Jamaica’s MPs have failed to govern well. Time for a change?

I’ve been mulling for weeks the notion that the Westminster-style of Parliamentary government has not served Jamaica well. I’ve never been impressed by governments made up of elected representatives. I saw it in Britain for decades. However, the reasons for not liking it in the UK are not the same as those that prevail in Jamaica.

The fact that many elected politicians in the British Parliament are relatively intelligent, often highly qualified, often with excellent experience in other fields, does not justify having governments made up principally of those elected to represent geographical constituents.

In the Westminster-style system, No MP is elected to be a government minister. Party leaders are elected to represent a constituency, but on the expectation that they will form governments; but they are not constitutionally obliged to make them up from the body of MPs.

We have plenty of examples where important British Cabinet positions were filled by unelected representatives, who were usually already in, or ‘elevated’ to, the upper house, the House of Lords, and then parachuted into the ranks of Government ministers. So, Britain, during the Thatcher administrations ion the 1970s/80s, had, for example, an excellent foreign minister in the form of Lord Peter Carrington (a politician and peer, who’d also served in governments during the 1950s). In the 1960s, Harold Wilson appointed Frank Cousins (a trade union leader) and Partick Gordon Walker (a politician who did not win a seat in the 1964, but who was able to win a by-election in 1965) to be Cabinet members.

But, the Westminster-style system uses government positions as part of the ‘spoils’ system that often prevails in politics. So, the fact that government members will be chosen from the party with the largest number of elected representatives, means that government positions are easily seen as rewards.

The USA demonstrates, albeit with a presidential and federal system, that Cabinets without elected officials can make effective governments. Its elected representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate are not usually vying for positions in government. In fact, if elected officials are chosen to be in the President’s Cabinet, they vacate their elected seats. The person elected as President chooses Cabinet members who can deliver policy results, and generally work with nationally elected representatives to pilot through legislation. They have no mandate other than that given by their approval by Congress.

Jamaica has had the misfortune of its elected political spoils spilling over into bad government. The potential conflicts of interest with a government minister needing to pander to the needs of his or her electoral base are often evident.

Jamaica has also not been blessed by having its brightest and best vying for elected office, either because they do not put themselves forward or because they lose electoral battles. So, the stock of MPs is clearly far from the best bunch from which to choose.

That’s acknowledged by the fact that many recent Cabinets have been filled with ministers who are from the unelected Senate. In the current PNP administration, the ministers of foreign affairs and justice are prime examples. In previous JLP administrations, Don Wehby, a senior executive of GraceKennedy Ltd., was appointed as minister without portfolio in the ministry of finance and public service.

Should we consider changing the system, to something similar to the US administration?

Our ‘spoils system’ has been put on a different level because of the intense tribalism of electoral politics. So, almost inevitably, party supporters expect ‘their government’ to deliver largesse when in power. That is better secured through a system where MPs make up government. But, that’s a zero-sum game through which the overall benefits of the country have been sacrificed over decades to the whims of partisanship.

Coalition government, especially if based on a change of voting to proportional representation, may work against some of the partisanship, but it would still exist at the core of chosen MPs.

Governments without MPs need not be governments that are non-partisan. It’s too easy to fill Senate positions with party faithfuls, in much the way that they find their ways into the leadership of public agencies.

But, would a move away from choosing MPs to govern facilitate a move towards thinking in ways that governments are formed that are less partisan?

I have to mull some more.


Take your marks…Digicel puts on its knuckledusters and lands a hit on LIME’s head at Champs

Telecommunications are not everything, but they are an increasingly important part of modern life. Access to the Internet and availability of celluar telephone services have created opportunities for billions of people worldwide, even though they may still lack many of the basics of a decent life. So, it’s not odd anymore to find a remote village, that may have no drinking water, poor roads, poor sanitation, but excellent cellular services that can permit connections to places that have those things in abundance. Modern telecommunications have not made the world equal, but they have done a lot to even out the ‘playing field’.

So, it’s no great surprise, either, that those who play on that pitch will be like many who have to compete, and play to win.

Jamaica, and the Caribbean in general, are not known for wars, but they are also not known as a region of pure peace and love, especially over the small but important markets that people’s incomes create.

We have three telecoms giants. First, LIME (formerly Cable and Wireless; long-established and often representative of the region’s coloinal past; often reviled, but working on changing that), who operated mainly in land-line and cellular telephones. Second, we have Digicel (upstart from Ireland, bringing in fresh ideas and aggressive competition, befitting of a nation that loves to play Hurling and people well used to being hit on the head with a shellilagh),Hurling operating largely in the area of cellular telephones. Third, we have Flow (Columbus Communication; owned by Jamaican-Chinese billionaire Michael Lee-Chin, and incorporated in Barbados), operating mainly in cable-based services that cover Internet, television, and telephone offerings.

They’ve been duking it out for a good few years now, since the various national markets moved to telecoms deregulation in the late 1990s/early 2000s. So, the nice monopoly position that Cable and Wireless used to have across the region was quickly whittled away. The competition brought many benefits in the form of readier access to mobile phones, wider service access, and competitive pricing.

To me, it’s not really important who had the lead in any one area, as the technology lends itself to seepage, in that, each provider can creep over into another’s area of apparent superiority. However, the lines of demarcation started to disappear recently in notable ways. First, Digicel moved into the area of television content by acquiring a regional sports broadcaster, SportsMax. Then, LIME announced that it would merge with Flow, which was a move of such disruptive nature that it was hard to see what the new merged entity would not have control over. Digicel, understandably, did more than flinch. It shook furiously and started to bare its teeth.

