Brawta politics

An important part of Jamaican culture is the notion of brawta, when someone gives you something for nothing: it’s a gift, of sorts, usually when you buy something from a vendor, who then thanks you by giving you a few extra items for which you don’t have to pay. Simple example: I was coming back from Mandeville this week, with my older daughter and a Jamaican friend visiting from the US. My friend wanted to get some star apples and oranges on our way. We stopped at a roadside vendor, whose produce I trust. My daughter doesn’t like bananas, but I thought I would let her taste a variety of banana that’s not seen (much) in the US, so I begged a finger from the vendor; she gladly agreed and my daughter nibbled. When we had done our shopping, the vendor picked off another three fingers of bananas and offered those to us. That’s brawta.

However, the notion of getting something for nothing can lead us into lots of simple problems, because we often fail to realise that not everyone wants to give you a gift, and it’s quite normal. After all, it eats into the profit of the merchant.

But, it’s something that tickles the Jamaican psyche. To me, we’re seeing the brawta principle creep into government policy. It’s not uncommon: it often gets painted as ‘populism’.

During the recent general elections in Jamaica, the then-Opposition offered something very attractive to a wide range of Jamaicans, in the form of a tax break, which for simplicity I’ll call the ‘$18,000 giveaway’. Many people who thought they would be eligible for this did not fret about how it would be paid for. Why should they? The idea of more money in your pocket is all that would concern most. How the money gets there is someone else’s problem. Except, it isn’t.

In the same way that ‘nothing is free’, tax breaks come at a cost. The simple financing of it may be by taking more money from others (we call that ‘redistribution’), either directly from others who pay income taxes, or indirectly from those who pay indirect taxes (such as those on sales). It may well be money out of your own pocket, if it’s indirect, and you go spending your tax break on lots of new items.

The government is having to go back to the drawing board on the tax break, because it had a few unfortunate features that need ironing out, namely, that near the cut-off for the main tax break ($1.5 million), those just above may find that they end up with less take-home pay than those just under that limit. Awkward!

But, that implies finding more money to give more people a tax break. Good luck, with that!

The other piece of brawta-eque policy that we’ve had, came just a day or so ago.

We’ve a spanking new toll road that links the north and south of the island. It was not cheap to build and recouping the investment is built-in to the arrangement. Therefore, tolls were likely to be high to help do that. Shock! Many people, understandably, screamed when the proposed tolls were publicised. After a few days of ‘negotiations’, we hear, the government has managed to eke out a ‘discount’ from the Chinese investors, for the next month.

A lot of questions arise from this little wheeze. But, I am not going to delve too far because I do not have all the figures. Just to say, though, that investors who have a profile for their returns are rarely happy to just shelve that profile. So, the question that will nag me for a few days is how and when the discount will be clawed back? A cynic might say that the maintenance and upgrading schedules ought to be looked at closely (for ‘cost-cutting’ to come, in some ways). Remember, the revenue profile will be made up of gross revenues minus gross costs, over time.

But, let me not spoil the eating of bun and cheese over this coming Easter weekend. Take a drive on the discounted highway, if your budget allows, on part or all of the new route. If you’re due to get a tax break, then smile as you can better afford the drive (or will be so, once you get your rebate). If your budget doesn’t allow the drive, don’t despair. Enjoy the old fun of shopping for fruit at Bog Walk or roast yam at Faith’s Pen.

 

World Poetry Day: An Ode to world Ps

A friend just told me that today, March 21, is World Poetry Day, so I urge each and everyone to try to reverse any aversion they have to writing. Crank up the muse and get your pen, literal, electronic or otherwise, working. I’m making my contribution spontaneously and spurred by my favourite letter of the moment, P.

Petals: pretty, protruding, precious, pendulous.

Petunias, primroses, pansies; petals pendant.

Pause! Pleasantness prevails.

Places patiently poinsettias.

Palms pregnant. Pots prepared.

Pure Ps.

