Expecting Too Little or Too Much

Published: Sunday | September 7, 2008

There has never been and never will be an ideal government. But this doesn't stop many from judging their rulers by a standard of perfection not found on Earth. Places we Jamaicans look up to as models of democracy and prosperity - Britain, United States, Canada - regularly show large majorities thoroughly dissatisfied with their politicians.

In contrast, many abysmally governed places freely re-elect leaders who keep them mired in poverty and violence. Between 1989 and 2007 for instance, the murder count in Jamaica went from 429 to 1574, and the economy grew by an official cumulative total of less than 10 per cent. Yet the PNP won four straight terms and only missed winning a fifth by 3,000 votes.

It's not that voters are collectively foolish. But like sports, politics is relative. A great runner can lose to a greater one. A lousy government can defeat an even lousier opposition. This was basically our situation in 2002. Despite 13 years of poor economic growth, rampant corruption and rising crime, the public still had more confidence in the ruling party than the out-of-touch Edward Seaga and a disorganised JLP.

The relevant questions in judging any administration are always: a) How well could we realistically have expected them to do, and b), Could the opposition have done better? You can't expect too much, or too little. Now with Bruce Golding's JLP having spent a year in power, people are asking how well they have done. Well here's a cricketing summary.

market collapsing

It was like the first session of a Test match. The pitch was full of moisture and the ball was swinging around - oil and wheat prices at one point doubling in 12 months, Cash Plus and Olint crashing, and the United States housing market collapsing. The JLP showed a definite weakness to the short-pitched ball - former Security Minister Derrick Smith was clueless on crime. Prime Minister Golding failed to address the issue in his Budget speech, and even new Security Minister Trevor MacMillan himself has ignored the MacMillan crime plan.

But after losing a couple of early wickets, Skipper Golding steadied the ship by finally announcing some strong crime-fighting measures, and got good assistance at the other end from the ever-trying Minister of Education Andrew Holness. Playing each ball on merit and taking the singles, they went to lunch on 75 for two - a decent, though not outstanding start. A more reckless and cavalier approach as some commentators and spectators were urging, and it might have been 90 for five.

wayward bowling

The Government was clearly aided by wayward bowling from the Opposition, who instead of attacking the stumps, kept serving up wide long hops and full tosses, while arguing among themselves.

The JLP can point to a number of positive accomplishments over the past year. They followed through on the free-education and health-care promises, built an office for the Opposition leader, and put Opposition members in charge of parliamentary committees. Probably more police, including high-ranking officers, have been charged for corruption in 2008 than in the last five years put together. The Festival Parade and Grand Gala were the biggest and best in a generation.

Golding is also proving our finest communicating Prime Minister since Michael Manley. He lays out the problems in detail, and tells us what the Government plans to do in a clear and reassuring manner. Some say he is talking better than he is doing, but polls show his positive ratings on an upward trajectory and consistently higher than his party's.

control crime

The new administration's big failing is its inability to control crime, a weakness that to many outweighs all the positives put together. No government presiding over a nation with the world's highest murder rate can consider itself a success. Until the JLP does all that is in its power to try and reduce our homicide level, it cannot in my book get any more than a seven out of 10. To argue that the last administration was just as bad on crime is no longer a reasonable defence.

Many accuse Golding and his party of reneging on their promises to improve the structure of governance. Party officials keep saying "we are in the process of drafting the necessary legislation". Are they telling the truth? The public has no way of knowing. Golding's once-a-month radio shows are nice. But they increasingly lack substance, or at least are not sufficiently informative about how the JLP's election promises are being fulfilled.

Of course cynics wonder why commentators now parsing this government's election manifesto never did the same when the PNP was in power. Remember P.J. Patterson's free education in three years promise? And Robert Pickersgill's 'Pothole free by 2003' guarantee? And what about the '100 per cent literacy in five years' pledge made in 2002, and barefacedly repeated in 2007?

After Abe Dabdoub won his dual citizenship case and it seemed that a new election might be imminent, one got a sense of urgency in the Government's actions. Golding suddenly seemed to realise that yes, crime was the biggest problem on the public's mind, and promised tough measures like tougher bail conditions, DNA testing and video link witness testimony.

But now the election court cases have been delayed, while the PNP leaders are more focused on criticising each other than the JLP. So not surprisingly, a sense of 'business as usual' has once again descended upon Gordon House. While there is considerable public confidence in Golding's sense of duty and competence, voters are not so sure of his team. While a few like Andrew Holness and Ed Bartlett have won plaudits, most other Cabinet ministers elicit a 'no better herring, no better barrel' response.

Few governments perform well when facing a weak opposition. Only the threat of being voted out gives most politicians the impetus to work hard in the public's interest, instead of just enjoying the perks of power. Had the JLP been united under a reasonably popular leader between 1989 and 2007, the PNP government could never have got away with its lackadaisical approach to administration. The attitude was clearly 'We can do anything we want and still be sure of getting re-elected, so we will'.

leadership race

Well, sadly history seems to be repeating itself in spades. Both sides in the PNP leadership race seem to be seeking victory at any cost. Peter Phillips says the PNP needs to again become "the standard of integrity and honesty". Paul Burke has accused his own party of "massive corruption in delegate selection", citing Dr Phillips' constituency as the prime culprit. If they don't trust each other, how can the public?

Walking out of the House over the EPA amendment vote was yet another recent Opposition move seemingly designed to alienate the electorate. If they were really so worked up about the issue, shouldn't all 28 comrade members of Parliament have turned up? A full PNP complement might even have conceivably won the parliamentary vote on the matter, since only 26 Labourites were present. But only 16 comrades turned up. Clearly the EPA vote was no big thing to the missing 12. And to walk out in protest under such circumstances made a mockery of Parliament, and a laughing stock of the PNP itself. What point were the protesters trying to make? Just whose ridiculous idea was it? Is anyone in charge right now?

Regardless of whether Portia or Peter wins, let's hope the PNP gets its act together after September 20, and does not becomes as irrelevant as the 1990s' JLP. Otherwise we could be looking at 'plenty more years of sufferation, confusion and boderation' - under new management.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding discusses his crime plan in Parliament.- file

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