There’s a lot of bluster that comes out in the face of competition, so I’m not going to touch the verbal posturing that has been going on for a few months, with Digicel crying foul, and LIME/Flow saying that they played the ball cleanly, and it’s a ‘man’s game’, so ‘suck it up’. But, like with all competitive sport, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

We’ve seen the ‘marshalling of troops’ going on in Jamaica with the recruitment of ‘soldiers’ who are well-known in the arenas of sport and entertainment, two massive markets in terms of popular interest and passion.

So, for simplicity sake, we have Usain Bolt, near demi-god in the world of athletics, and a long-time Digicel ambassador. Add to that, Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce, his female near-counterpart. Add to that new potental mega-star, Tessanne Chin. Similar, ‘capturing’ of stars goes on across the region.

LIME, by contrast, recruited singer Konshens, and all-round super-talent and recently former beauty queen, Dr. Sara Lawrence (a former Miss Jamaica and also a gynacologist).

How much of this capturing of talent and brand association matters can be a subject to debate. But, it goes on, and like many things, if you don’t participate, you miust lose.

LIME and Digicel make themselves popular by also being the main sponsors of a range of cultural, sporting, and popular events. Such associations are often seen as win-win investments, with brand association with goodwill being very important in countries where funding is always a problem. Digicel is well associated with West Indies cricket–a twisted fork, if ever there was one.

In that vein, however, LIME seemed to have put a lock on one of the most important pieces of Jamaica’s heart by being a main sponsor (along with Grace Kennedy) of the ISSA (Inter-Secondary Schools Association) annual boys and girls high school athletics championships (‘Champs’). Champs is not for chumps, and its clear position as the best conveyor belt in the world of some of the most spectacular young track and field talent is clear.

LIME is Champs. But, wait. In what is not normally a contact sport, some serious fouls were being committed. During the latest edition of Champs, just ended last night, Digicel decided to put on knuckledusters and go after LIME.

First, Digicel did a little being of naughty guerrilla marketing, associating its name with the event in a way that made it seem that they were really at its heart. Take a look at one of the images on its Instagram page.

This was not so clear, in that, it mixed nice snappy pictures of Champs alongside well-curated images of school athletes along with a brand message. However, ISSA smelled the rat and put out a warning against ‘unauthorized’ use of images from Champs. Interestingly, some of the potentially offending images now seem to have been pulled from the Internet. But, the story is not straight-forward, given that Digicel-affiliated media outlets (Loop and SportsMax) were not given official accreditation by ISSA for Champs.

But, Digicel could seem like good citizens by listening to ISSA–“Yes, sir, you’re right…It won’t happen again.” But, fingers were crossed behind the back. Digicel had bigger fish on the fire. One major star was living up to his billing. Young Michael O’Hara was winning, and winning well, and doing it in multiple events, and had the seal already of Champs sponsors, Grace Kennedy, who had given him a scholarship.

But, the boy was no one’s brand ambassador. Yet. As he passed the finishing line in the 200 meters final for class 1 boys that changed in a flash.

Michael O'Hara: chest for sale
Michael O’Hara: chest for sale

He donned a new vest with the words ‘Be extraordinary’, a Digicel brand message, right there in front of all the viewers in the stadium, but more importnatly in front of all the television eyes in Jamaica. It was also on any screen that was watching live online, and it would stay on any footage of the end of that race.

Digicel formally ‘announced’ their new brand ambassador in a series of adverts soon after. Timing is everything, but “Just win, baby!”

Hail, Michael!
Hail, Michael! Next in line to follow Bolt?

How O’Hara was not snared by LIME will be a story to follow in coming days. The initial reports are that he refused their offers. Now, I want to see if ISSA have sanctions ready for him for the manner of his unveiling or the manner in which he was ‘tempted’.

The issue of whether the proposed merger of LIME/Flow gets the go-ahead is being guided throuigh each of the national jurisdictions. So far, it’s getting nods of approval. But, it’s clear that a serious fight is on. How bloody will it be? It’s hard to say. Will the consumers really win in terms of service and competitition? I’m inclined to say yes. Will everyone be happy and get into a few verses of Kumbayaa? You must be mad.

LIME have pumped and are pumping millions of dollars into Champs and events leading up to it (as they are doing with a range of sports). That’s not a trivial investment, for them as a brand, but also for those who benefit from it. It’s not rocket science to figure that they cannot afford, literally, for that to be undone by either advertising theatrics, confused messages, or other media coups by a major rival. But, what to do? Take the high ground, and move on, regardless? Look for ways to retaliate? The market if full of fickle folk.

Jamaica: so simple and yet hard to fathom–a day in the life of an island

Jamaica can be a wonderfully simple place, where it’s hard to understand that life poses enormous problems. Sometimes, it’s better to just look around and see the best in the things that go on around you. Foreign direct investment has risen. Here’s an example.

This Turk arrived in Jamaica a few days ago and wants to sell doner kebabs

The government is working on a growth ‘strategy’. Most people just want to do a day’s work and try to provide for their families. Many show up early, set out their stalls, literally, and wait for customers to choose their wares over others.

Here to serve you every day

Sometimes, the offerings are not visually exciting, but looks deceive. Sometimes, the appeal is just that they’re available.

Fruit too pretty to resist

The PM announced that a dozen rest stop sites will be set up across the country in phase 1 of a three-phase programme. Some may find that odd in a country well-known for its road food. But, maybe there’s a twist that I’ve not understood. The idea is to spread the benefits of tourism. So, maybe, we’ll see more visitors driving themselves around the island–unlikely. Or, we’ll see more organized tours that land at these new sites. Who’ll gain and who may lose from this?

