Prime minister’s question time.

I like reading the Jamaican newspapers; they often do what I expect from journalists. Many of their reports are about real problems facing the country. They tend to latch onto stories that should concern a good number of us, and often hang onto them until a good amount of clarity and resolution occurs. I’m glad to say that I usually try to follow the local news first, rather than revert to foreign news, eg by reading the Washington Post, New York Times, or The London Times. Jamaican newspapers do not usually curry favour with politicians and hold them to account quite well, even riduculing them, if that seems appropriate. Some Ministers are the butt of much fun-making, for instance, Minister of Agriculture, Roger Clarke. But, in recent times, the main focus for attention and criticism has been Jamaica’s prime minister.

Clovis cartoon in Jamaica Observer lampoons the PM's frequent travel
Clovis cartoon in Jamaica Observer lampoons the PM’s frequent travel

Putting it briefly, she’s not giving the nation much in prime time. She’s taken a stance with public engagement of less is more and hardly speaks to her people on any matter. That’s rankled many, naturally: those who voted for her did not want her to be mute–she’s normally very voluble on a political stage; those who voted against her want to hear her trip herself up, so don’t want to be denied more opportunities for that.

Her relatively aloof attitude stands badly at a time when many people feel the need for guidance on where their leader feels the country is headed. The annoyance is raised because when she travels–and it’s frequently–she seems ready to speak to foreign audiences quite freely, albeit often bashing her opponents at home. The press have now taken the PM to task about her travel, its costs, and maybe some attempt to assess its benefits. The new year has been greeted by The Gleaner reporting on information it obtained from government ministers under freedom of information legislation. Not all ministries have reported so far–and I expect that to change quickly before the naming and shaming starts. Amongst those reporting has been the Office of the Prime Minister. We learned that the PM’s travels in 2013 cost the nation about J$50 million (US$500,000); her recent 5-day trip to China alone cost J$20million. This compares with earlier disclosures that seven government ministers had J$25 million (on 43 overseas visits) in overseas travel expenses in the first six months of last year. The Finance Minister’s trips cost J$8 million, and many will see this as good value for money after his negotiations with the IMF (for a 48-month, US$932 million Extended Arrangement) and other creditors is set to bring in a few billion US dollars to help finance Jamaica over the next few years. But, let the audience decide if it’s value for money: the travellers chanting that sounds tinny. When the PM talks about “knowing” the pain of her people, they will just see the $$ signs of the travel expense accounts and say “I want to know about that”.

The newspaper’s pit bull approach to the topic of the PM’s travel brought forward some lame defences from civil servants and some MPs and Senators talking about the need for official travel, as if most people could not understand that their leader has justifiable reasons for going abroad. They seemed to misunderstand the desire for accountability and openness, especially from a leader who’s saying precious little to her electorate. That set of responses tended to suggest that something was amiss. The more recent ‘defence’ by some ministers arguing that travel is arduous and not just a jolly struck me as silly, missing the point that ordinary people think that those who live off the public purse are all freeloaders.

But, now that the gross figure is out, what next? The analysis of the travel should follow: the details of where, when, who, why for the visits, and the “what should we expect as benefits?” While that is being prepared–and, I understand the information will go to Parliament in response to questions from the Leader of the Opposition–the public have their say.

Jamaicans (as far as many newspaper readers go) love to voice their opinions, and the letters pages and comments are very informative about public concerns. Online articles and comments are now a standard feature in Jamaican papers, and the reactions are good reading. I took a look this morning at some that surfaced on the travel topic. Constructive comments included:

  • Choose cheaper hotels and suites
  • Fly the PM and her delegation commercially (the fact) not by private jet (the myth) unless the host-country sends one for her
  • Capping how many persons travel with the PM overseas

Many ‘unconstructive’ comments rained down, mostly of the “What do you expect from the PNP?” variety.

