Better Must Come, Mr Pickersgill

Grace Virtue

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

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MICHAEL Manley used the slogan 'Better must come' as the cornerstone of his 1972 general election campaign. My mother used it as a mantra to channel better for herself and her family.

My parents longed for the change Manley promised. Like many others, they believed in a less oppressive society, one that recognised the dignity of its own people and offered a way out of poverty for the dispossessed.

They were poor and black and when you are poor and black in Jamaica, as they were,you know what oppression is. You feel it in your blood and in your bones even if you don't quite know the word to describe the way the system sneers at you, how it picks you up, throws you down and kicks you around like yesterday's trash.

It used to be worse.

Oppressed people tend both to own their struggles and to identify with those of others. This was why Jamaica's counter-culture movement, best represented by Bob Marley and Reggae, became a rallying cry for marginalised groups all over the world, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, and why, from their base in deep rural Manchester, my parents followed the civil rights movement in the United States.

It was from them that I first learned of Martin Luther King, Jr, Stokely Carmichael and John F Kennedy. King and Carmichael were leaders in the struggle in America; Kennedy represented a compassionate and reasonable ear with the power to make change happen.

There were parallels between the black struggles in the United States and in Jamaica. African-Americans were battling the legacy of segregation and Jim Crow, more than a century after the Civil War ended; Jamaicans struggled for dignity and opportunity, nearly a century and a half after emancipation.

Manley's willingness to acknowledge and name the people's struggles in Jamaica set him up, politically, as the first real threat to the status quo. He was and remains a hero to many; others still break out in hives at the mere mention of his name.

Recent comments from People's National Party (PNP) chairman and Minister of Water and Climate Change, Bobby Pickersgill, had me thinking about "better must come" and how Mr Pickersgill may want to revisit, remind himself and his colleagues of it, and, more importantly, how they may want to take it from an immediate post-colonial, Cold War era mantra to a 21st century globalised world reality in the way the government comports itself.

Pickersgill, in a year-end analysis of the government's performance, noted: "The Cabinet is comfortable, given all the circumstances, given all that we have inherited; we are comfortable with the first year's performance."

He seems unaware, but he does not speak in a vacuum. There are clear indicators to determine successes or failures in areas such as management of the economy, national security, infrastructure, health care, education, and social safety nets for vulnerable groups, and there are such overwhelming weaknesses in all of these areas at present, that it is disheartening to hear that the Cabinet is comfortable with its performance.

While there is no real expectation that the government can or should have transformed any or all of these areas in one year, there is a growing perception that there is a lack of urgency, lack of understanding, lack of adequate effort, or worse, denial that there are real problems requiring real solutions in the fastest possible time.

Pickersgill's comments feed this perception.

Furthermore, the attempt to blame the previous government for the state of affairs can hold for only so long. Sooner rather than later, those who hold the reins of power must take ownership of the problems and challenges. This is what it means to govern, and particularly so when the JLP's four years came after an unbroken 18 years by the PNP. Of course, there are the countless ways in which the government is shooting itself in the foot, excluding the lack of an IMF agreement. That is merely a symptom of the real issues facing the country.

Solutions will not come from either glossing over the issues or denying that they exist. They can only come from better policies, better programmes, better plans and strategies and a greater sense of purpose from the government.

In a changing world, with a persistently harsh outlook for economies like ours, a political directorate paralysed by groupthink and insufficient discomfort with the status quo, can do little except frustrate the aspirations of its people.

How, for example, can anyone take seriously the idea of First World status by 2030, if what we see on a daily basis is generalised inertia, sloppiness or tone-deafness in so many areas? Why should we take Vision 2030 seriously, if after 50 years of independence, we cannot clean up the trash in a city the size of Kingston?

This is a sorry reality and a sorrier metaphor for how we have handled the affairs of state and the price we pay.

It is also a profound reminder that development is not a magic carpet ride. It is a process, a trajectory, a state of mind. It is sustainable mastery of those tasks that are critical to an orderly, peaceful and productive society.

If in 2012, we are not on track, if our goals are not clarified, if we are not training and educating our people on basic issues like the responsibility of citizenship, there is no way that we can wake up on January 1, 2030, and say we are a developed country.

A part of our dilemma is the five-year election cycle and the PNP/JLP dichotomy in which we are trapped. Regardless of how uninspired we are, or how we would like to see the brightest minds and the most conscientious workers from either side engaged in the process of nation building, the system guarantees something that is unprogressive, illogical and immutable. Rather than facilitating growth and development, the system works against it. We know this, but instead of change, we get the perpetual politics of one-upmanship, wholly embodied in the minister's analysis.

The model is wrong for our context and time, and requires thoughtful and conscientious leadership to effect change.

In 2013, I wish for Mr Pickersgill and his colleagues in the government — good health, better thinking, deeper insight, and above all, tremendous discomfort — because better must come!




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