Sooner than later, Holness!

Sooner than later, Holness!

Play the advantage and 'call it'

GARFIELD HIGGINS

Sunday, January 26, 2020

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It is the tasty soup that draws the table closer. — Ewe proverb, Ghana

Calling a general election is a very time-sensitive matter. Common sense dictates that it is best to go to the polls when “the eagle of victory takes its flight”. The mentioned aphorism comes from a famous bit of advice given to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, by his Secretary of State William Seward. As Lincoln wrestled with the issue of the best time to make public his transformative Emancipation Proclamation, Seward made a strategically brilliant recommendation: “Far preferable to wait until the eagle of victory takes its flight and then hang your proclamation around its neck.” (Harvard Business Review, September to October 2018 issue)

In this tremendously insightful article by renowned American biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, it is noted that Lincoln accepted Seward's advice. He waited until word of “victory” came from the Civil War battlefield, then he made public his proclamation, and the rest, as they say, is history.

A year ago this month, Troy Caine, renowned Jamaican political historian and calligrapher, died. Many, me including, benefited greatly from his extraordinarily sharp memory, and incisive perspectives. He was extremely unselfish with his knowledge. On matters especially regarding local political statistics, he was peerless. In one of my many lengthy conversations with him he reminded me that in the wake of Hurricane Gilbert, on September 12, 1988, large sections of Jamaica had been severely damaged. He noted that the Edward Seaga Administration worked overtime and miraculously restored most of the country's key functions after only two months. People, locally, regionally and internationally, were in awe that Jamaica had made such a speedy recovery. Caine recalled that Seaga was advised to piggyback on the favourable public sentiment and call a general election. Seaga waited until February 1989.

Political support is cruelly transient. Michael Manley, who had rechristened himself a capitalist, soundly defeated Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

I believe the eagle of victory has taken flight for the Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party. I pointed that out and much more in these three recent columns in this space — 'The writing is on the wall', Jamaica Observer, November 3, 2019; 'Gambling for resurrection', Jamaica Observer, December 1, 2019; 'For the record: The writing is already on the wall', Jamaica Observer, December 29, 2019.

This Administration has some aces. It has done well on the macroeconomic fronts by any objective measurement. Unemployment is at 7.2 per cent, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (Statin). This is the lowest in our history. Jamaica has just over US$3 billion in reserves in our central bank — the most we've had since our country's political independence. And, our debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is improving. Business and consumer confidence are still at record highs. Inflation is at a record low. The Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) recently reported that we have had 19 consecutive quarters of growth.

Rating agency Moody's recently upgraded Jamaica's outlook from positive to stable, while upgrading the long-term issuer and senior unsecured ratings of the Government of Jamaica from B3 to B2. Standard and Poor's recently upgraded Jamaica's credit rating to B+ from B. Other major international rating agencies, for example, Fitch, have either affirmed and/or upgraded their outlook on Jamaica from stable to positive.

On November 3, 2019 I said, among others things, in this space: “I believe our 18th parliamentary election will be held in April 2020.” I am sticking to that humble prediction. Why? In addition to the very favourable macroeconomic achievements of this Administration, there are some other key realities and considerations which suggest to me that it would be best for the JLP to go to the polls sooner than later.

1) Water

At the time of writing this piece the Mona Reservoir was at 86.8 per cent and the Hermitage Dam was at 91.6 per cent of capacity. With those good numbers many people would have probably forgotten this headline: 'Forecasters warn of less rainfall for Caribbean'.

The news item said, among other things: “The Barbados-based Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) says as the region enters the new dry season rainfall is expected to decline with parts of the Caribbean already suffering drought conditions in recent months [and will be] feeling effects from long-term drought by the end of the dry season...

“By the end of May 2020 several countries will experience longer-term drought situations, including Barbados, eastern and west-central Belize, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Windward Islands, except Grenada.” ( Jamaica Observer, December 8, 2019)

I could list dozens of newspaper headlines which spoke of the hardships that our citizens encountered when drought conditions worsened in most of the country over the last seven summers. When folks do not have water to bathe, cook, wash clothes, and perform other necessary daily domestic and industrial duties they are hardly receptive to political wooing.

Those who say the general election will be held somewhere between June and September clearly have not factored in the forecasts of drought, which the weather experts say are once again heading our way. Or maybe it is they believe JLP/PNP (People's National Party) candidates can literally walk on water.

Instead of focusing on a general election, I believe it would be better for our country to use the upcoming summer months to put in place sustained medium- and long-term measures to shore up our water security. I do not include among those plans for more water shops, trucking, and other unimaginative measures which this Administration recently proposed. I have written numerous articles in which I have cited research evidence from countries like Singapore and Namibia that show how they have solved their major water challenges. We need to tailor many of the successes of these and countries to our needs.

We have been 'water-shopping and trucking' for donkey's years and it has not solved one of our major water challenges; that is, how to efficiently transport water from the north of the country, which has an abundance, to the southern portions which has limited supplies at certain critical times of the year.

2) Hurricane season

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a United States government agency, “The 2019 Atlantic Hurricane Season was marked by tropical activity that churned busily from mid-August through October. The season produced 18 named storms, including six hurricanes, of which three were 'major' (category 3, 4 or 5).”

