There is an absence of realism, maturity in government, private sector relations

We note with a measure of relief the fact that just when it seemed that relations between government and the private sector were set to go completely off the rails, representatives of the two sides managed to sit down together last week at an encouragingly high level to engage on an agenda which included a number of long-standing and important issues. Some of these have been the cause of differences between the two sides for many years. The problem is that what is sometimes a considerable measure of pointless bullishness on both sides has interfered with what one might call the compulsoriness of the relationship so that there is a point to the view expressed to this newspaper by the Chairman of the PSC’s Governance Committee Gerry Gouveia.

The sedateness in both the tone and content of the subsequent joint media release points to an apparent shift from the iciness of an earlier period when the issuance of a brace of acerbic media releases from the two sides precipitated a descent into a Cold War that still persists, the Thursday May 4 meeting notwithstanding.

On both sides, we believe, there has been – or at least so it seems – an underestimation of the importance of constructive engagement  and the slippage into what, sometimes, can be termed delinquent behaviour.

On the government’s side there is, sometimes a tendency to want to assert a first-among-equals posture, without taking into account the fact that the body language that attends such a posture does not necessarily allow for open and trusting engagements which can usually be relied upon to realize positive outcomes. Nor does it help when official statements are, in large measure, loaded with contentious aspersions about political motive. Those surely, are guaranteed to create new rifts and deepen existing ones. Contextually, it is not by accident that the joint statement alludes to the commitment given by PSC Chairman Edward Boyer that the commission is determined “to work with any government in office” and to the discouragement felt by private sector leaders over the “disparaging and unwarranted labels applied to their efforts to speak out in the national interest. If the quality of the public/private sector relationship is to be improved, Boyer says, “It is time to change the rhetoric.”

On the private sector side, too, there is, all too frequently, an underpinning of hostility and threat. The recent salvos directed to government by the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association represent the best current example, which, too, can achieve little more than a response of unyielding resoluteness. Whether or not that resoluteness is an appropriate response it is driven by the belief that as a duly elected political administration it cannot allow itself to be dissed by the private sector.

All of this, of course, is tangential to the real issue, which is, the relevance of a strong and constructive public/private sector relationship to the health of the country’s economy. It is no secret that government is usually not inclined to accept responsibility for breakdowns in public/private sector relations and indeed the present administration would do well to take particular note of the recent observation by President of the Caribbean Development Bank that governments in the region were guilty of “lagging behind the rest of the world in instituting regulatory reforms for improved private sector competitiveness.” This charge had long been leveled at the Government of Guyana by the local private sector.

Of particular interest is that the joint media statement makes reference to the PSC commending government on its “handling of the apparent challenge to accessing foreign exchange and its resulting amelioration” and complimenting “Minister Jordan for the injection of US$30 million into the Housing sector.” Additionally, the release states that the PSC “commended the… ‘Trusted Trader’ system through which legitimate and compliant businesses are spared the burden of lengthy processing times for transactions.”

On the other hand the same media release lists ten issues, some of them critical ones, which are “of concern to the private sector” with ones like VAT on private tuition and tributors tax on then mining sector having already become the subject of fairly widespread public controversy.

Elsewhere in this newspaper there is a story that addresses, among other things, the need for an “institutionalized means of consultation and decision making between the Government and the Private Sector,” which is pretty much what this editorial seeks to address. Here the point should be made that while arriving at a framework for regular engagement between the government and the private sector is really a matter of creating some kind of mechanism which, in principle, is a relatively easy thing to do.

The challenge reposes in sustaining the engagement and ensuring that it realizes positive outcomes in circumstances where we have failed to work out a mechanism for bringing an end to the sniping and the loose and precipitate comments from both sides that have a tendency to sour the engagements before they even begin.

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