We’ve lost about one Jamaican a day in road deaths.

l just want to get to work
My cloth cap won’t protect me?

It’s not because people fall out of the back of pickups. But, when you’ve a many-mile journey to work or school and no public or private transport in sight, do you refuse a ride because you can’t get a seat with a secure belt? Some of our more vulnerable users are cyclists and motorcyclists, who live with casual island-life care and think of helmets as an optional extra. Protective clothing in the Tropics is never a high consideration. But, roads are tougher than bodies, in temperate and tropical zones. We cry poverty? We cry over graves.

The need to rewrite Senate history: the awkward truth about ‘Senators’ Clarke and Reid

In somewhat typical fashion, we are in the land of double-think. No one seems ready to deal with yet another inconvenient truth. I just opened The Gleaner and read a story entitled ‘Reid, Clarke acknowledged by Senate‘. I know that I sleep well, but I am not asleep all the time. We just had a series of court rulings that told us, and retold us that the appointment of Dr. Clarke and Mr. Reid to the Senate was a null and void act. They were put in to replace Messrs. Tufton and Williams, but this was both illegal and unconstitutional. So, the Clarke-Reid time as Senators needs to be consigned to being figments of our imagination.

Your eyes deceived you: Reid and Clarke were never in the Senate
Your eyes deceived you: Reid and Clarke were never in the Senate

The Court of Appeal said in its ruling that “the Full Court was correct in finding [in February] that the demand for pre-signed letters of resignation was unconstitutional and invalid. Similarly, the use of those letters without the consent of the persons who had signed them was also invalid. Consequently, the letters of resignation that were delivered to the governor general by Holness were invalid and ineffective.”

“The Constitution provides that the seat of a member of either House becomes vacant ‘if he resigns his seat’. On 16 January 2012, prior to becoming a member of the House, the respondent Williams signed a letter tendering his resignation as a member of the Senate with immediate effect. That letter cannot be regarded as a resignation letter as a he was not yet a member of the Senate.”

So, strange though it may seem to some, we have to deal with how to unwrite the Clarke-Reid time in the Senate. They were there, unwittingly, under false pretences.

Some have asked, legitimately, how have the laws of the land been changed by the presence of persons (it’s ‘people’, but I’m now in Jamaica) who were not legally authorised to do what they were doing, by participating in Senate business? That question is a matter of fact, amd I would have thought that the Senate would do well to assure the country that all the votes taken were not swayed by those of the two not-really Senators.

It may make Hansard look weird, but their contributions ought to be taken out of the official records. That may leave our successors wondering to whom other members of the Senate were speaking at certain times, but I’m sure that a way around that can be found.

Look, Jamaica is not new to political farce, so why not add this to the long litany. I don’t know if we are unique in having illegal participants in our legislative proceedings, but it may be another Jamaican first.

Our politicians need a kick up the rear? Other ideas gladly received

I’m not sure whether Jamaicans ever reach a point similar to the news presenter in Network, who screams “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore!

Do Jamaicans ever feel this enraged? Yes, till the smell of curry goat wafts past their noses
Do Jamaicans ever feel this enraged? Yes, till the smell of curry goat wafts past their noses

For all the many criticisms levelled at the nation and its people, it has an amazing amount of tolerance. At least once in the past 50-odd years of Independence, Jamaicans have had good enough reason to launch their own ‘spring uprising’.

Why they have not is always a fascinating question. Some will take the knee-jerk view that Jamaicans just can’t be bothered, because they are too lazy and good for nothing, and an uprising takes commitment and effort.

Others may take the view that Jamaicans are easily bought off, and the ‘eat a food’ mentality has become so ingrained and easy to exploit that the mere smell of a pot of curry goat has been enough to thwart any notion of rebellion.

Jamaicans do get angry and passionately upset, but not about politicians in a general sense. They get truly exercised during Champs, as their school, real or adopted, shines or slumps. They will rail against the political rival in the most ridiculous ways. Ask them about the performance of a politician and you will get an almost robotic reply that reflects the political stripe of the respondent. For supporters: “My man (or woman) is doing a great job, and he (or she) just needs a chance to do things better (get things right).” Take the same sentence with negative words and that’s the view of an opponent. Like being soused in the liquid from boiled guava leaves, the itch is gone in a flash.

I’ve heard a lot of that in the past months about PM Portia Simspon-Miller. I also heard it over the past few weeks about Andrew Holness, the Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition (Leader of the PO). His latest need to have a chance came after going to court twice to get a ruling on a pretty intriguing piece of political skullduggery, when he got Senators he nominated to sign undated resignation letters, which he then produced to try to oust them after they refused to back him in a leadership contest.

To this day, I cannot fathom the actions of the Senators, who seem like kittens putting their heads into the mouth of an alligator and expecting them to not get bitten off. But, politics and the love of political power is an opiate so strong.

Anyway, Mr Holness has summarily lost the court cases twice now, but seems to be holding on for another last try. I don’t think he can appeal to the Privy Council to get a ruling on a Constitutional matter, but I’m no lawyer. To me, the matter was always clear: he could not force the Senators to resign because he did not have the power to appoint. He could try to dis-appoint them by taking resignation letters from them, ready signed, but it was all a big joke, because the letters were meaningless in the eyes of the Constitution. The ceremonial role of the Governor General has substance in the acts he (or she) performs. Ya-boo, sucks!

Now, some have said it’s all to do with Mr. Holness’s youthfulness, that like a  puppy with an old, smelly slipper, he keeps dragging it around and treating it like the juiciest bone a dog has ever set jaws on. But, honestly, you sometimes need to know when to let go of stuff. I don’t think Mr. Seaga need add to the saga, but he’s older and wiser than most so may get the pleasure of his views running things a little longer.

