Rough Road, Top Driver
Published: Sunday | April 6, 2008

From 1944 to 1989, Jamaica was a two term land. Each administration was voted back in once, and no more. But the PNP governed for four straight terms from 1989 to 2007. And like many political parties left in charge too long, the Comrades started acting - as a lady once exclaimed angrily to me - "like dem daddy dead and lef dem the country!"

Things might have been different had Edward Seaga stepped down after his 1993 general election loss. Now, Mr Seaga has probably made more significant contributions in more areas than any modern Jamaican. But every man has his era. And two straight defeats for a former PM is a definite sign that yours has ended.

Yet, power is a difficult drug to give up. Bill Clinton is now trying to circumvent US term limits via his wife. Long-term British PMs Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair only went voluntarily because the alternative was to be publicly pushed out.

But instead of collectively handing Mr Seaga his resignation letter after the 1993 loss, faint-hearted JLP deputies allowed him to lead them to two more predictable general election defeats. Had Bruce Golding become JLP leader then, PJ Patterson would probably still have been re-elected in 1997, but likely not for a fourth straight PNP term in 2002.

What's done cannot be undone. But at least the entrenched patronage and blatant corruption of the outgoing administration is being revealed. Hundreds of millions are unaccounted for in the Cuban light bulb saga. Hundreds of millions were being wasted at the NSWMA and JUTC. Air Jamaica's Heathrow slots were virtually given away to Virgin Airlines. Millions were spent on an unused sports complex in Sligoville. How much more squandering and stealing would be still going on had the Comrades won again?


Our farmers could get better yields by changing some local practices. - 

A fifth straight term, and we likely would never have heard about the above scandals. Nor would Dutch authorities have been allowed to investigate the still unexplained Trafigura affair. So from a national point of view, the September 3, 2007 change of government was unquestionably good for Jamaica.

This is not a green or orange argument. Had positions been reversed, the fallout would probably have been no different. It's simply human nature - the longer a party stays in power, the more arrogant, cynical and corrupt it gets. A weak opposition only makes it worse. That's why the PNP's current disarray is worrying. If voters have no credible alternative, a la the 1990s JLP, it might be déjà vu all over again in reverse.

As for the new JLP administration, well, Bruce Golding has been more impressive than his party. His board appointments have been relatively non-partisan. He's publicly disciplined out-of-order Labourites like Everald Warmington, Bobby Montague, and Andrew Wheatley. And he's connecting with the people via his monthly call-in show.

The nuts and bolts administrative changes promised, such as the 90-day approval process and special prosecutor, obviously can't come overnight.

But those in the know say real progress is being made. One concern is that Mr Golding is over-extending himself, and single-handedly trying to do too much, too soon. As an observant well-wisher puts it, "He needs a stronger organisational structure around him, so he can focus on strategy and let others deal with logistics."


Some wonder if all his Cabinet colleagues share Mr Golding's transparency and accountability vision. But Transport Minister Mike Henry and Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett have gained plaudits. However, Security Minister Derrick Smith has been practically invisible. Murder remains the country's biggest problem, and this administration has been as useless in dealing with crime as the last one. The MacMillan Report has disappeared into the twilight zone.

New ministers have had to fight many leftover fires. But some big picture vision is needed. For instance, we need a comprehensive national energy policy to help reduce skyrocketing fuel bills in every possible way.

The National Housing Trust (NHT) solar panel and water heater loans are good ideas. As are proposed plans for a solar panel factory and electricity reverse metering. Tax breaks for more efficient diesel cars also come to mind, as does daylight saving time. Rather than slavishly copying the US, as in the 1970s, we could set clocks ahead from May to August. An extra hour of sunlight for even four months should reduce electricity consumption, as well as cut crime and traffic deaths. It would also send a clear public signal that these serious times call for serious measures. Any inconveniences would pale in the face of $110 barrel oil.

Out-of-the- box thinking is also needed in agriculture. Last month I talked with two visiting US agriculturalists. They were amazed at the decrepit state of our trees and plants. In their view, Jamaica has a serious untreated soil-borne disease problem. This is the main reason why imported American produce like carrots is much larger than the local variety. They felt that if Jamaica used similar soil health management and fumigation methods as the US, our agricultural yield would at least double or triple.

What about environmental and cost factors? Well, the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is far more stringent than any Jamaican body, promotes the use of approved soil fumigants. ( As for cost benefit, a study estimated that each dollar spent on Apple Replant Disease control by fumigation in Washington State returned $525 over five years. (Peterson and Hinman. 1994)

Scientific soil

The hard-working Agriculture Minister Chris Tufton is setting up a committee to look at the feasibility of wide-scale scientific soil health management. The US agriculturalists I spoke with are greatly interested in having one of their scientist colleagues sit on this committee. Scientists from Canada's McGill University are also willing to help, as is British-based CABI (Centre of Agriculture and Biosciences International), of which Jamaica is a member. If soil-borne disease is the root of our agricultural decline - as Mark Wignall argues compellingly in the March 30 Observer - we need to remedy the problem as soon as possible.

For there is a serious global food crisis developing. Wheat prices have doubled over the past year, and rice prices have doubled in the last three months. Food riots have recently erupted in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen and the Ivory Coast. The world's largest rice exporters, Thailand and Vietnam, have cut exports so as to guarantee supplies at home. India, Egypt and Cambodia have banned rice exports altogether.

All this means food staple prices are going to rise very sharply in Jamaica. It's difficult to see how the Government can avoid some kind of subsidy. But where will it find the money? Oil at $110 per barrel has already blown an estimated US$600 million hole in the upcoming budget.

One option would be to raise the gasolene tax and put a GCT tax on electricity, while increasing the income tax threshold to offset the impact on low wage earners. Then use the proceeds to fund targeted food stamps for the poor. This would in effect cut oil imports, with the savings paying for higher priced food imports.


It would also shift some of the pain from those already suffering, to those who can bear a little more hardship. The Government will be wary of gas demonstrations. But maybe better gas riots than food riots. One way or another, tough choices have to be made by all.

These are not business-as-usual times. So it's comforting to have in charge someone with a complete mastery of the issues. Even detractors admit there's no harder working or more intelligent politician around than Bruce Golding. He and Jamaica have a rough fiscal road to travel. But right now, he's the best driver we've got.

Comments (0)

Post a Comment
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
(not publicly displayed)
Reply Notification:
Approval Notification:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image:
* Message: