Public/private sector relations in a discomfiting political temperature

The coincidence between what had appeared to be some distinct signs that the frosty relationship between the APNU-AFC administration and the private sector might have been moving in the direction of a gradual thaw and the recent sudden and dramatic reversal occasioned by the announcement by President David Granger that Justice James Patterson was his choice to be the next Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission is worrying in more ways than one.

In the first instance, differences between government and private sector are always likely to become far more intractable when those differences have their origin in political (rather than business) considerations. No one can say that the private sector, through just about every Business Support Organization (BSO) did not make its position clear on the issue of the newly selected Chairman of the Elections Commission and not even the staunchest optimist can make a reasonable case for the likelihood that the differences that have arisen over the President’s choice will be reconciled any time soon, if at all.

The other point to be made here is that the very last thing that we need at a time when the economy can hardly be said to be in the pink of health and when the situation is reflected in the assessments of the business community is a situation in which public/private sector discourse and collaboration on approaches to addressing how to engineer an improvement in the business climate and the economy as a whole has to, first, surmount what now has to be said is a considerable gulf dividing them. The fact is that however much we may pretend to the contrary (and here in Guyana public officials are inclined to create an all-is-well impression, precisely at times when situations are decidedly unwell) the depth of the differences as reflected in the strength of feelings on either side (and in the case of the private sector the decidedly broad and widespread articulation of its position on the Patterson issue) is more than likely to help set the tone for public/private sector engagements that will occur in the period ahead and could even prejudice the outcomes of those discourses.

Contextually, it is apposite to point out that what one might call The Patterson Affair surfaced at a time when the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association (GMSA) that had not made much of a mark on the sector in many years was engaged in what senior officials of the Association were openly admitting were high-level talks between itself and a number of key government ministers. Talks were proceeding in a particularly constructive manner, so much so that both the Association’s President Shyam Nokta and its Vice President Ramsay Ali were saying to the Stabroek Business that they felt they could anticipate positive outcomes. In the instance of the Association’s Vice President, he, on quite a few occasions was waxing optimistic about the likely outcome of a proposal which he was preparing to put to the high-level forum on the matter of the importation of a manufacturing plant into the country sufficiently workable in both size and capacity to make a difference to an agro processing sector which, up to this point, has been underperforming in terms of its potential.

Then there was last month’s Uncapped event, again the outcome of a public/private sector initiative. Here again, the organizers on the private sector (GMSA) side made no secret to this newspaper regarding the considerable material contribution and logistical support that was forthcoming from the Ministry of Business. Uncapped, as the  GMSA has conceded may not have been, in itself, an unbridled success. The fact is, however, it served as a building block for continuity not only in the direction of incrementally improving the position of the manufacturing sector but also, crucially, in, hopefully, mending fences between government and the private sector.

More recently there has been the announcement that the private sector has expressed to government its interest in securing the Enmore Sugar Estate. The relevance of this development to public/private sector relations has to do with the likely outcome of the discourses that will have to take place with regard to the private sector’s expression of interest. So that wherever we look we are likely to see that the quality of relations between government and the private sector will continue to have a critical bearing on both the short-term business climate and the longer term economic fortunes of the country.

All of this raises the question as to whether we still dwell in a space where the extant political differences can be set aside to allow for the unencumbered tackling by government and the private sector, together, of the economic difficulties facing the country. It is a question that has implications for the country as a whole but one which, as it happens, only the two sides can answer.



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