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News and Views by Dionne Jackson Miller

pointed commentary on current affairs in Jamaica and the Caribbean

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Politics

Does Arthur Williams Have Clean Hands? – Williams v Holness Part 2

Image by David Castillo Dominici at www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image by David Castillo Dominici at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

There was a collective national gasp in 2013, when, after having been ousted from the Senate by Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, by way of delivery to the Governor General of a pre-signed letter of resignation and a pre-signed letter of authorization to date and send the resignation letter, Arthur Williams revealed that he had crafted those very letters.

There was doubt in some quarters that Williams would even be entertained in the Supreme Court, given his significant contribution to creating the very devices that were used to remove him from the Senate.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the letters were inconsistent with the constitution, contrary to public policy, null and void, the questions were raised again.

How could Arthur Williams benefit from a ruling made necessary by a situation that he himself had brought about? Shouldn’t he have been barred from accessing the court, or at the very least not have benefitted from its ruling? Read more in my post on www.rjrnewsonline.com. 

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You’re Fired! (or Not) – Williams v Holness Part 1

Image by master isolated images www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image by master isolated images http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

According to the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Arthur Williams v Andrew Holness, political leaders have no power to revoke the appointment of Senators. The question we are left with is whether they should have that power.

The case has left Jamaicans asking about its immediate impact on the composition of the Senate, with lawyers for Mr. Williams maintaining that he and Mr. Tufton are still Senators while lawyers for Mr. Holness disagree. Read more in my post at www.rjrnewsonline.com.

Why I Decided Not to Write About Politicians and the Media

Photo by Stuart Miles www.freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Stuart Miles
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

I had a post all written on my problems with how politicians view the media. Then I deleted it all.  Every party in government (in Jamaica at least) thinks the media are against them. That’s a necessary part of the sometimes antagonistic relationship that will inevitably exist between the people governing a country, and the people watching and writing about their governance.

But a little tension is not always a bad thing. Joining hands and singing Kumbaya is not always a good thing. You can’t necessarily see what hand the other guy is playing if you’re sitting at the same card table. 

I googled “media and politicians a necessary tension” and found this  from the University of Missouri, about the US political system. It’s a good read. Check it out. 

” Many journalists see themselves as protectors of our system of government—”watchdogs of democracy”—and in many ways the framers of the (US) Constitution would agree. Of course, when this role is pursued with passion, it is bound to annoy those in power from time to time, and there is often tension between the press and the politicians whom it covers.”

The consequence of that tension is often complaints, to editors and media mangers. But you know, the complaints, although sometimes overblown and ridiculous, are also important. They keep us on our toes. After all, we are not infallible either. So that tension?  That’s an important part of life in a democracy. Let’s all try to remember that.

NB: the Jamaican constitution does not provide special protection for the press. Despite intense lobbying from the media fraternity, the legislators decided that the press did not need additional protection other than the right to freedom of expression provided to every citizen.

Should Andrew Holness Have Released the JLP Election Review Earlier?

GA2010_OCWSJ_BB_ABS_2361
GA2010_OCWSJ_BB_ABS_2361 (Photo credit: WorldSkills)

In a word, yes. That’s all there is to it. When Jamaica Labour Party Leader Andrew Holness named a commission headed by Professor Bernard Headley in April last year to evaluate reasons for the JLP loss in the December 2011 general election, it was seen as a good move. The Gleaner’s editorial writers  commended him.

“Their job will be to take a 360-degree look at the Jamaica Labour Party and make recommendations for its reform, indeed, transformation,” Holness said at a press conference. 

Mr. Holness received the report early this year. He then kept it under wraps. So naturally, it became an issue. In every interview, he would be asked, “When are you going to release the report?” His answer would be some version of “Not yet.”

The report became fodder for the campaign of Mr. Holness’s challenger for the leadership of the party, Audley Shaw.

In an interview with me last week, Mr. Holness announced that the party’s executives

Image by jscreationzs at www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image by jscreationzs at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

had decided that party officials would get the report this week, and it would then be “cascaded” to the Area Councils, and finally the general public would get to see the executive summary. Why not the full report? Apparently it was thought this might give a strategic advantage to those outside the party.

Some accommodating soul then leaked a copy to the Gleaner, which has been publishing sections of the report. But having seen this report, there seems to be no rational reason for Mr. Holness’s insistence on secrecy.