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 8.31.24 AM
Petunia

 

 

 

Instant gratification politics is upon us?

If you believe that we are now in the age of instant gratification, the change of government in Jamaica will make for interesting viewing. After the election results were announced, provisionally, on the night of February 25, we saw how the new ‘age’ was taking hold. Many people had been privileged to be able to watch the television coverage of the election results, with its mix of good and weak commentaries, and its mixing with live shots from around the country. It was easy to get some sense of what was going on around the country, without having to move a centimetre. Others followed events via the Internet, including also watching visual broadcasts. Many of the Internet followers, however, were tracking things in a more interactive way, through social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. They shared news, views, jokes, and more. In fact, from early on election day, some used such platforms for some subtle propaganda in the form of evidence that they had voted: the images of purple-ink-covered-fingers were many. Once the first batch of counting was done, many politicians who had long been visible and active on social media were getting into the fray voluntarily, or being pulled there, by their followers and ‘friends’ seeking to connect with them.

None of this should really be a surprise. If there was a surprise, it was that both parties had not seen the same value in boosting their social media presence earlier, and the party that had and seemed to be mastering the space won the election. It’s all well and good to be snarky about something, but you’d better be sure you understand it properly before you just dismiss it. I imagine there are some in the PNP who had been scratching their heads that their party in general, but some high-standing people, in particular, could have been so out of touch with a trend that seemed to have significant and real momentum. The reluctance to debate was a manifestation of being out of touch. Anyway, there’s time to reflect and repair damage on that front.

Since, the first counting was done, we were also treated to the saga of the official count and the drama that unfolded in a few seats that were close. Again, people seemed to want to follow closely and every minute without a confirmation of results was a chance for someone or several people to ask the equivalent of “Are we there, yet?” Like the toddler in the back of the car, the impatience sometimes led to mischief, and stories started to circulate to fill the gap of real news–ballot boxes stolen, incidents occurring, wrong reasons given for delays, speculation about integrity of processes, etc.

Sadly, one of the main parties in the process, The Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), which had been quite visible on social media before the election, seemed to have gotten swamped by the volume of its real work around election day and could not keep up a stream of timely, factual updates. When ECJ is doing its review of how things went, it would be useful for them to consider how they could have interacted on social media better, and what that may mean for total resources, or use of available resources.

Moving on to the business of the new government and opposition party, we see that instant gratification has not abated. What is interesting is to see the degree to which the new government is embracing that. Moving backward. Yesterday, the new Cabinet had its first meeting. The PM invited the traditional media to witness the early part of proceedings. If that was not a complete first, it was something well out of keeping with the habits of the former administration.

Moving backward. Yesterday, the new Cabinet had its first meeting. The PM invited the traditional media to witness the early part of proceedings. If that was not a complete first, it was something well out of keeping with the habits of the former administration. So, we were treated to images of the Cabinet in session and some commentary about how the new executive branch was going about its business. Cue another stream of information and interaction on social media.

We can look back over the few short weeks and see that a certain openness is apparent in how the new government is going about its business. I don’t think it’s telling tales of school to say that this looks like a stark contrast with the outgoing government.

Without belabouring the point, the last government ignored many nice low-hanging fruit in term of communicating that are easy for the new government to pick off. The question is, ‘Will it last?’ Added to that, ‘What will it mean for how business is conducted?’

The expectation of being able to see more of what the government is doing is not new. Responding positively to that expectation is something that will be remarked upon. Drawing back from that will be noticed, quickly, and could be used as a battering ram later.

Many governments in industrial countries have seen the light in terms of such opening of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. We have the well-known example of the current Obama Administration, whose presence in social media would challenge any so-called Millenial. (You can follow the President, White House, members of Congress, and many more on various social media platforms. I just got an e-mail about the pending Supreme Court nomination, plus notification of a Twitter handle to follow if I wanted to get more information about the nomination process, and public announcement.) But, we’ve seen it further afield, as with Indian PM Modi in India.

Jamaicans are quick to fault, so don’t be surprised that even if the government doesn’t draw back people will find fault with the flow of information. Meantime, though, let’s breathe in the fresh air of seeming to take the populace seriously.

 

 

Jamaica becomes Ps-ful

Lots of little things happen in politics, and more generally, that go largely unnoticed, but we know the devil is in the details. I have been struck, recently, by the seeming love of the letter P in (dare I say) things political in Jamaica. It’s almost become our national letter, under cover of darkness.

Before the elections were kicked off, we were already in the grip of Polls and Pollsters.

Once things got running, Portia, Paul, Peter, Phillip, wanted us to ‘Step up the Progress’.

The Opposition leader littered his campaign with words that began with it: he wanted to move us ‘From Poverty to Prosperity’. Within that was the Promise of financial betterment, with a tax break, especially for those who earned and paid taxes on income less than $1.5 million.

Then, in no time flat, having won the election to the surprise of many, once he was sworn in as the new PM, he started to plaster us with talk of Partnership.

Well, the erstwhile named ‘Champion Boy’ will soon find that he’ll be p-ing more that before. He has already committed to staying with the IMF Programme, and should know that this will bring more than a little Pressure.

A well-known phrase is to ‘mind your Ps and Qs’, meaning be on good behaviour. We’ll have to see if it has meaning in our little political garden. Parliamentary procedures have yet to resume and the new Speaker will be mindful of keeping good Protocol going with the many new members. He (or she) will do the best possible to keep the Peace in the House. How long for? Let’s see. If not long, then we may fast move to the Qs, like Quit… 🙂

 

New Government Cabinet announced

The new PM announced recently his new Cabinet, as published on the site of the Office of the PM.

1              The Most Hon. Andrew Holness, ON, MP Prime Minister

Minister of Defence

Minister of Economic Growth and Job Creation

2              Hon. Horace Chang, MP Minister without Portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister

3              Hon. Derrick Smith, MP Minister without Portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister

4              Hon. Daryl Vaz, MP Minister without Portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister

5              Senator Hon. Kamina Johnson Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs

6              Hon. Audley Shaw, MP Minister of Finance and Public Service

Hon. Fayval Williams, MP Minister of State in Ministry of Finance and Public Service

Hon. Rudyard Spencer, MP Minister of State in Ministry of Finance and Public Service

7              Hon. Karl Samuda, MP Minister of Industry, Commerce & Agriculture

8              Hon. JC Hutchinson, MP Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce & Agriculture

9              Hon. Robert Montague, MP Minister of National Security

Senator Hon. Pearnel Charles Jr. Minister of State in the Ministry of National Security

10           Hon. Delroy Chuck, MP Minister of Justice

11           Senator, Hon. Ruel Reid Minister of Education, Youth and Information

Hon. Floyd Green, MP Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information

12           Hon. Andrew Wheatley, MP Minister of Energy, Science and Technology

13           Hon. Desmond McKenzie, MP Minister of Local Government

14           Hon. Mike Henry, MP Minister of Transport and Mining

15           Hon. Edmund Bartlett, MP  Minister of Tourism

16           Dr. Hon. Christopher Tufton, MP Minister of Health

17           Hon. Shahine Robinson, MP Minister of Labour and Social Security

18           Hon. Olivia “Babsy” Grange, MP Minister of Entertainment, Sport, Culture and Gender

19           Mrs. Marlene Malahoo Forte, MP – Attorney General

Carpentry skills on display: the new PM builds his Cabinet 

With all the hullabaloo about his house during the election campaign, from which we learned that Mr. Holness has carpentry skills, it’s fitting that one his major early tasks was to design and build a new Cabinet. The waiting during the weekend for the pegs to be hammered into holes was for some nail-biting. Imagine all the hammering out of details about portfolios and the reprofiling of ministries and functions. Some who expected to be in top drawer positions found they were shelved: the complicated balancing act of managing a wafer-thin Parliamentary majority begins😊 Who took much convincing that the nation would be better served by their not getting elevated from back bench to front? Who had to be made to understand that they would have to tack along focusing more on keeping constituents content that standing in the front window of policy making and presentation?