Some forecasts indicate that the 2020 hurricane season — June 1, 2020 - November 30, 2020 — will be even more active than 2019. I believe the images of untold devastation of large sections of The Bahamas and other sister territories are still fresh in the minds of thousands across the region. Jamaica has been spared a direct hit from a major weather system such as a hurricane in recent years. As rural folks put it, we have to “knock on wood” and thank God for his tender mercies.

Given the realities of climate change, I don't think it is the wisest thing to execute a general election during the hurricane season. Recall, former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller tried it in 2007; it did not work to her advantage.

3) Oil prices and world economy

Oil prices are expected to remain stable in 2020, according to many experts in the crude oil business. Forecasts from the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), for example, indicate that: “Brent crude oil spot price will average US$65 per barrel (b) in 2020 and US$68/b in 2021, and that the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) spot price will average $59/b in 2020 and $62/b in 2021.” ( www.eia.gov)

One does not need to be an expert in the crude oil and natural gas business to know that instability in the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, can influence upward shifts in oil prices on the global market.

Earlier this month tensions between Tehran and Washington, DC, boiled over. Recall that at the direction of US President Donald Trump, Iran's military commander General Qasem Soleimani was killed in an air strike. Recall the immediate, albeit temporary, upward jump in oil prices that followed?

Then there is talk that there will be a slowdown in two of the world's largest economies in 2020: “The IMF [International Monetary Fund] forecasts that both the Chinese and American economies will slow in 2020. They expect the US to grow two per cent in 2020, down from 2.3 per cent in 2019. China's rate will slip to six per cent in 2020 from 6.1 per cent in 2019. China's forecast would have slowed more sharply, the IMF noted, without the trade deal.” ( The Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2020)

The easing of hostility in the United States and China trade war suggests to me that the shorts of global recession since mid-2019 might have been premature. It sounds to me that we are heading into a period which will require great amounts of simultaneous consolidation and expansion.

I believe we need to hold the general election quickly so that we can again focus all our energies on improving the social and economic conditions of especially the ordinary Jamaican, whose blood, sweat, and tears secured the successful completion of the recent IMF programme.

Ducts in row, but…

All told, Prime Minister Andrew Holness is in a good place to “fly the gate” [Former Prime Minister P J Patterson's term for announcing an election date]. There is, of course, the 10,000-pound gorilla in the room — crime. Already, some 60 Jamaicans have been murdered. Murder is the ultimate crime.

On January 5, 2019 I said, among other things, here: “The primary duty of the State is to secure the citizens within its borders. Like previous administrations, this one is failing in that respect.”

Folks are expecting that the Andrew Holness Administration will significantly cauterise the bloodletting in the country. I repeat, the Administration needs to deliver a much stronger and strategic response to crime at all levels. The PNP's withdrawal of its support for the states of emergency in December 2018 — at a time when murders were down 22 per cent — the deadly upsurge in murders and other major crimes that followed this cruel decision, plus this recent The Gleaner headline 'Banking ransom for SOE — PNP to leverage support for trade-off against 'exorbitant fees' ' that appeared two days before Christmas 2019, tell me that 89 Old Hope Road is willing to use crime as a political football.

I believe these unfortunate missteps by the PNP will cost it dearly at the polls. Those who watch the political tea leaves realise “the eagle of victory” has already taken flight. Nonetheless, it is best for the Andrew Holness-led JLP to guard against any form of complacency like the plague.

More pay for MPs

During recent weeks the matter of a salary increase for Members of Parliament (MP) has resurfaced. This is a recurring decimal. So too is the matter of the building of a new parliament. I find it quite interesting that the latest push for salary increases for MPs is being spearheaded by four members of the House of Representatives MPs who are in the political departure lounge — Pearnel Charles, Clarendon, North Central; Robert Pickersgill, St Catherine, North Western; Ronald Thwaites, Kingston Central; and Everald Warmington, St Catherine, South Western.

This tells a whole story.

Last February, I said among other things, on these issues: “Elected politicians, however we slice it or dice it, are a privileged bunch in this country when compared to the general citizenry.” They have access to special health care, special security arrangements, and the like.

Notwithstanding, our elected representatives are poorly paid. I have argued in this space, time and time again, that we need to pay our elected officials better. I have also argued that a new and modern parliament building — fitted with state-of-the-art, fit-for-purpose technologies, and special provisions for the physically challenged — is needed.

“My reasoning is that since we must make great demands on our elected representatives, we should pay them well and, at a minimum, provide them with a rather more pleasant work headquarters.

“Simultaneously, I have argued repeatedly that the average worker needs to be paid way better, and conditions of work must be improved if we are going to retain the best and brightest talents to grow this economy really fast. Until these necessary objectives are achieved, we cannot, however, escape certain conspicuous realities.

''I admit, however, that maybe with one or two exceptions, our elected officials, compared to the vast majority of the citizenry, are not exactly 'feeling for their next meal', as we say in local parlance, bus fair, rent/mortgage payment, and the like.” ( Jamaica Observer, February 17, 2019)

I stand by those views. If we continue to pay peppercorn rates for critical services we are going to continue to get shoddy outcomes.

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.


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