Remember, the PNP commissioned a review of the reasons for the party’s loss in the 2007 general election. The Brian Meeks led Commission published a report which was made public in short order. You can even find it on the Internet.

The Meeks report pointed to a number of problems, for example, the long campaign period caused by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller announcing, at a public meeting in early July, an August 27 election date.

“The August 27 date made the campaign too long, deflated the comrades, put more stress on an exhausted organization, opened the door for more JLP money to flow to the electorate, gave them more time to decimate the PNP with their media campaign…” said the report.

And this:

 “there was strong support for the view that the party’s media campaign was the worst in recent history…”

The Meeks Report also said that “There was a strong view coming from the constituencies as well as the leadership that campaign organization from the centre was seriously flawed.”

The point is, the report laid bare problems in the PNP which led to its election loss. The press did pick it up, but no more than was to be expected. I mean come on, the PNP lost. Clearly there were problems. Evaluation after a major setback is what organisations do. Recommendations will be made, but the real issue will be what is done with those recommendations and whether the organization concerned then begins the hard process of re-organising and re-building.

In refusing to release the Headley Report for so long, Mr. Holness lost control of the process and made the issues outlined loom larger than they really are. Most, if not all of the problems  identified by the Headley Commission had already been picked up by most political commentators and observers. There is nothing shocking or electrifying in it. Mr. Holness’s leadership comes in for some criticism, but so does the party leadership as a whole.  And there are positive comments about the party leader. For instance, the Report said that:

“In the discussions related to the party leader the discussion pendulum swung erratically from one extreme to the next…the stronger sentiments would suggest that Mr. Holness is liked and respected and that he has a high degree of trust from the party base. It was felt that his leadership while at the Ministry of Education spoke to an organised, knowledgeable and fearless leadership personality…”

On the other hand, it went on to say:

“…there was a fear that he would be unable to manage the party, to bring the dissenting quarters together…the Review Team found that there were concerns that the leader was too soft, and needed to be more assertive and a suggestion that he needed to follow the leadership style of Edward Seaga especially since he was ‘coached’ by Mr. Seaga.

“…the Party Leader needs to look into his own personal leadership currency, there appeared at the time of the review to be a lot of support for leadership…there were concerns that he was perhaps too aloof…”

The timing of the election, of course, was cited as a major problem with some supporters, according to the Report, viewing this as the most significant factor in the Party’s loss.

But the reviewers also highlighted the party’s weak election machinery, and problems with the candidate selection system and public relations strategy, and poor media relations. Since Mr. Holness only became leader after accepting the endorsement of senior party officials on October 5, 2011, problems contributing to a big election loss in December could hardly be laid at his feet alone. The Gleaner’s editorial writers opined that the report had not been “unkind” to him.

Given that, the politically strategic move would have been to immediately release the report, and allow everyone interested to have his or her say.

Mr. Holness should then have moved swiftly to implement the recommendations and initiate re-building.

Instead of which, he is now, half way into the government’s term in office and days away from a major challenge to his leadership, talking about “cascading” the report for discussion within the party. Taking action early would have eliminated one major plank of his challenger’s campaign, and removed the possibility of criticisms of his being weak, indecisive and afraid to face up to the truth as outlined in the review.

If Mr. Holness loses the leadership election, his decision to “hug up” that report is likely to be a major cause. If he wins, it will be in spite of it.

Andrew v Audley

Boxing gloves
Boxing gloves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elections are never easy. One winner, one, or more – losers. The winner here will be named the Opposition Leader, lead a revitilised opposition into the second half of the ruling government’s term, and hope to move his Dulcimina into Jamaica House in a couple of years. There were all kinds of reasons given by JLP members as to why they disagreed with a leadership election. Rubbish. Here are three reasons the election is a good thing.

  1. A stronger leader: If Andrew Holness wins, it legitimizes and strengthens his leadership position. If Audley Shaw wins, it should put to rest, at least for now, some of the simmering tension in the party over the leadership issues.
  2. Democracy is actually a good thing: The JLP needs to realize it can hold an election campaign, and yes, say naughty things about one another without the world coming to an  end. So the PNP is gathering footage for its next ad campaign. So what? A strong vigorous campaign led by an energized leader is likely to more than negate that.
  3. The opposition has woken up. Big time. Andrew Holness told me he was being responsible and allowing the government room to implement the actions that were necessary for the country, but now it’s time for the Opposition to go to work. Whether you accept that explanation or believe that the new energy is due to the campaign, we the public will be the winners. We need a vital, impatient Opposition to keep government on its toes.