Members of the Andrew Holness Cabinet expected to be sworn in at King’s House today, as published today by the Jamaica Gleaner, is below:

1. Dr Christopher Tufton – Minister of Health
2. Robert Montague – Minister of National Security
3. Kamina Johnson Smith – Minister of Foreign Affairs
4. Daryl Vaz – Minister without portfolio with responsibility for Growth and Development
5. Edmund Bartlett – Minister of Tourism
6. Dr Andrew Wheatley – Minister of Energy, Science, and Technology
7. Marlene Malahoo Forte – Attorney General
8. J.C. Hutchinson – Minister of Agriculture
9. Mike Henry – Minister of Transport
10. Ruel Reid – Minister of Education and Information
11. Karl Samuda – Minister of Industry, Commerce and Fisheries
12. Olivia Grange – Minister of Gender Affairs and Sports
13. Audley Shaw – Minister of Finance and Planning
14. Delroy Chuck – Minister of Justice
15. Dr Horace Chang – Minister without portfolio with responsibility for Water based at the Office of the Prime Minister
16. Shahine Robinson – Minister of Labour and Social Security

The task of staying coordinated, informative, committed, open, convincing, relevant and frugal will not be easy. The opposite of all those challenges is much easier to come into play than we often want to admit. I wish the new government well and hope we all stand ready to make one nation better by being one people.

Jamaica’s Election 2016: Rushing headlong to go nowhere fast

Why the government decided to call for a general election when it did will be one of those items for intense study for years to come. Some or all of the story will have to wait for the inside scoop from those on the inside, and they may be in no hurry to expose their role in what is now seen as a failed strategy.

As most know, when you don’t have fixed term elections and decide to go to the polls well ahead of your allotted time it’s because: (1) you’ve reached an untenable situation and hope a new (larger) mandate can help remove that; or (2) you feel that things look good now and won’t get better, so strike while the iron is hot (as the saying goes); or (3) you’ve lost your mind because things look terrible for you but you just haven’t realised that, and your move is really a form of panic.

This decision seems even more strange in the context of Jamaica and the current IMF program. The government had constitutionally up to mid-March 2017 before it needed to go to the polls. Coincidentally, the final test date for the IMF program is end-March 2017. Having done so well in passing the program tests (11 so far), why rush before the program is over? The program had gone well in its own terms. The country was not universally thrilled with the outcomes, especially with

The program had gone well in its own terms. The country was not universally thrilled with the outcomes, especially with the lack of many new jobs and the decline in the value of the Jamaican dollar. But, most of the broad signs were of a much healthier economy, with a solid base set for at least stable, and maybe faster growth. Why would the government not want to max out its term and take all the credit due? The dislikes for the program were ‘baked in the cake’, as they say. Would the dislike worsen much over the next year? Some people foresaw a nasty budget coming for 2016/17, which means that people understood that the road remained rocky. But, the government had shown great resolve, and by being unbending had won many accolades internationally–admittedly, from bodies and people who have no vote in Jamaica.

When the government gave the country every sign last autumn that it would call elections before the end of the year, it must have felt confident. Something happened, though, to change that cheery outlook. I don’t buy for one second the idea that we were being saved disruption over Christmas–that holiday is on our calendar every year and when the first murmurings of an election were made the day of Christmas had not suddenly disappeared. (In passing, that is the kind of backward logic that has been put out by politicians that make them look like characters in a farce.) Whatever happened to sour the mood, things changed almost as quickly once the Christmas cake and sorrel were digested. We heard that the PM was waiting to be “touched” by her “Master”.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 9.33.24 AM
Easy now! I’m ticklish!