When I started writing this, I had in my mind the question whether Jamaica needed a dose of Jeremy Clarkson or Jeremy Paxman. For those who don’t follow things in Britain, Mr. Clarkson has just been fired by the BBC. He’s a well-known, belligerent presenter of a car show, ‘Top Gear’.  

Jeremy Clarkson, trying to ‘escape’ the media on a bicycle. He could just punch his way through?

He’s had lots of public run-ins with people, including a good amount of punch-ups, swearing matches, racial abuse, and more. Really, more! Well, his latest episode involved punching a producer of the show, allegedly over a steak. I’ve not quite understood why, but there you have it.

Read a nice take on the wayward man-child.

Does Jamaica need some off-the-chain, rabid figure to just go and knock some sense into a few of its politicians?

I ask because I genuinely wonder whether they are so unaccustomed to the true cold breeze of criticism that they can just bluster along, seemingly oblivious of the views of those who are not sycophants.

Some Jamaican politicians don't like microphones being thrust in their faces. Like Jamaican-wannabee Mayor Toronto, get over it.
Some Jamaican politicians don’t like microphones being thrust in their faces. Like Jamaican-wannabee Mayor Toronto, get over it.

I had an idea at the weekend that they all needed to be put on display in public stocks and have the population pose questions about what they had done over the past week, and hurl all manner of rotten fruit and eggs at them for every meaningless thing they said they had done. I still like that idea.  

Are public stocks the answer to Jamaican political buffonery?

The other line is to seek to subject politicians to some much harder scrutiny. I think Jamaica has a few journalists, who can probe and push and make politicians really uncomfortable sometimes, but they do not have the Jeremy Paxman-style, after the presenter who hosts ‘Hard Talk’. Watch one of his interviews, with Italy’s Foreign Minister. You’ll see that he does not get flustered by meaningless, or empty rhetoric, and answers that offer no solutions are not taken as a reason to just move on.

We don’t see politicians in Jamaica so under pressure that they want to get up and run out of an interview. You could serve me some of what British journalists do to politicians any day of the week.

A lot of people have wondered how the PM has managed to get away for years without a serious media grilling and some challenging questions over her leadership of the country. (I mean a televised interview, because the written word is not for most people, and we like to see the eyes shift and mouth twitch as people come under the glare of the hot lights.)

Well, one reason is that she does not permit herself to be interviewed. But, that’s not hard to get over; instead, you produce an exposé that details the points that are up for debate. If it is highly critical, the political directorate won’t let it stand there unchallenged. If it is mildly critical, they will still want to get a more positive spin. If it is wholly complementary, they would still want to have a chance to get into the studios to crow about the wonderous and wonderful things. So, either way, you get the person you want to come and explain. You are not going to accept a spokesperson, so it seems to me the media have the upper hand.

Instead, the media have let the political directorate dictate and accept that the refusal of the PM to face the music is the end of the matter. Need for a little stealth?

Our media are extraordinarily free in expressing their opinions, but still tend to the deferential when it comes to hauling its leaders over the coals. Fear of retribution? Fear of disfavour? Lack of commitment? Just too nice? I don’t know enough to say. But, with foreign (or at least, US) media due to flood the island when President Obama comes next month, I have a feeling that the unbridled and unvarnished pictures will start to seep out. Better get in some reps answering questions and having them come back at you when they seem downright empty and foolish.

Fine words dress ill deeds

For those who had eyes to see it, Jamaica put on quite a display of its talents yesterday. The PM was making her budget speech. Champs, our national spectacle of young athletic talents, began.

When you can run like the wind, who cares that the country is poor?
When you can run like the wind, who cares that the country is poor?

It was my father’s 86th birthday.

But, in all of that glory, we saw why our country remained poor for decades while another small island became rich to the extent that their population is about 10 times as wealthy as ours in terms of income per head: our US$6,000 sits as a paltry sum compared to that of Singapore at about US$60,000. We were better off than Singapore in the early 1960s, and with their relative lack of natural resources, we should have managed to hold that advantage. They had a leader who saw the value of, amongst other things, really investing in people and their health and education, rather than opining about it, and the tangible financial and development rewards are now theirs, not ours. But, we can still sprint like the wind. Next!

We’re poor because we never understood that it was better to bake a much bigger pie and share that than to keep burning the cake and having to fight over the crumbs. We looked so hard and lustily at the short-term gains that come from corruption that we never saw the long-term benefits of a well-educated, well-ordered, law-abiding country being able to command high prices for its goods and services and being able to provide its population with all the basic elements of a healthy life. Lee Kwan Yew was no democrat, and he understood that if you let a small country of desperate people just have it their way the road would lead downward rather than up. That’s the broad picture. But, let’s look at what Jamaica put on display in the rogue’s gallery.

While the PM was talking big in her budget speech about new projects that would help ‘develop’ Jamaica, and that we did not need to magnify problems, we had supporters of the two main parties fighting over the right to stand on a dingy street corner.  

PM Simpson-Miller, dressed finely and speaking fine words, during her budget presentation

It was hard to fathom the fervour that the woman with faux orange hair displayed as she explained on TV how she and her friend merely ‘ran’ young representatives of the opposition, who had come to demonstrate their disapproval of the government by wearing dust masks, symbolising their reaction to the still-smouldering fire at the Riverton Dump. “There’s no fire here. Why they need dust masks?” She made clear that her group did not give the opponents a beating. Meanwhile, we saw one of her fellow supporters being disarmed by her father, while she clung on lovingly to some big rocks that she was ready to use to ‘run’ more opponents. It was like animals fighting over a carcass, except that the dead body was the stagnant economic life that they had grown into and grown up in.