And that is our interest here. Most of us have no vote. But our current system of government will ensure that the winner of the JLP leadership election will be the Opposition Leader. It’s not just about leading the party. It’s about one day maybe leading Jamaica. It’s that serious.

NB: A Dulcimina is an old-fashioned suitcase. See photo number 5 in this link to the Gleaner. 

Obama Speaks Out – Should Portia?

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the wake of the incredibly divisive ‘not guilty’ verdict in the George Zimmerman case in Florida, US President Barack Obama has spoken out on being a black man in America.

The New York Times said that:

 “After days of angry protests and mounting public pressure, President Obama summoned five of his closest advisers to the Oval Office on Thursday evening. It was time, he told them, for him to speak to the nation about the Trayvon Martin verdict, and he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to say.

For the next 15 minutes, according to a senior aide, Mr. Obama spoke without interruption, laying out his message of why the not-guilty ruling had caused such pain among African-Americans, particularly young black men accustomed to arousing the kind of suspicion that led to the shooting death of Mr. Martin in a gated Florida neighborhood.”

It can be difficult for a political leader to gauge when and where to speak – when does a situation need the spotlight that goes with adding the President’s – or Prime Minister’s – voice?

It has been particularly difficult for President Obama– the first Black President of the USA, who clearly – and rightly, in my opinion – does not want his Presidency to be defined by the colour of his skin. But he is still a black man, with a black man’s experiences, and bearing the burden – and privilege – of the expectations of his community. And despite what many people would like to fool themselves into believing, race is still a problem in America – so when does he speak and what does he say?

He had to distance himself from comments about race made by his former pastor, his criticisms of police for arresting black Harvard professor Henry Gates landed him in the middle of controversy, and he has been under repeated attack from broadcaster Tavis Smiley and university professor Cornel West for not adequately addressing the issue of poverty in the black community.

So, it is not surprising that his latest comments have also been met with sharply different reactions.

Back at home, the same question faces our own Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. When should she speak? What Portia Simpson Millershould she say?

Many Jamaicans believe that the PM does not speak enough publicly on important national issues. When I started to tweet comments she made in Parliament about the track and field drug testing issue, there were several immediate reactions, questioning why she was commenting on this issue when she had not done so on others.

To be fair, the Prime Minister has retained the sports portfolio. The issue falls within her direct sphere of responsibility. Her explanation for not speaking more on issues like crime and the economy is that she has appointed portfolio Ministers and allows them space to work.

Not everybody is convinced, as evidenced by the hash tag #whereisportia which surfaced on twitter months ago.

Is there a fine line to walk between allowing Cabinet Ministers room to speak and knowing when it is time for the Prime Minister, primus inter pares (first among equals)  in the Westminster system of government to take over? Clearly, there is. Has Prime Minister Simpson-Miller mastered the art of walking that fine line?

I was critical of one of her national broadcasts, which I wrote about here. On this wider issue, I’m going to reserve judgment for a while longer. But tell me what you think!

 

Parliament’s Sectoral Debate. Yawn.

 

Gordon House - seat of Jamaica's Parliament Photo by DJ Miller
Gordon House – seat of Jamaica’s Parliament
Photo by DJ Miller

In 2011, then backbencher the Reverend Ronald Thwaites, Member of Parliament for Central Kingston, raised a long-standing problem, the sectoral debates in Parliament. The sectoral debate, which follows the budget debate, is a platform for every single Member of Parliament to address the House. Portfolio Ministers use the opportunity, naturally, to speak about their portfolios, opposition spokesman and women also tend to address portfolio issues, and backbenchers tend to concentrate on their constituencies.

It sounds good, but its implementation has been anything but. It is a never-ending exercise, often dragging on for months. It is boring, the speeches, like most parliamentary speeches, are far too long, and opposition spokespersons and portfolio Ministers are for some strange reason, not scheduled together to enable a useful, comprehensive discussion of national issues. In addition, the schedule is always being changed as Members are constantly asking for their presentations to be rescheduled.

At the time, then Prime Minister Andrew Holness agreed with Rev. Thwaites that a new structure was needed and noted that the public was uninterested in the exercise.

Rev. Thwaites had made suggestions for the revamping of the debate, including a more focused approach, looking at national themes such as economic growth and social issues.