 

Cynics could easily say that the decision  to tell the people that the touch had been felt in late January and that she would “fly the gate”, was because of the touch of a pollster. It could be that the government misread the poll’s 4 percent margin as wide, forgetting that the 3 percent margin of error made the ‘lead’ wafer thin. Anyway, off to the races she went.

The rest is history.

Election arithmetic is simple. If what you do gets you fewer votes than the opposition parties, you have done something wrong. Sometimes, those wrong things are very clear. Many would argue that they were clear as a bell, and only someone whose arrogance was so high that it made white look black could have missed the signs.

I think one of the clear signs was that the electorate has changed. I think many people who don’t vote, won’t vote until the nature of Jamaican politics changes. I think they were joined this time by people who fell into that same boat by the simple act of what we call ‘bad-minded ness‘. The ruling party never read the memo about leaving the man’s house out of it. Having gone down that road, they did not read the other memo suggesting that it was better to focus on what the party had to offer people rather than to keep digging at something that was a clear symbol of many people’s basic aspirations–to be better off, and have tangible signs of that. That was compounded by a series of follow-up questions that made many wonder what was really of interest? It did not seem to be the nation’s welfare. They also did not read the memos–and they were many sent along the road–that people wanted more engagement with the nation’s leader and were unhappy that the aloofness had gone on for so long.

The issue of not having debates stuck in the craw of many. I’ve tried to find a logic in dodging the debates, and it’s hard to understand. One problem I have is the notion that it was better to dodge the debates because the PNP leader was unlikely to do well against the JLP leader. I think that was also baked into the cake, and all that was likely was a scotching of that notion–which should have translated into a plus (like “She didn’t do so badly…”) The other weakness of the argument is that it puts no value on the strengths of the PNP team versus the JLP. That could be translated into a damning criticism of the Cabinet and Ministers, who have tried to steer a tough course for some four years. You really didn’t want to see the current finance minister (with four years of IMF success) take on his likely successor (with an IMF record that is the envy of few)? C’mon! This was the chance to pitch what the government had done against the untested and unbudgeted promises of the wannabees.

There has to be blood-letting soon, and we may get some answers to what was behind the strategy and why it did not turn out to be a winner. I’m not going with the crazy notion that the government wanted to lose. Walk away from the sweet smell of success? What are you smoking?

 

Jamaica’s election: civics comes into focus

Jamaica’s recent general election has been as close as it can get, with the current official count giving the JLP 32 seats to the PNP 31; that’s admirably slim and fits well with the overall vote, which was reported to be split 50.1% to 49.9% in favour fo the JLP, on Election Day. Those who voted seemed almost evenly split in their sentiments; and the majority (about 52 percent) those who could vote were less inclined to vote–that has implications. What this tight election race has done is focus much of national attention on the election outcome and the process of getting there. That’s been helped by modern technology, especially social media, that has allowed almost minute-by-minute information about many aspects of the process, with pictures, sound, and opinion all combining to grab our attention, down to pictures of the last evening meals being delivered for those counting. Kudos to all–paid journalists and anyone with a desire to share information.

Like many things in life, the devil is in the details. But, it’s often only when things get tight and squeaky that people focus on those details. Jamaicans are quick to show distrust, and the mere hint of change seemed to generate all manner of accusations–stolen votes, lost boxes, etc. We are also quick to clutch at straws, and that means simplistic explanations take hold fast, and people don’t bother much with thinking through what they say, hear, or do. But, putting those traits to one side, what the tense and tight race has done is focus more minds on voting. We’ve had to look at how people were instructed, how and where they made their marks, did any voter or official try to subvert the process, etc.

