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from the five per cent estimate which was being used for the last few years. A two-percentage point increase translates to a 40 per cent increase, and in nominal terms the figure has moved from $100 billion to $140 billion. This means the country is facing a crisis of extraordinary proportions. Thus, there ought to have been a greater sense of urgency and clarity of purpose in tackling this issue.

But, apart from saying it is at the forefront of his mind — which it ought — the prime minister's presentation of this issue disclosed no new ideas for tackling a life-threatening problem.

Let us remind ourselves of other facts about this disease called corruption. In recent polls, some 83 per cent of Jamaicans said the Government is “corrupt”, 33 per cent of whom said the Government is “very corrupt”. Forty-nine per cent of Jamaicans believe corruption has increased over the last 12 months. These are staggering numbers, and as such the prime minister ought to have gone further than merely saying that the anti-corruption agencies are to be left to do their job.

Among the practical steps Holness should have announced in showing that he is really concerned about corruption would be:

(i) A very short timetable for the passing of the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) Act;

(ii) A firm timetable for tabling of legislation for fixed election dates;

(iii) Giving an update on progress towards the setting up of a joint select committee to review the Integrity Commission Act;

(iv) Outlining positions for proposed amendments to the Integrity Commission Act, which should include requiring all politicians to make their assets and liabilities public; and

(v) A strong condemnation of corruption by public officials.

Violent crime

The issue of crime was on my list and the prime minister addressed it, but unlike education and corruption he had more to say. Still, his focus on this issue was both disappointing and troubling.

That we can expect more zones of special operations (ZOSOs) and the use of limited states of public emergency (SOEs) is disappointing. Part of what it suggests is that the Government is devoid of creative ideas. While ZOSOs, on paper, are useful measures they are not being used as intended, and there is no reason to believe that the Government will change its approach, with the weekly murder tally being near 30, and with murders up over last year, despite the existence of several SOEs, the plan for more of the same is mind-boggling.

In addition to murders being unabated, shootings are up by 7.5 per cent over last year. This is just not a description of a performance which was touted as “able to sleep with windows and doors open”. The Government has simply failed in this area. The absence of any clear plan — though some details must be kept secret — to reverse this situation is simply troubling. Who will be the next murder victim, and how many will we have at the end of this week?

Most Honourable Brogad

The ninth item on my list of 10 things which I said the prime minister should address is his decision to wrap himself in the dancehall label of Brogad. Well, the prime minister was unapologetic in this regard. He came fully decked in the paraphernalia of the dancehall — tinted shades, sweater, Brogad hat, and the pose. Go deh, PM!

I have serious issues with the prime minister's Brogad label. I understand his motives — that of appealing to the dancehall demographic of the electorate — but I am also aware of the effect he is having. My sources tell me that voter registration is up in some key constituencies and the influencers in the dancehall community are in love with their newly designated Brogad.

However, I have a few questions:

(1) What is the value system of the Brogad promoters, and how do those value systems square with the kind of Jamaica that the prime minister says he wishes to create?

(2) Is the prime minister using his office and influence to raise the quality of discourse in the society, or is he, for populist reasons and the desire to retain power, subjecting his office to unsavoury association?

(3) From a strict security point of view, does the law-enforcement community endorse the prime minister's embrace of the Brogad designation?

Dr 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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