Raising the Bar, Drawing a Line

Published: Sunday | February 10, 2008

I don't know Bruce Golding very well. But those who do, say his political mantra is 'substance not style'. Or at least it has been since his National Democratic Movement (NDM) reincarnation. Some who have dealt with him over the years say there is a marked difference between today's Golding and the 1980s version. Then, they found him your typical politician reeking of arrogance. Now, he comes across as pretty much BS free with his feet full on the ground.

These folk wonder whether it was the NDM's electoral humiliation that purged him of self-importance. Of course only saints could be fully immune to the constant flattery from self-seeking sycophants that national leaders must suffer, or enjoy. Still, Golding gives the impression of a man who has learnt from life's travails not to believe his own press clippings.

Critics dismissed as political grandstanding his rejection of the 'Most Honourable' title and calling himself 'chief servant'. But they seemed to me consistent with his no frills personality. To be sure life teaches you to vouch only for those you have known long and well. And even then, human nature being what it is, sometimes we can't even vouch for ourselves.

Yet, Golding's manner of governance since taking power last September is kindling hope in the hearts of many that Jamaica is finally going to be run as all successful countries are - sensibly, efficiently, fairly and honestly.

'Golding raises quality of leadership to high level' wrote Ken Chaplin in the January 22 Daily Observer. He commended the PM for his restraint in dealing with the Tivoli Gardens security operation, and for redressing the wrongful dismissal of Michael Bennett, the PNP supporting caretaker of Independent Park in St Elizabeth. "Golding has set a fine example in the dispensation of natural justice from which, it is hoped, the public and private sectors will follow."

In the February 3 Gleaner, Ian Boyne praised Golding for hosting 'Jamaica House Live' "so compassionately and so calmly" and for "chatting easily and colloquially to country people and senior citizens with middle-class inflections". Golding has effectively positioned himself as the man on the vanguard of change.

Liberalising libel laws

He is liberalising libel laws to empower the press; he is overseeing the crafting of legislation to tackle corruption and abuse of public office; to reduce abuses in the police force. He is seen as intellectually competent and is marketing himself as the compassionate, accessible down-to-earth leader."

Yes, Golding is raising the bar. Yet many fear that he seems too good to be true. They are naturally wary of investing their hopes in yet another 'messiah', only to see these dreams dashed again. Though Golding is probably the last person who would want to hear himself dubbed a political 'saviour'. He no doubt agrees with Napoleon that "A man is only a man. If circumstances are not favourable, he is nothing".

Well, the circumstances in Jamaica could hardly be more favourable for inspired leadership. Despite being a democratic success and regularly changing leaders by ballot, there is a growing sense of being left behind globally.

Countries that used to be much poorer, such as China, have surpassed our per capita GDP. Fellow Caribbean islands such as Antigua, Barbados, Trinidad and The Bahamas are not only richer but have better infrastructure, education systems and health care. We keep plummeting down the Transparency International Corruption Index. Then there's our world-leading murder rate.

Jamaica is not that bad a place to live for most. But proper management of our resources would greatly improve the general quality of life. The problem is that most Jamaicans have settled into a kind of comfort zone. It can be irritating to those who have lived abroad and know things can be better. But grumble as they do, the masses seem resigned to pot-holed roads, shoddy schools and under-equipped hospitals as the unchangeable norm.

Golding thus faces two great challenges. He not only must fundamentally improve our structure of governance, he has first to convince the populace that his proposed changes will make them better off. And Jamaicans do not embrace change willingly, unless it is inevitable or unequivocally positive - and political transformation never is. You can't make omelettes without breaking eggs.


Benefits of transformation

Status quo-preserving voices always shout loudly, even when the benefits of transformation are obvious and widespread. For the advantages of change are usually shallow and wide, while the losses are generally narrow but deep. So the losing minority tends to make a lot more noise than the gaining majority. Look at the National Solid Waste Management Agency and Jamaican Urban Transport Corporation, where consolidation and job cuts are clearly saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But it's foot-dragging union heads at the JUTC and NSWMA who dominate the airwaves.

So to truly transform this country we probably need a prime minister with the bold vision and communication skills of Michael Manley, the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts pragmatism of Edward Seaga, the consensus building abilities of P.J. Patterson, and the common touch of Portia Simpson Miller.

This is a pretty tall order. Yet Golding is showing signs of being up to the task. He was once a leaden talker who wallowed in negativity and numbers. Now he conveys complicated ideas in language the average man can grasp, connects effortlessly with his audience, and leaves you with a feeling of hope. He has relentlessly promulgated a new approach to governance since 1995. And he has as good a grasp of the economic and administrative difficulties facing Jamaica as anyone in the country.

Golding has also largely kept his non-partisan promises. For instance Dr Carlton Davis, who is not only former PNP Finance Minister Omar's brother, but held the same post under P.J. Patterson and Portia Simpson Miller, has been retained as Cabinet secretary, where he sits in on confidential meetings that discuss the most sensitive national matters. And despite past run-ins with Hardley Lewin over Tivoli, he has full supported the rear admiral's appointment as police commissioner.

Good measures

Yet implementing good measures means little if less committed successors can easily undo them. Leaders who do not institutionalise change often end up lamenting, like Simon Bolivar, of having plowed the sea. And the Cuban light bulb scandal has presented the PM with a golden opportunity to entrench the highest principles of governmental accountability into law.

Whether Kern Spencer is guilty of criminal wrong doing or not is for the courts to determine. But with the PNP in no position to object, now must be the time for the JLP to push through Parliament the corruption-combatting measures so stridently promised in its election manifesto.

Among these are a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute persons involved in corruption; criminal sanctions for violation of the rules governing the award of contracts, and provisions that contracts issued without proper procedures and authorisation are rendered null and void and unenforceable; strengthening of the Corruption Prevention Commission and the Parliamentary Integrity Commission to enable them to more effectively ferret out public officials engaged in corrupt activities; whistleblower legislation to protect persons who provide information of wrongdoing on the part of public officials.

Public malfeasance

Draw a line in the sand for politicians of all stripes. Make it unmistakably clear to all labourites and comrades that any government official guilty of public malfeasance will be swiftly and inexorably punished by the laws of the land.

It's certainly what the public wants. If PM Golding does not seize the chance to permanently put in place what he has preached for so long and so hard, well, he's not the man we are all hoping he is.

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