Now, those who did not vote may have to reconsider their decision while pondering if their idle ballots could have swung races. They need not lose too much sleep because the arithmetic might not have changed in any material way: we could have had tight races, but with bigger vote totals. The probability of that is less though, as the vote totals rise. But, the non-voter may now feel that he/she might at least have a dog in the fight next time. (As an aside, we need to take a good look at voters’ lists. because we now do not clean them out each time, as we used to, but keep adding, which means we may have a bunch of ‘fictitious’ voters lurking, some of whom are dead and gone :() That may also spur those who ignored the uncommitted to make more efforts to get their commitment.

The close election has meant that processes which were always in place, but really didn’t matter too much when the margin of victory/defeat was wide, now seemed important, because that margin was wafer thin.

We always only get preliminary results on election night, but those usually hold and any announcement of the overall seat outcome can stand while the official recount takes place the day after the election. Yet, many people were expressing puzzlement about the need for recounts. Well, hopefully, they now know that’s what always happens.

Disputes over ballots always occur, and our system gives those who are unhappy with the official recount the option to go to court for a magisterial decision, which is final.

We always have spoilt ballots and rejected ballots, but the number of those is usually very small and rarely matters to an overall result. But, in some seats they may do, say when the margin is only in the 10s.

Election officials always make mistakes. They are often working under a lot of pressure, and over a very long day; and as the day goes on, fatigue sets in. They may have little option for rest of replacement. (For what it’s worth, one auxiliary policeman told me that he was not going to be provided with lunch during his day at the polls. I hope that was not the case for election officials. I know party agents were going to get food because I saw it in the back of cars.) So, while the transcription error that was reported to be the major reason why one seat swung away from the person originally declared as the winner (in St. Mary South East), these things happen. The official recount is important because it has a high level of scrutiny of every aspect of voting, including accounting for every ballot paper, and ensuring that all arithmetical counts are correct. (At the margin, we also need to accept that, even with the best will in the world, the training of officials may fall apart because of late withdrawals of more-experienced officials and the need to use someone who is less experienced.) Again, the fast critics can think if they want to help the process by putting themselves up for training and deepening the pool of available officials.

More people are now focused on the prospects of how easy it will be to govern. The reality of that will be immediate. The House of Representatives must elect a Speaker from its members; that’s usually a member of the larger party; that will take the JLP down to 31, tied with the PNP, and the Speaker will have the casting vote. The supposed impartiality of the Speaker comes into question immediately (as noted today by a very sharp lawyer, Linton Gordon). The slim margin means a lot of orchestration of Parliamentary business because the luxury of having a majority is only as good as the members all being available when needed. The party whip for the ruling party will need to oversee carefully travel plans and other schedules during the times of passage of legislation. Those who need bathroom breaks near voting time had better be careful 🙂

The new government will be pressing to fulfill its pre-election promises, and if delay by the Opposition can do anything it can sow seeds in the minds of many that promises are not being kept.

The slim margin means also that divisions within parties need to be well managed. We have not heard much about haggling over portfolios and Cabinet positions, but it’s going on. One Parliament reopens, ticking off one of the majority to the extent that he/she decides to switch sides would be potentially a disaster for the government as the PM would no longer have the simple arithmetic majority in the elected house. (On the opposite side, if one of the opposition members decided to walk across the floor, then the breathing space for the government gets wider.)

The idea of a snap election to secure a larger margin will be in many minds, but of course, nothing is certain, and that election could end up with more of the same, or a loss for the current winners (individually or collectively). Either party needs to be wary of anything that may prompt the need for a by-election.

These are interesting times and the metaphors of navigating the choppy, unchartered waters will be lots of play. But, it also puts out democracy to test. Our country isn’t blessed only with bright, articulate, confident people; we’ve a big core of people who are not well-educated, driven by emotions, hesitant about their lives and on the brink of survival daily. We all need assurance that the system of government is intact and remains well set to protect us all, even though many will feel the sting of the biases that are present.

While we do not have a coalition government in place, we have the makings of a coalescence of politics–it may be short-lived, but it’s there. The swings in policies may be less, because of that, and the inclusiveness of policies and politics may be more, because of it. Let’s say that’s one of my hopes.