All views are valid and nteresting, not least because of what they suggest about concern for possible abuse of position or waste of public money. Remember the context of Jamaica’s high public debt and an economy that shows the many signs of insufficient public spending on things to better the lives of the majority who do not travel abroad. What is practical, though?

I wont try to be an apologist, but just try to think about what people are wishing.

The PM could stay at the equivalent of Howard Johnson instead of Hilton, if the choice really existed. But, would the electorate then be concerned that the HoJo may be in ‘unsafe’ areas and require extra security for the PM, and at whose cost? Doing things on the cheap may save money in one sense but be costly in others. Yes, suites are very expensive, but they are roomy enough to double as meeting rooms. Would people want the PM or other officials to have their meetings in the hotel lobby or at the nearby coffee bar? I suspect not. Sure, in some countries, meetings could be held at a country’s diplomatic residence or office.

It’s public knowledge that the PM flies commercially, but the image of official travel is glamour, so it must be on a private jet, right. If not a private jet, then business class at least and possibly first class–clinking champagne bottles trump images of meetings and rewriting of documents and little sleep once on the ground. Foreign travel is seen as–and may sometimes be, for some–a boondoggle, so limit the freeloading is the cry of many people.

I’m glad that the fire is being put to the feet of politicians in this way. In between elections only a few means exist to get them to take notice of what concerns the electorate. Do I expect quick change? No. But, I hope that approaches will be different.

The Caribbean is different: regional theatre of the absurd (January 3, 2014)

Perry collage
PM Perry Christie, rush-shuffling with Valley Boys as Chinese Emperor, jump-shuffling in front of the Governor General, and just shuffling with Valley Boys, again.

The Bahamas have a PM, Perry Christie, who is an amiable man, but he pleases no one who does not like him. He put the likers and dislikers into a spin when he took to the Nassau streets over the Christmas season during the annual Junkanoo parades. He’s usually there in the front rows looking at his beloved Valley Boys, of which he is a founding member. But, Boxing Day 2013 saw a ‘new Perry’–the Junkanoo-rushing PM. He’s already made a dance popular–the Perry Shuffle–Now, he was treating the nation to this ‘dance’ in a major public event and on live television. That’s the good part.

The bad part, for those who want to make it so, was that his group’s theme was ‘From China to the Bahamas’. Well, if you don’t know, a bunch of Chinese money is flowing into Nassau as the Chinese invest (US$2.6 billion) in a new hotel resort, named Baha-Mar, due to open late-2014. Some Bahamians are running scared because they feel that the orientation of Mr. Christie’s policies are so eastern-looking, and the Chinese are so many and they are so few–they fear getting swamped. So, when Perry donned his make-up and shuffled as an Emperor, tongues started to lash him. Things weren’t helped when the new Chinese Ambassador took to the streets, too, and ‘rushed’ for a few minutes alongside the PM. (What were their Chinese whispers?)

Question came fast. Why rush with the biggest group? (They would eventually win the parade.) Why not go with a smaller group and be a more neutral presence? (Would it make sense for the PM to support another party in national elections?, I ask.) He couldn’t win, even though everyone knows that “Perry is for Valley”.

So, the PM then makes amends, or tries. There’s a second Junkanoo parade, on New Year’s Day. Perry’s group was this time portraying ‘The Great United States of America’. Well, Perry did not rush–he was a bit sore from his exploits the other day. He did, however, go out on the street when the group passed, hoisted an American flag, and shuffled for a few yards. He argued that his rushing had been to give inspiration to older people to show that age is no barrier to an active life: nice footwork.The plain truth is the man can’t help himself: just look at him high-stepping in front of the Governor General.

I can’t recall another instance of a national leader being so on-show in a national public festival. I’m not including German Chancellor Angela Merkel chugging beers at Oktoberfest.Merkel oktoberfest

Whatever people may feel about his political leadership style, they know that if Perry announces that there will soon be a Cabinet shuffle, they may well want to get seats to see if that means that the PM is going to get jiggy.