Today is the day when Jamaica’s PM makes her contribution to the national budget debate. I would be lying if I told you that I was looking for it to give me any deep insight into how the country’s finances are really doing and how we will find our way onto a path for strong growth and higher employment.
The PM does not do ‘big ideas’ or ‘strategic vision’. I say that based on what I have heard her say, and on nothing else. However, I do have a notion of bigger ideas that she has stood behind, but given that they were in the context and euphoria of election promises, I would be foolish and naive to put a lot of faith in such remarks. One of those big ideas was to do with accountability and transparency.
Last October, The Gleaner commissioned a survey and found that 4 out of 5 Jamaicans found that the promises on accountability and transparency were hollow and empty. They found that the PM’s style of leading from a position of saying little and taking most opportunities to avoid being interviewed as being amongst the things that had bolstered this low opinion.
I’m not sure what the strategy and thinking of the PM and her ‘handlers’s has been on this ‘wall of silence’ strategy, but I have a stronger feeling that it was in fact a form of damage limitation. In other words, the less that was said, the less damning evidence that existed that nothing much was being said or that promises were going unfulfilled.
It seems that almost every time the PM has the opportunity to make a definitive statement on some major issue, it comes out as a rather cringe-wrothy sound bite. That happens, sometimes, especially if one is uncomfortable being in the limelight. But, I don’t think that’s the problem. She does not shun the limelight, if it involves ‘action’. So, she’s at ease running with a baton, or wielding a shovel, for example. However, she’s increasingly ill at ease when it comes to speaking to the nation on major policy issues or topics of national interest.
Jamaicans like to ‘tek serius t’ing mek joke’, but have a leader on whose every word people now hang for another sign that all is not right.
I have a generally generous disposition about people who have to be in the public eye and make themselves available to justify what they do in the people’s name. But, there comes a point where you cannot throw away all the evidence and pretend that what you have seen and heard did not happen.
When the PM uttered the infamous “doing less with more money“, at her party conference half a year ago, some smart people tried to tell me that it was an example of the misspoken word. I said that was utter tosh. The PM never retracted the statement, or gave any indication that it was not what she meant to say. Being a product of a discipline that has to take evidence seriously, I put that up as Exhibit 1 that ‘words don’t lie’.
What is more, not one prominent person of the ruling party came out and said “She did not mean to say that.” So, again, I put it to you that she said what she meant.
Other exhibits exist to support this idea.
It just happens to be the case that prominent examples of lack of accountability and transparency are also excellent examples of doing less with more money. How else does one understand what the NHT is trying to with the Outameni purchase, and the fact that the Board has not been under any pressure from the political directorate to resign. On the contrary, the Board chairman (who is supposed to report to the PM) said publicly he was not going to resign. I don’t know how he got authority to determine his own fate, except that he is neither accountable nor are the processes transparent. No one has given an explanation of why the inflated price for the assets of a failed entertainment venture can be justified or what is really going to be undertaken. The jokes about being ‘out of money’ are only funny if you are yourself not worring about money and the lack of a house provided by an institution that supposedly has that as its principal mandate.
The fire raging at Riverton Dump (and I give it a title with that capital D) is another example of no accountability or transparency and doing less with [more] money.
The embattled ED of NSWMA keeps telling anyone who cares to listen that, if only she had had more money and resources, all of our solid waste problems would have been things of the past. But, that doesn’t stand up to any kind of examination. The money available to NSWMA has not been spent prudently, and it’s not because of a recent story about J$1 billion being spent inappropriately. How do I know that? By the absence of audited accounts, which partly reflects that the organisation cannot manage the money properly it has and the accountants and auditors can only give a ‘qualified’ audit, which is a red flag of a large size. For that to be the case for a decade speaks volumes about financial mismanagement–not just by the executive agency, but also by its overseer, the Board.
We heard the ED lament at the weekend that NSWMA needed 270-odd trucks, picking up twice a day, instead of managing with 55 broken down trucks, to clear Jamaica’s pile of fetid waste. But, look around. I see plenty of money spent on rather swanky looking vehicles for government officials that spend a large amount of the day not actually being driven around with their official contents. So, we have put spending on luxury cars to be often idle higher than spending on trucks that would be very busy taking away waste. That is classic doing less with more money.
A rough and ready look at the cost of these vehicles shows that a garbage truck costs about US$70,000, and an average midsized SUV costs about US$50,000. Let’s ignore the taxes and import duties. So, for the price of 3 SUVs, we could have had 2 garbage trucks. Without being too nasty, which do we think would have given us better value for money? If you vote for the government SUVs, then accept that you are part of the problem.
I accept that the leader of a country is never really anything but busy. By that, I mean that many demands and questions are being poured on such people and clear answers are expected. How the leader deals with that, though, tells us a lot about how they see the job at hand.
I’ve said the PM is not about big ideas. I got more confirmation of that last week, when she was asked about assigning responsibility for the fire at Riverton. Big ideas people would have a view that covered the wider notion of how one carries out functions. They would see things like the pile of garbage smouldering and on fire, and the capital city shrouded in smoke, and schools and businesses closing, as a clear reflection of whether the waste was being well-managed. They should indicate whether they thought that was what the job of managing the waste should produce as outcomes, then say whether they are happy with that. It’s not about personalities. But, the PM showed that she’s into persons (Jamaicans don’t talk about ‘people’). For that reason, when tackled on the issue, she could only revert to the personality aspect and point out that the ED did not set the fire. She was, of course, right on point. But, of course, she missed the point, completely.
The question to pose and try to answer is whether the country’s leader can only see the running of the nation in these small, personality-related ways. She is kind-hearted, and avowed champion of the poor, and that’s why lots of people love her hugs and smiles and her stopping by accidents to offer comforting words and maybe some money for people to get on with their damaged lives. When she cannot do that, she struggles. What’s odd though is that she cannot seem to hug the country in the same way and express the right sympathy on a national level, and also not in a way that shows that the love you get doesn’t depend on whether you are swathed in orange rather than if you are festooned in green.
One of the PM’s famous lines is “My fellow Jamaicans…” but is it the case that increasingly Jamaicans don’t feel that they are ‘her fellows’?
Steven Ashley, chair of the NSWMA Board, said he had a problem with the ‘management style’ of his ED, and therefore felt she had to go. But, if the nation has a similar problem with its ED, what are its options?