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Jamaicans tuned in or logged on Thursday night (August 27) for the 2nd national debate leading into the general elections. It had been billed as a ‘heavyweight clash’ and we were told to expect ‘fireworks’ by one of the main newspapers as well as the host of the TVJ pre- and post-debate discussions (Emily Shields).

It never lived up to that billing, in my opinion, and that of many others.

The general impression was that, while Nigel Clarke seemed to have been the clear winner, both he and Mark Golding put in performances well below their best. Clarke won in many views for style and confidence; Golding gained praise for content in many of his replies.

Both debaters are great gentlemen, and they have moved into representational politics after solid careers in business and finance (Clarke) and finance and law (Golding). Both are very articulate. I don’t think this made them great material for TV debates, not that their fields were not competitive or abrasive, just that their manners are not usually in that direction.

So, I’ve my general doubts about them in the cut and thrust of Jamaican representational politics; they were excellent senators. Golding was Justice Minister (2012-16) as a senator, not becoming an MP till 2017, after PNP lost the 2016 election. Clarke had been a senator (2013-15) before serving as Jamaica’s Ambassador-at-Large for Economic Affairs within the Office of the Prime Minister from 2016, until he was elected an MP in early-2018.

So, one thing going for them in the debates was expected to be their solid credentials on the subject matter.

It’s also a sad reality, though, that once you’ve had a certain kind and level of education, it’s hard to unlearn some lessons. So, Mark Golding (Campion College and Oxford University) and Nigel Clarke (Munro College and Oxford University) are more like peas in a pod rather than oil and water. They find it easier really to be in agreement that violently in disagreement. But, watch, if you will, some or all of the debate:

I didn’t find most of what they had to say that riveting, and became more interested in aspects of their performance.

Golding began nervously and tried to lay the ground that Jamaica has PNP/Peter Phillips–as ‘Mr Fix it’–to thank for setting the solid macroeconomic base on which JLP/Clarke has built. But, in that opening, he hit his own Achilles heel—an inability to manage time so that his points could be made fully. As things went along, I sensed that Clarke noted this and tried to get in crisper replies to avoid the same trouble. It didn’t work consistently and he too was hit by ‘the buzzer’ and being cut off by the moderator/main questioner.

In truth, the two parties want to promote similar things: mainly, jobs, education, housing, and infrastructural development. As a result, at times, the debate was more like a minor squabble in the playground as the two traded numbers for each objective, and the gunpowder was damp in the fireworks that they tried to light near each other’s home. Some of the fireworks never exploded after launch.

Some of the exchanges lacked real bite. You could feel the debaters searching for each other’s soft spot to attack but often just missing flesh or gnashing on bone with a phrase that grated. What’s with Golding telling Clarke that housewives call him “Mr. 150” [the J$:US$ exchange rate is hovering around 150:1.]? At times, I was reminded of Denis Healey saying “Being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep”.

They sniped more often at each leader. Clarke called Peter Phillips the “architect of destruction” of the economy-rather odd, given that he has happily built on the macroeconomic stability that Phillips achieved as finance minister and for which he won the accolade of Gleaner ‘man of the year’ in 2015. He also said PNP’s package represented a “big back of tricks”. Golding said the Office of the Prime Minister had become a “holding cell” for corrupt Cabinet ministers. Some of the other barbs are shown below:

They had a couple of simple jobs to do heading into the elections. Golding needed to defend the manifesto his party had put out, but revised hastily after that, which made it look slapdash, at least.

Now, it is a nifty document that allows the creation of a customized manifesto based on information you feed in. However, to get that, you have to register and log in and give some ‘personal’ details, which need not be true. Well, that opened up the charge on ‘privacy rights’. Whether or not it was a real issue, it was ‘out there’.

Then, came a flurry of revisions ahead of the debate, namely to amend the coverage of the utilities subsidies. That opened the PNP to a string of criticism during the day and during the debate about which plan was being referred to.

“Monday plan
Wednesday plan
The one Damion talked about on the radio…
2’oclock PM plan…
6’oclock PM plan…
I don’t even know which plan to respond to” Clarke quipped.

Golding struggled many times to defend the document—explaining the cost and funding of the plan was a problem. Clarke said it added up to J$100bn; Golding said it was J$70bn and would be covered by repriotizing spending. But, many want to know if it can it happen without new taxes.

Both debaters were often drowning in numbers on jobs, poverty, growth phases, etc. I wondered if many had the feeling they were not getting a picture of what really happened in the economy, ie real gains and real pain. Talking about these things as abstracts is quite different to say something like ‘2000 unemployed women now have jobs in…’ It felt sterile to me. But, honestly, it’s often that way at the highest policy levels.

Most polls I’ve seen show Clarke was viewed as a clear winner.

I was struck that neither tried to put Jamaica’s current situation and any outlook into a clear global economic context, albeit driven by a health crisis.

Opinions seem divided on how Clarke handled the thorny topic of the objective to grow the economy by 5% in 4 years (5in4): Clarke went to the purpose of growth: employment, reduce poverty, increase tax revenues that allowed higher public investment, etc. He positioned growth as a means to these ends; and the government had “achieved the ends”. Of course, we want to growth faster, he added. “Brilliant answer,” said Emily Shields in the post-debate discussion. I thought it was a good repositioning by a finance minister who too office long after his predecessor and PM had committed to it, and avoided possibly throwing them under a large bus.

Clarke also ended cleverly by starting his closing statement is regal or priministerial style: “My fellow Jamaicans…” and reminded people to vote JLP 🙂

Golding closed by reminding people of the public health crisis and an economy reeling. He seemed relieved at the end 🙂 His self-assessment was honest, and he noted how timing had not been his friend. Clarke’s self assessment was calmly assured.

Discussion of the debate by a panel of ‘economists’ was interesting but nothing much came up that surprised until the end, when none of them wanted to ‘declare a winner’. Some intellectual arguments were put forward, but it seemed a bit cowardly, and perhaps a bit elitist that their personal views were too important to share. I’ve a suspicion that behind the reluctance is some sense that their views will be held against them, at some later stage. Watch and see:

https://www.1spotmedia.com/#!/tv-shows/5f3be75f8b104a10163d8604/5f3c08288b104a10163d86d5/5f4920588b104a10163e4269

The debates are really stand-alone and don’t really set each other up. So, the last, on Saturday night, between the two party leaders, should cover all possible grounds and could—we hope and pray—get a bit tasty.