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!

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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

  1. “A certain tetchiness” – yes, I like that. She does seem to have let her guard down with the likes of Garfield Burford though, and unfortunately that is not a good thing. You are right… This is mind-boggling stuff, Dennis!


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