Golding's masterful strokes in budget debateTuesday, March 23, 2021
The presentation by Leader of Opposition Mark Golding delivered in the 2021/22 budget debate at Gordon House last week was a tour de force and a game-changer. I found it balanced, clear, full of practical suggestions and far-reaching ideas. One could be forgiven for forgetting that this was Golding's maiden presentation as leader of the parliamentary Opposition.
The breadth of subjects addressed and the far-reaching nature of some of the ideas offered perhaps indicate that the People's National Party (PNP), under Golding's leadership, is once again open for business. This is especially because Golding's presentation came on the heels of the hard-to-exceed presentation by Julian Robinson, the erstwhile PNP general secretary and freshman Opposition spokesman of finance.
While Golding's presentation was full of understatement and was very measured, even in the criticisms it made, there were some sharp barbs that were received like upper cuts on the chins of both Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clark and Prime Minister Andrew Holness. I identify two: The first was remarks by Golding about the dividends from the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) about which the finance minister boasted as the result of good policy and $33 billion of which was the source of financing for this year's budget. Golding, for his part, demonstrated that greater than 50 per cent of the profit of the BOJ earned between 2017-2019 ($17.9B) was directly the result of earnings from the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar against its US counterpart. Golding argued that by claiming the profit as good policy Minister Clarke was indicating that devaluation, which disproportionately affect fixed income earners at the bottom of the economy, meant that it was a tax on the people. Without skipping a beat Golding unveiled his compelling object lesson of the basket of goods. What was original about his use of the basket of goods — a regular feature of political presentations of these types — was that Golding brought along the cashier's receipt, complete with the General Consumption Tax (GCT) charges. He emphasised that the $10,000 could not fill the basket, and that this was what the Government's COVID-19 Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) package, given eight months earlier, was able to purchase — less than two weeks' worth of food and supplies for a family. It was a masterstroke by the Opposition leader.
The second upper cut that was equally compelling was his assessment of the loss of Jamaica's principled approach in terms of foreign policy. He bemoaned the abandonment of Caricom partners and kowtowing to the USA, under President Donald Trump, at the expense of Venezuela. He rejected the suggestion made by Holness on a US television network that Jamaica was in the US backyard. Golding declared: “No, Sah. What is this? Jamaica is not in anyone's backyard. We are no puppet or stooge to any foreign power. We are not for sale. As Michael Manley once courageously said, 'We walk the world stage on our feet, not on our knees!'”
Golding continued, “With the advent of a new and more progressive Administration in Washington, the Government's unfortunate dance with the Trump Administration has been laid bare. Let us hope that Jamaica's prospects have not been blighted by the departure from our long and noble tradition of upholding Caribbean solidarity.”
The speech by Golding sought to put a distance between the Administration of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and that of the PNP, by pointing to the differences in their approach to public policy. This difference also showed itself in the approach to the budget and the pandemic.
Golding argued that “the fiscally conservative choices made by the JLP Administration in the face of desperate suffering among the people” was inadequate and timid. By contrast, Golding appealed to values and priorities that separate the PNP from the JLP. He said: “At this time of crisis, people must be the priority. People must be at the centre of policy,” which is a well-known mantra of the PNP.
Golding made other similar comparisons and contrasts, including in respect the fight against crime and violence. He said the crime monster in Jamaica required a balance in approach between crime control and social investment aimed at crime prevention. He also spoke feelingly about squatting and declared that, “Some 700,000 parcels of land in Jamaica still have no registered title, and this undermines the financing of agriculture and rural development. It has contributed to persistent poverty over generations. The impediments are complex, structural, and rooted in our history. These are things that a future PNP Administration would address.”
In addressing the pandemic, Golding renewed his call for a high-level task force headed by the prime minister to be appointed. He said, “The Government must ensure that the roll-out of the national vaccination programme is rapid, logical, data-driven and, most of all, equitable.” In keeping with the principle of equity in distributing vaccines, the guiding objectives should be minimising deaths and serious illness from the disease, and ensuring fairness in who gets vaccinated and when.
The public can quibble about what was the high-water mark of Golding's presentation, but for my part it was his imagination about constitutional matters. He expressed the view that the time had come for Jamaica to become a constitutional republic and replace the monarchy with a Jamaican head of state. He also said that the time had come for the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) to become Jamaica's final appellate court. He admitted that the JLP had not yet come to that view, but that we should go ahead with what is already agreed.
Golding also spoke about the matters arising and the job left undone in respect of ganja reform, which he believes holds a key to expansion of the Jamaican economy with greater inclusion with the people at the bottom. He said, “We will take the law relating to the lawful cannabis industry out of the Dangerous Drugs Act altogether, and enact a Cannabis Industry Development Act to support the inclusive development and growth of this industry.” In doing so, we will overhaul the current system of regulation that has been developed by the Cannabis Licensing Authority. This would have the effect of including the small ganja farmers and privileging the Rastafari community.
I also found compelling his suggestions about repairing dilapidated housing to empower families in inner-city and rural communities. I think the idea of ending the 'working around' of the gains made in industrial relations by the use of fixed-term contracts, especially as it affects security guards, is a duty to history. I also think that the abolition of the requirement of guarantors for student loan applicants will assist tertiary students from low-income families. All of these policy recommendations by Golding were practical, doable, and game-changing.
All the presentations during this year's budget debate so far have been of a fairly high standard. I found the presentation by Minister Nigel Clarke quite interesting, except for his overuse of “unprecedented”. Everything that the minister announced was characterised as unprecedented. But I guess one ought to expect these things; remember the days of the “for the first time, at last”.
The Opposition leader bemoaned the fact that, at a time when all hands are needed on deck, there is no effective channel for discussion opened between the Government and Opposition. He indicated that the Government and Opposition has not spoken even once since he had become leader of Opposition. Jamaica needs both to work together, he said. He called for the resumption of the Vale Royal Talks, which ought to be a no-brainer. Let us see what is made of the policy recommendations. But do not hold your breath, we have seen this movie before.
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