Fighting a Losing Battle?
Published: Sunday | November 15, 2009
Kevin O'Brien Chang

When Bruce Golding was National Democratic Movement (NDM) leader, he pledged to eliminate garrisons. Put him in power, and he would end the pernicious system that loads constituencies with party die-hards who violently intimidate opponents. Golding is now prime minister and, since the People's National Party (PNP) outnumbers the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in "hardcore" garrisons by about six to three, he has every incentive to follow through on his words. But his 'No more tribal politics!' promise seems to have been completely forgotten.

But then most Jamaicans, even educated ones who should know better, seem to have a problem with garrisons only when it involves the other side. Patient no care, doctor no care.

That other NDM mantra - 'Transparency and accountability!' - has also fallen by the wayside. Take Aubyn Hill's $1.7 million per month consultancy contract. Were he still in Opposition and a government contract like this came to light, Golding would be thundering in Parliament along the lines of 'Just what are the terms under which he was employed? Is there a conflict of interest? Was a proper tendering process followed? Could the same job have been done by someone equally qualified else for less?'

public in the dark

From left: Hill, Tufton and Jones

The tune seems to have changed now that his side is in charge. There were no answers forthcoming from the JLP in Parliament on Tuesday, and the public remains in the dark. So where is the moral difference between Derick Latibeaudiere's $38-million-per-year BOJ contract, and the $27 million Hill has collected since last July for working maybe one day per week?

A few weeks ago I ran into Agriculture Minister Chris Tufton, who was in Montego Bay for the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture Conference held from October 25-31. The hemisphere's highest forum for agricultural-related matters, was attended by over 300 delegates from 33 member states, and representatives from all major international development agencies.

Far from being elated at hosting such an important event, Tufton lamented the lack of media presence. Look at how critical the issue of food security is to Jamaica, he said, especially given the global financial crisis. Yet, while Fashion Night Out in Kingston got massive press, there was practically no coverage of the Food Security Conference. "Boy," he sighed, "sometimes you really feel like you are fighting a losing battle."

The agriculture sector has grown by double digits over the past year, so Tufton is doing some things right. He also appears genuinely interested in bettering the lot of the people. So I couldn't help feeling some sympathy at his obvious frustration.

Yet, Dr Tufton was responsible for hiring Aubyn Hill. His only response to questions so far has been "we are getting value for money" , a phrase heard ad nauseam from the previous PNP administration in similar circumstances.

Dr Tufton has always been viewed as a rare 'Mr Clean' in Jamaican politics, someone untainted by corruption or violence. I've heard quite a few comments along the lines of "we need more candidates like Chris to clean up the system!"

But when the public anger over the former BOJ governor's greedy arrogance subsides, Hill's package will come under scrutiny. Unless we get more convincing explanations, the conclusion will be "no better herring, no better barrel".

For all the often justifiable abuse heaped on them, politicians are at least willing to get actively involved in the nation's affairs. While the rest of us just stand on the sidelines and run our mouths about the country's problems, they are actually out there trying to fix them. But given how mentally lazy, contrary, and ungrateful our voters often are, it has to be a struggle not to become cynical. After the initial elation wears off, it must be very tempting to say "To hell with these idiots who don't care about the issues we are grappling with or policies we are struggling to implement, and just want to shout 'power' and 'shower'! For all this crap I have to put up with, I deserve to live large!"

electoral system struggling

Many, if not most, Jamaicans feel you can't get involved in politics here and not get corrupted. No wonder our electoral system is struggling to attract honest and educated persons. Despite our universities' population now being 80 per cent female, for instance, only eight out of 60 members of Parliament are women.

Lisa Hanna is the only one under 40, and the only other two under 50 are Sharon Hay-Webster and Natalie Neita-Headley. There is no JLP woman MP under 60, nor any prominent female members of the G2K, PNPYO or Patriots party youth arms. No doubt this gender imbalance is directly linked to the 'nastiness' of our politics. It's a very worrying trend.

All politics requires moral compartmentalisation. Though it may be contemptible in private life, lying in public affairs is often necessary for the national good. But it increasingly seems that to succeed in Jamaican politics you have to accept and do things which in the normal sphere would be considered indecent or illegal. When the gap between your personal principles and what is required for political advancement becomes too large, perhaps the only choice is to quit the game, or become utterly cynical about yourself and everyone else.

Peter Bunting, another bright youngish politician whom I ran into recently, said one cause of our hostile political environment is the 'neither-fish-nor-fowl' role of Jamaican Mp's. In the classic Westminster system, MPs deal with legislation, and leave on the ground 'bread-and-butter' issues to local councillors. But Jamaica has developed a hybrid, in-between model. Hence the infamous "battle for scarce benefits and spoils".

A political system developed over 65 years is unlikely to change overnight. So maybe our current legislators should read up on their history, and try to emulate our two founding fathers, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley. Fierce antagonists though they were, both knew that to keep the public trust, you have to draw clear lines and set positive examples.

Ken Jones' recent book Bustamante: Notes, Quotes, Anecdotes was fascinating on many levels. But what came across most strongly was Busta's complete devotion to the welfare of poor Jamaicans, and his large-hearted magnanimity. Time and again we read of him forgiving and even helping out former opponents in distress. There was a complete absence of bitterness. Jones has done an immense service to the nation in reminding us of Busta's true greatness. But we also need a book like this on the equally outstanding Norman Manley.

Let's not sugar coat the past. Jamaican politics was violence tinged from the beginning. Bustamante, after all, became a national hero after baring his chest to soldiers' bayonets and leveled rifles, and proclaiming to "shoot me, but leave my people levelled".


The first political peace pledge was signed by Busta and Norman in 1949, appealing to their supporters "not to use force in political campaigning" and to respect "the right of everyone to exercise his privileges as a voter". It did not eliminate the problem. But at least it showed leaders trying to set an example to followers.

When Bustamante, our first elected leader, was voted out in 1955, he telegraphed Manley, "You have won a close race ... I have always taken defeat without bitterness, and triumph without boasting. We shall be an honest opposition. Good luck." What a contrast to our last defeated leader's "No baby, it ain't over yet! We are going to be your worst nightmare!"

By the way, whatever happened to Golding's invitation to Portia Simpson Miller, and her acceptance, for both our prime minister and Opposition leader to walk hand in hand through our inner-city garrisons?

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