Earlier in the day I had listened to residents of Riverton complaining that the dump was their life and that they had been born there and raised there and knew no other life than scavenging over other people’s waste. One lady felt no fear from the toxic air that was hers to breathe fully, claiming that people who live near the dump are immune to the toxins. Meanwhile, those who can read are checking what it means to have benzene and other carcinogens to injest. I want to say that this lady’s reaction is about as ignorant as people can be, but she may just be right. But, I will reject that. It suits those who crave power to have a population who think that living on the edge of a waste heap for years gives them super powers and are untouchable by things which the rest of the population now want to run from in utter fear.

I heard the same logic months ago, when people who lived in parts of Kingston that had been notable for the uncleared gullies and the constant infestation of mosquitoes, that they too were immune to the bites of the mosquitoes and Chikungunya would not affect them. The information about the spread of that virus, scrappy though it is, suggests that luck might have prevented some getting bitten, but that’s it.

On another scale of warped thinking and self-serving logic, we had presented to us a report by the Office of the Contractor General into the activities of the former Mayor of Lucea, Shernet Haughton. You ought to read the litany of nepotistic practices that went on, as family members and friends benefited from a string of contracts, and acts of corruption poured out like rain on a tin roof. The reprot mentions J$3.7 million out of a budget of $29.6 milllion, went to friends and family. Allegations were that $15 million had been awarded to such contacts, but the clear relationship was not easy to establish for that total amount. The lady had insisted that she had not been made aware of ethical issues related to her office. That defence tells you that notios of conflict of interest do not enter the head of some in political office. That one of her cronies thought it reasonable to state that he hired drunkards because they charged less tells you so much about the ‘eat a food’ mentality that seems to have eaten away all of some people’s brain cells.

I am not going to join all the dots, and note that the then-Mayor led a local authoritiy that is PNP-dominated. Squeeze an orange until its pips pop out? Move on!

I’m not sure if I should lump in with all this the trial of a juror in the murder trial of ‘Vybz Kartel’, who tried to bribe his fellow jurors into throwing out the charges. As my wife is wont to say, “Who does that?” Well, my dear, people who are so desperate that they know that money is more easily made by lying and stealing to get it. People who are bankrupt in their thinking and morals. That’s who does that.

I’m biased when I say that the PM did the right thing by pointing out that passing IMF ‘tests’ are important in getting Jamaica to a better place that it has been in for a long while. What’s sad, though, is that we created the need to go through the ‘pain’ of economic austerity after wasting funds that were thrown at us to use to better our lot. But, the tests wont get the economy growing fast, though they make it more likely that growth can occur. The rule of law and stable conditions are more conductive to growth than the thrust that comes from spending money as if there’s no tomorrow.

But, as I noted in the little cameos from yesterday, rule of law is alien to many who are there to apply it. Stability is hard to maintain when you live on the side of a waste heap.

The PM spoke and will leave a few notable words in people’s ears. They will applaud her calling for stiffer peanlties for those who kill women who are known to be pregnant. Let’s not worry about the fact the our police force can barely catch 1 in 10 criminals, or get them to court or get people to tetify. Let’s not worry about how we will establish that the killer ‘knew’ the victim was pregnant. Details, dear boy.

The health sector got a 17 percent increase in its budget allocation. Who-hoo! After a year of short supplies and searching high and low (or is it in Hi-Lo?) for one Panadol, we can look forward to…Pick a medical supply that is essential that was missing at your last visit to a public hospital. But, the PM said not to mangnify the difficulties, so just keep that finger on that bleeding wound just a few more hours, while I go check if there’s any guaze.

The PM had to talk about Riverton in her speech, as least to show a semblance of awareness that it was a major problem for the country. Even a politician who professes to not follow the local media would be hard pressed to be unware of the distress of many of the citizens in and around the capital, who sufferd from polluted air, had to stay home from school or work, and seek respirators, and the added anxiety that comes from not knowing if the all-important GSAT exams will be held and in what conditions. At the least, she would have been intrigued by the Darth Vader-like mask one of her ministers sported soon after his return from Japan. That’s what you got, though, nothing much else. You read the speech, for yourselves. the final line is a gem “The Ministers of Local Government and Health will provide more information on this issue.” Over and out!

The speech has some great sound bites about the need to end violence, and how the people of Jamaica are the real heroes and heroines, and it taking a village to raise a child. But, walk through the doors of Gordon House, and the heroines and heroes were ready to throw rocks and fight with sticks over the right to stand on a particular street corner. The PM talked about the ‘ownership society’ , but I wondered how many NHT contributors gagged when she said she wanted more Jamaicans to “own a ‘piece of the rock'”. I guess the lady with the orange hair had her piece already.

While the health sector looks forward to its bigger budget, it also showed us what ‘joined-up government means, as its permanent secretary let us know that his ministry will be taking the ministry of local government to court for failing to deal with the problem of Riverton Dump. I’m glad to say that I was one of the first to suggest using laws to bring public agencies back to what they are supposed to do over instances like Riverton. If the laws fail us, then let’s just all pack up and leave.

We’re due to get growth of about 1.6 percent this year, according to the badly named Growth Agenda Policy Paper (GAPP…really?). Do I see that being enough to stop the ‘eat a food’ mentality that is supposedly behind the recurrent fires at Riverton? No! Do I beleive that will stop local government politicians from trying to feather the nests of their familiers and friends? No! Do I think that will provide enough stimulus for unemployed people who can pick up rocks to defend street corners? No! So, what do I have? Fine words, my friend, more fine words.

