Jamaican life is full of proverbs and most people will gladly share the wisdom gained from them. ‘Mek wan jackass bray’ can be translated as ‘allow one jackass (donkey) to bray at a time’.
Yesterday, I listened to some of the live broadcast of Parliament, during a session when PM Simpson-Miller was responding to questions tabled by the Leader of the Opposition regarding her overseas travel. Such broadcasts have been available since 2007 (some 10 years after laws had provided for this). Jamaica has a British-style Parliamentary set-up, and with the now-tribal positioning of the two main parties, it’s not surprising that any face-off between politicians tends to be raucous. I think there’s a big difference between a vigorous debate and the near-juvenile behaviour one sees in both the UK and in Jamaica.
Many people are not familiar with the proceedings of Parliament and I would believe are shocked by what they observe and hear when the House is in session. Let’s say that Gordon House is often the place for a few choice “Gordon Bennett!” Or, in modern parlance, “Are these people for real!”
Though not from yesterday, this clip shows that Gordon House proceedings are not far from yard behaviour. Fulminating is the word that comes to mind.
A few weeks ago, Everald Warmington, a JLP MP, got the nation’s attention with his declaration that if you did not vote you did not count for getting government benefits. His lambasting of non-voters never touched directly on reasons why that has become so popular. Perhaps, he needs to stand outside his Parliamentary role and ask an honest question such as “Would I want to vote for someone to go to Gordon House and act as if they are in a rum shop?” The proceedings could be mistaken for a session at the dominoes table.
A common reaction heard or read yesterday was to describe the behaviour as ‘boorish‘. No disagreement, there. Many people view politicians as part of the privileged set of Jamaica. Given that the discussion underway yesterday was about the cost of the PM’s travel, it did not slip past many that the cost of politicians is not seen as public money well spent.
The substance of yesterday’s discussion? We got to hear the total cost of the PM’s travel and that of her Cabinet members and Minsters of State. (I have not seen the report that was tabled, and strangely only three copies made available to the House. But, it seems that J$118 millions for Cabinet and junior ministers’ trips , plus J$16 millions paid by the Office of the PM for her 25 trips, and J$25 millions for her staff.) We also learned something about what was accomplished by each trip. The PM got angry during the process of cross-questioning, and couldn’t avoid a few snide asides about the Opposition. Par for the course. Boring, to some extent. Unleaderlike, I’d also say. But, again, these are politicians at work, work, work. Blood was extracted from a stone. Teeth were pulled.
The PM seemed to have a hard time understanding that a large part of the populace wanted to know about her travel as part of the good governance of the country. Of course, most understand the important ambassadorial role the PM and other politicians play. But, it’s normal for the population to feel they are getting value for money from those elected to represent them. Often, politicians forget why they are in Parliament and performing their jobs in government. Their junkets need to be set in the context of what the people expect and need.
Mrs. Simpson-Miller has often bristled when asked about these trips, choosing to see ‘criticism’ of her travel, rather than a reasonable request that her people be better informed about the workings of government.
But, the whole matter could be simplified and need never raise any personal hackles. It’s not the norm in Jamaica for politicians to report to the nation on their overseas trips. It’s common practice in most organisations, worldwide. Not least, it leaves a clear record of how the stated purpose of the visits are matched by outcomes. It’s good management practice. Jamaican politicians are often telling us how we need to move forward and improve how the country operates. Yet..
The cynic in me could say that Jamaica’s politicians have not displayed a very good regard for good management. Nevertheless, we should keep pushing them towards being better than they are. Just make it a matter of routine that reporting on the trips is done. It could be in bland form with a short written report. It could be an oral presentation. It should be set in a very tight timeframe (say, within 7 days of the trip ending): that may be hard when trips are close to each other, but it means being more efficient. Government ministers have a civil service backing them and it’s very easy to set up good systems. Lots of examples exist internationally. Now, that the reporting has been done to Parliament, we should not break the mould and have this happen as a special exercise, but instead be part of government business.
Mr. Holness said the Prime Minister “should use her discretion in managing public funds frugally”. That’s important on many levels, not least because such spending is part of an overall national budget that has to stay within agreed limits as part of an IMF program. If the spending is within the agreed limits then the Fund should have no issues, but if it exceeds, then we need to know what offsetting measures exist to keep the budget deficit as agreed. In that sense, the benefits of the trips are irrelevant. You get no extra fiscal leverage for trips being ‘worthwhile’.
The PM’s response to Mr. Holness on that point was “I have not gone on any trip that has not been beneficial to Jamaica and the Jamaican people.” Let that be said. However, her saying so is not what government is about; a little substance to the statement will make it better. That’s really all that is being asked.