It ain’t done until it is done

No surprises. The question most asked over the past week in the market place as well as in corporate boards has been: “What do you make of the Prime Minister’s speech of Saturday last?”

The partisan answers notwithstanding, the responses seem to be rather nuanced on the whole. For starters, if the reaction of the Stock Exchange to the speech is any test to go by, then the conclusion is that the effect has been, to say the least, very mitigated. But then one can always argue that the “Black Monday” on the Asian/emerging global markets may have weighed heavily on investor sentiment, particularly foreign investors on that particular day.

Actually any sensible answer to the question will have to take into account what was the real objective of those who have conceived the whole communication exercise, for this is primarily what it was all about. The obvious answer is that Government had sensed that there was a start of exasperation on the part of the population at large regarding the “clean up” agenda which has dominated government action since the beginning of its mandate for some nine months now.

As regards economic operators, especially those from the corporate sector, things were getting even worse. There was not only exasperation but serious frustration and rising confusion following the way the treatment being meted out to private operators in certain quarters was being perceived.

Ever since this government has come to power it has been beset by a string of controversies and embarrassments which have severely dented the goodwill it had acquired during the last elections and in its very early days. The handling of the BAI affair, the awkward attempts to tamper with the independence of the DPP, the repeated instances when the government seemed to be backtracking on its earlier decisions left an impression that nobody was in charge of setting the government agenda and that events rather than policies were dictating government action.

It has been said that the most precious commodity in politics is the benefit of the doubt. Barely nine months into its mandate this government was coming dangerously close to losing this most precious commodity. Clearly under those circumstances doing nothing was no longer an option. The “communicators”, from the PMO it would seem, decided “to take the bull by the horns,” — to quote from the Prime Minister’s speech — by initiating a move which would at the least “stop the rot” and at the most create a sense of a new departure focused upon the most pressing challenge of the moment, viz. the economic state of the nation.

The degree of success or otherwise of the exercise can only be gauged when measured against the degree to which those objectives would have been achieved. Given the background which we have described above, achieving the basic objective of “stopping the rot” was always going to be the easy part of the equation. In effect the government was exerting itself to correct a dangerous situation which had developed through its own fault. Holding the event was in itself both an admission that “something is rotten in the Kingdom of Denmark” and a brave attempt to signal that action would be taken to reverse that situation.

When it comes to the more ambitious part of the exercise — which is about demonstrating the government’s commitment to turn around the economic situation of the country and improve the lot of the population within a defined time frame — the impact is less clear. It would seem that since the vision of government had already been clearly defined in the Government Programme and the Budget Speech, the public were expecting to be apprised about how the government intended to achieve the objectives which had been amply described in previous statements of policies.

The hype created around the intervention of the Prime Minister and the obvious appeal to the image of the “action man” had conveyed a sense that the recent failings in implementation would be tackled through the announcement of ways and means of resolving those issues. Finally though, there seems to have been a disconnect with the expectation for the announcement of concrete and immediate measures which would be taken in order to address some of the most pressing issues such as the creation of employment for graduates, the facilitation of access to finance for Small and Medium Enterprises or the means which would be deployed for low cost housing projects.

The most potent criticisms of the PM’s performance therefore befittingly resent the fact that a large part of his speech was the sheer enumeration of a wish list which would be realized in a rather distant future – the 2030 horizon. While nobody disputes the usefulness of a long term vision to orient the actions of government, such a vision unfortunately fails to articulate an inspiring picture of the future when it is not informed by a concern to resolve the most crying problem of the day. The critical challenge therefore remains the same as it was even before the Economic Mission Statement was made i.e. how to translate rhetoric into a programmatic and time-framed deliverable package.

The nearest that we have come to the beginning of an answer to the above conundrum are the announcements which have been made regarding the resumption of a structured dialogue between government and the private sector. In this column we have regularly advocated that such a dialogue is a form of capital which is part of the collective experience of governance in our country. It has served us well in the past and should not be allowed to go to waste.

Of course the changes in the business environment globally and due respect for our democratic system of government militate for a changing and dynamic relationship which reflects the new environment. As with the more quantitative objectives which have been enumerated so with the quality of the new partnership which is proposed with the private sector — it ain’t done until it is done.

  • Published in print edition on 28 August 2015

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