If management style is a reason for dismissal of a chief executive…

Today is the day when Jamaica’s PM makes her contribution to the national budget debate. I would be lying if I told you that I was looking for it to give me any deep insight into how the country’s finances are really doing and how we will find our way onto a path for strong growth and higher employment.

The PM does not do ‘big ideas’ or ‘strategic vision’. I say that based on what I have heard her say, and on nothing else. However, I do have a notion of bigger ideas that she has stood behind, but given that they were in the context and euphoria of election promises, I would be foolish and naive to put a lot of faith in such remarks. One of those big ideas was to do with accountability and transparency.

Last October, The Gleaner commissioned a survey and found that 4 out of 5 Jamaicans found that the promises on accountability and transparency were hollow and empty. They found that the PM’s style of leading from a position of saying little and taking most opportunities to avoid being interviewed as being amongst the things that had bolstered this low opinion.

I’m not sure what the strategy and thinking of the PM and her ‘handlers’s has been on this ‘wall of silence’ strategy, but I have a stronger feeling that it was in fact a form of damage limitation. In other words, the less that was said, the less damning evidence that existed that nothing much was being said or that promises were going unfulfilled.

It seems that almost every time the PM has the opportunity to make a definitive statement on some major issue, it comes out as a rather cringe-wrothy sound bite. That happens, sometimes, especially if one is uncomfortable being in the limelight. But, I don’t think that’s the problem. She does not shun the limelight, if it involves ‘action’. So, she’s at ease running with a baton, or wielding a shovel, for example. However, she’s increasingly ill at ease when it comes to speaking to the nation on major policy issues or topics of national interest.

Running, running, running
Running, running, running

Jamaicans like to ‘tek serius t’ing mek joke’, but have a leader on whose every word people now hang for another sign that all is not right.

I have a generally generous disposition about people who have to be in the public eye and make themselves available to justify what they do in the people’s name. But, there comes a point where you cannot throw away all the evidence and pretend that what you have seen and heard did not happen.

When the PM uttered the infamous “doing less with more money“, at her party conference half a year ago, some smart people tried to tell me that it was an example of the misspoken word. I said that was utter tosh. The PM never retracted the statement, or gave any indication that it was not what she meant to say. Being a product of a discipline that has to take evidence seriously, I put that up as Exhibit 1 that ‘words don’t lie’.


What is more, not one prominent person of the ruling party came out and said “She did not mean to say that.” So, again, I put it to you that she said what she meant.

Other exhibits exist to support this idea.

It just happens to be the case that prominent examples of lack of accountability and transparency are also excellent examples of doing less with more money. How else does one understand what the NHT is trying to with the Outameni purchase, and the fact that the Board has not been under any pressure from the political directorate to resign. On the contrary, the Board chairman (who is supposed to report to the PM) said publicly he was not going to resign. I don’t know how he got authority to determine his own fate, except that he is neither accountable nor are the processes transparent. No one has given an explanation of why the inflated price for the assets of a failed entertainment venture can be justified or what is really going to be undertaken. The jokes about being ‘out of money’ are only funny if you are yourself not worring about money and the lack of a house provided by an institution that supposedly has that as its principal mandate.

The fire raging at Riverton Dump (and I give it a title with that capital D) is another example of no accountability or transparency and doing less with [more] money.

The embattled ED of NSWMA keeps telling anyone who cares to listen that, if only she had had more money and resources, all of our solid waste problems would have been things of the past. But, that doesn’t stand up to any kind of examination. The money available to NSWMA has not been spent prudently, and it’s not because of a recent story about J$1 billion being spent inappropriately. How do I know that? By the absence of audited accounts, which partly reflects that the organisation cannot manage the money properly it has and the accountants and auditors can only give a ‘qualified’ audit, which is a red flag of a large size. For that to be the case for a decade speaks volumes about financial mismanagement–not just by the executive agency, but also by its overseer, the Board.

We heard the ED lament at the weekend that NSWMA needed 270-odd trucks, picking up twice a day, instead of managing with 55 broken down trucks, to clear Jamaica’s pile of fetid waste. But, look around. I see plenty of money spent on rather swanky looking vehicles for government officials that spend a large amount of the day not actually being driven around with their official contents. So, we have put spending on luxury cars to be often idle higher than spending on trucks that would be very busy taking away waste. That is classic doing less with more money.

A rough and ready look at the cost of these vehicles shows that a garbage truck costs about US$70,000, and an average midsized SUV costs about US$50,000. Let’s ignore the taxes and import duties. So, for the price of 3 SUVs, we could have had 2 garbage trucks. Without being too nasty, which do we think would have given us better value for money? If you vote for the government SUVs, then accept that you are part of the problem.

I accept that the leader of a country is never really anything but busy. By that, I mean that many demands and questions are being poured on such people and clear answers are expected. How the leader deals with that, though, tells us a lot about how they see the job at hand.

I’ve said the PM is not about big ideas. I got more confirmation of that last week, when she was asked about assigning responsibility for the fire at Riverton. Big ideas people would have a view that covered the wider notion of how one carries out functions. They would see things like the pile of garbage smouldering and on fire, and the capital city shrouded in smoke, and schools and businesses closing, as a clear reflection of whether the waste was being well-managed. They should indicate whether they thought that was what the job of managing the waste should produce as outcomes, then say whether they are happy with that. It’s not about personalities. But, the PM showed that she’s into persons (Jamaicans don’t talk about ‘people’). For that reason, when tackled on the issue, she could only revert to the personality aspect and point out that the ED did not set the fire. She was, of course, right on point. But, of course, she missed the point, completely.

The question to pose and try to answer is whether the country’s leader can only see the running of the nation in these small, personality-related ways. She is kind-hearted, and avowed champion of the poor, and that’s why lots of people love her hugs and smiles and her stopping by accidents to offer comforting words and maybe some money for people to get on with their damaged lives. When she cannot do that, she struggles. What’s odd though is that she cannot seem to hug the country in the same way and express the right sympathy on a national level, and also not in a way that shows that the love you get doesn’t depend on whether you are swathed in orange rather than if you are festooned in green.

One of the PM’s famous lines is “My fellow Jamaicans…” but is it the case that increasingly Jamaicans don’t feel that they are ‘her fellows’?

Steven Ashley, chair of the NSWMA Board, said he had a problem with the ‘management style’ of his ED, and therefore felt she had to go. But, if the nation has a similar problem with its ED, what are its options?

Riverton fire: our long-term health compromised for scraps of chicken meat

Jamaican government officials have shown too ready a tendency to shoot from the lip and aim right at their own feet over the latest Riverton fire. They used to say that “loose lips sink ships” or “careless talk costs lives”. That related to letting secrets slip during the war. But in the battle to reassure a population that things are under control, the performance of the mouth pieces have been abjectly poor. 

How the health ministry spokesperson could say so confidently that there would be no long term health effects defies reason. We know there is no control of what goes to the dump and that many items that are known toxins are just tossed there. We await the air quality reports from Canada, but we know that the city has been living under a heavy cloud of noxious fumes. 

I drove west out of Kingston on Friday and again today. I stopped at gas stations on Washington Boulevard both mornings. I have never breathed air like it. It’s visibly dark and smells foul.

Mandela Highway shrouded in smoke

People walked with masks, but a mere handful. Most went without. Those working or going to school or just walking in the area are not breathing air that is vaguely clean. It’s disturbing that there is not a mobile respiratory unit anywhere to be seen. It’s bothersome that no one seems to monitor the general population, despite checking those who visit clinics. Just taking the random selection of people who move along the boulevard west toward Hydel Schools and you have population that must exhibit respiratory problems in the near future. If a map of the smoke and its contents and spread were to be shared, I imagine people might get mildly panicked. No one is sitting comfortably. I even heard how bad it was high into the Blue Mountains.

It’s in the air and it must enter the soil and thus the food chain. It’s a disaster that bodes a crisis.

While it’s hard to not listen with incredulity to the reasoning of the PM, or her just-returned Minister of Local Government, who seemed paralysed into inaction because Japan–where he was visiting–is “far away”. Clearly, reasoning and modern technology have become a challenge for ministers, which suggests that they will have a hard time processing the problems we face and coming up with solutions that make sense.

Washington Boulevard shrouded in smoke

The ‘food chain’ that the chicanery of illicit and explicit activities at Riverton represent is one littered with poisoned fruit. Now, we are amongst those who must eat the poison. The little hustlers who try to find copper to sell from the dump and the truckers who live off moving dirt to cover the dump don’t care that food in their bellies comes at the expense of the general health of people they don’t see or know. But, the scorpion knows no friends. The port closed, so goods were shipped elsewhere. That will ratchet up prices or reduce supplies or both. The ground is being poisoned and the little scraps that feed chickens that will feed many later, because we need to ban imports of US chickens, will be injested and make us sick. Our water is being polluted by the smoke contents that re-enter as rain to feed our reservoirs. There are other effects.

No short-term health effects? In the long-run, we’re all dead, so I understand the logic, now.

Beware what you ask for: an insight into Jamaican leadership and thoughts on accountability

For many months, a good number of Jamaicans could be heard begging to hear more from their prime minister. Many important issues that cried out for a statement from the nation’s leader seemed to come and go. The echo of silence was deafening. In recent weeks, however, we seem to have witnessed a change in attitude from the political directorate, with the PM being a little more visibly accessible, especially when caught ‘impromptu’ on the street, after a meeting, for instance. I put the word in quotation marks because things may not be all they seem: it’s not beyond the wit of politicians and journalists to arrange things so that they seem to be spur-of-the-moment, but were in fact planned. But, let’s not get bocgged down with that. The bottom line is that we’ve had more opportunities to see and hear the PM speak off the cuff. However, that has exposed something that many suspected for a long time: off-the-cuff thinking and speaking is a dangerous path for many politicians and one that seems to be especially hazardous for the PM.

She is a consummate politician: her record in elections is often cited as testimony and her ability to win over her party in a heated leadership race should also be looked at as evidence that she knows how to win political fights. Her performances in Parliament often betray a certain tetchiness.

But, leadership is not always about fighting and scrapping and clawing and gouging. It is often getting the right feel for moments. What these impromptu interviews have shown is that, at key moments, the PM does not seem to feel the moment. I hark back to last year, when the country was becoming concerned at the possible outbreak of a Chik-V epidemic. One of the PM’s reactions to calls for the resignation of her health minister, who seemed to steadfastly deny that anything out of the ordinary was happening, was that he had “done nothing wrong”. That betrayed a certain understanding of what ministerial responsibility signified: if the post holder could be shown to have done nothing wrong, then why should one consider removing him or her? It did not go to any positive attribute, such as ‘what has the person done to improve the situation’? If you ask questions like that, you do not sit satisfied with the absence of wrong doing. That’s like the ‘Thatcher principle’ of bringing solutions, rather than just problems. If the PM had asked herself “What has my minister done to identify and solve the problem?” she would have concluded differently about whether the post-holder was worth hanging onto. That’s part of strategic thinking.

We see the same thinking on display when the PM was asked if she thought the ED of NSWMA should be fired. The PM did two rather odd things: first, she noted that this was not the first fire, and nobody had been fired for the previous fires; second, she noted that Ms. Edwards was not at the site at the time and had not set the fire. Many people were left wide-eyed at both observations.

Maybe, I’m mistaken, but they seemed to suggest that the frequent mishaps were somehow a good reason to absolve a manger from blame. I’ve struggled to fathom what logic was at play there and gave up. It seemed to say that the more accidents that the transport minister can cite, the better his record. It’s of the ‘more is better’ ilk, no matter what the more is. But, the matter of not setting the fire is bizarre, to try to be kind. Is the thinking that, only if one could should someone as culpable of a direct act that led to a catastrophe would that person be asked to account for his or her actions.

So, if the finance minister did not mispend any funds directly, or have anything to do with actually collecting revenue, then nothing that happens in the budget that was untoward could be laid at his feet. Likewise, if a plane crashed into Kingston Harbour, but the minister in charge of aviation was not in the pilot’s seat, then under no circumstances would the PM be looking for him or her to have to take responsibility. Pass the cognac, Martha!

This is the logic of the kindergarten sandpit. Maybe, I misheard the interview, so I suggest that you watch and listen to it for yourself. “We can’t hold someone responsible…at a place where [they] were not present…” These and other insights into the mind of a decision-maker tell me a lot, or maybe it tells me very little.

Anyone holding a responsible position in Jamaica merely needs to prove their continued absence from their post at all critical times to be able to sail off into the sunset of undisturbed pension. You can’t make this stuff up!

NSWMA: Fuzzy logic and the perpetuation of poverty

A few days ago, the ED of NSWMA gave an interview to Nationwide Radio.

ED of NSWMA, flanked by other government officials during media briefing
ED of NSWMA, flanked by other government officials during media briefing

On the face of it, I think both sides would be happy with the outcome. The interviewer posed some awkward questions and got a few defensive responses, on occasion. The ED gave answers that did not make her out to be an utter fool and often she was quite calm and on top of the subject matter. That would make most people draw back from calls for her resignation for being out of her depth. But, when I listened to the interview I was shocked by some of what I heard.

One of the issues concering the Riverton dump is security, in particular, the access that unauthorized people appear to have on a constant basis. It’s all well and good telling the world that there is 24-hour army and police presence at the dump if they do nothing to stop unauthorized people getting in and doing whatever they like. That is wanton neglect on several levels. I almost fell over laughing yesterday when, during a media briefing, the Information Minister gave the reason for media not being granted access to the site as being “for your protection”. Somehow, the fact that scavengers can crawl over the garbage unhindered either means they are superhuman and in no need of the same protection as media personnel, or they are so damaged by constant exposure to the toxic waste as to be unlikely to suffer any marginal deterioration to their health. Her thoughfulness for the media betrayed the wanton disregard for the health of people who have no business crawling over heaps of waste.

When asked to explain how and why scavengers are allowed to work the dump, the ED went into a few stories of how some of them were using the money they made there to feed their families and even send children to university.

Daily labour at Riverton dump
Daily labour at Riverton dump

This is where the thinking and actions of NSWMA have become dangerous. It is another example of misplaced social welfare. The management of solid waste is not about being compassionate to people whose lives are in dire straits. If that is the case, then let people go and wander around the electricity generating plant and see if they can muster up some living and not get shot through with a thousand volts. Or, why not let them hang around the ports, or the cement works, or just follow ministers home and rummage around in their yards to see what goodies may fall their way and improve their lot?

This is the logic that says ends justify means: you can do things you are not supposed to do, and without sanction because you are trying to do good by your family, and you are too poor or too badly educated to be able to hold down any kind of job. That is the logic that excuses praedial larcency or petty theft, or bigger theft like stealing electricity. The needs of a poor person trump all other social needs. It is the conscience-salving knee-jerk reaction of someone who does not have an answer to a deep underlying economic and social problem and thinks that anything that reduces that is good. Wrong!

It is also the kind of thinking that politicans do, because they are so absorbed by short-term responses that they do not have a handle on how to grind out a solution that may take a decade to give its needed results. The ED is a consummate politician. It is a good reason for not having them run organizations that should be managed according to clear mandates and with hard financial or activity targets.

The ED obviously has a conscience, but her job is not to salve her conscience; it is to manage solid waste. So, when she talks about using all the resources available and needing more to do the job well, that’s when I get suspicious. Because, in her own little way, by socialising her business activity, she has diverted resources or allowed resources to be misused.

Fine, if NSWMA wants to have a social objective, set up a fund, or hive off some activities so that social redress can be clearly tackled. Don’t mess with garbage and mess with people’s lives thinking that letting them scavenge over toxic waste is the way to solve their social problems. The government has failed them once by not having a welfare structure to keep them afloat. Why fail them again by letting them wander with impunity where they have no business?

The hypocrisy of what goes on at Riverton is exemplified by this attitude towards scavengers. Just over a year ago, NSWMA was urging people not to scavenge at the dump. Why? A youngster died at the site, after being run over by a truck. How awkward. Let’s not have that happen again. But, now, the ED says that because people can make enough to send kids to school, get hunting through the trash again.

This is what goes on when management doesn’t understand what negligence means; which does not understand what good resource management means; which doesn’t really know what it’s doing, despite fine-sounding words. People die needlessly. People suffer needlessly–this time a city of nearly 2 million people. And no amount of ‘do good’ notion excuses having that on your shoulders and also not doing well the job in hand.

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