I had hoped the discussion would have been the start of meaningful reform, leading to a more vibrant, useful exercise. Alas, we have seen nothing of that.

As always, my question to the parliamentarians is “Who are you talking to?’ or better yet “Who do you think is listening?’

Surely a more vigorous debate would spark wider public discussion, throw up more ideas for national development, get more press and more favourable attention for bright, thinking Parliamentarians. It should be win-win for us the public, and the parliamentarians. Apparently, none of that matters. So here we are again, in the middle of yet another sectoral debate stretching on and on and on. Yawn.

 

Cutting Cabinet? NOT Symbolism! (Or Optics!)

Photo by Grant Cocranewww.freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Grant Cocrane
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

The discussion about whether the Cabinet should be cut has focused – wrongly – on whether such a move would save the government money. This has allowed government spokespersons to wriggle out of the real discussion, which is one about good governance and leadership.

The 2011 Public Sector Master Rationalisation Plan states that:

“The Public Sector Transformation Unit (PSTU) was established in November 2009 with the mandate to “lead, monitor, evaluate and facilitate the implementation of the restructuring of the Public Sector for efficient, effective and economical government” to realise the vision of ‘a transformed cohesive Public Sector that is performance-based, efficient, cost effective and service oriented.’”

How can we have a transformed cohesive Public Sector without a close examination of the Ministers who lead the process?

Back to the Plan:

“This exercise focused on the entire Public Sector to include the sixteen (16) Ministries and over two hundred (200) Entities including Departments, Statutory Bodies, Executive Agencies and Limited Liability Companies. The reasons for rationalisation are obvious, chief among them are the following:

1. Overlapping and duplication of mandates and functions

2. Organizations and structures that are no longer relevant

3. Shifts in mandate and core functions

4. Archaic systems and structures

5. Outdated Statutes

6. High wage bill relative to GDP

7. Lack of appropriate technology

8. Lack of inter and intra-Ministry collaboration

9. Limited financial and material resources.”

How can it be “just optics” as Transport Minister Dr. Omar Davies colourfully insisted in Parliament, to ask whether the employment of 20 Cabinet Ministers is justified?

Let us be clear. The Plan did say that:

“…after extensive consideration, the decision was taken to retain all Ministries at this time, with modification in some instances to their respective core functions. It is anticipated, that with the efficiency gains over time, specific consideration will be given to the reduction of Ministries.”

However, one of the problems we have is that each Prime Minister has the flexibility to re-structure the Cabinet as she/he sees fit once the constitutional requirement of at least eleven Cabinet Ministers is observed.  So although Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller had criticized former Prime Minister Bruce Golding for the size of  his 18-member Cabinet, on winning the December 2012 election, she promptly named two additional Cabinet Ministers, for a total of 20.

How can it then be “symbolism” to call for an examination of whether we are getting value for money from our Cabinet Ministers?

Let me be clear. I am not calling either for a cut in the Cabinet, or for a retention of the status quo.

What I AM calling for, unequivocally, is an understanding that we cannot call for prudent expenditure of taxpayers’

Photo by posterizewww.freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by posterize
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

money at one level and not at the other.

We cannot declare that we want to eliminate “overlapping and duplication of functions” at the civil servant level but not determine whether we have the same problem in the Cabinet.

We cannot, as the Plan does, state that we will see “mergers (that) will result in economies of scale and overall cost savings in areas to include staffing,” and not expect the Cabinet to be an integral part of that discussion.

Most of all, what I am calling for is a respectful response from the administration to the calls from civil society and a considered and thoughtful approach to the discussion.

That Burning (Jamaican) Flag

Flags and Hurricane sandy 2012 002Does anybody but me think the excessive excitement we created over the VW ad, which I wrote about here,  led to the Saturn commercial featuring the burning of a Jamaican flag which is now being reviled? After all, the VW ad to date has received over 13 million views on Youtube, and was a talking point in the United States and Jamaica.

To digress a bit, have we gone a little, just a tad, overboard though? I mean the actor is now a VIP?  The red carpet is being rolled out, and it’s got him a trip to Jamaica and more work – so this white actor with the fake Jamaican accent is going to be promoting Jamaica now. Maybe we are trying too hard. Just a thought.

Anyway, is it any wonder that the Saturn people thought, “Let’s jump on board the Jamaica train. But we have to up the shock value. What will get people talking again? I got it! Let’s burn their flag!” Maybe to go from getting people talking, to burning our flag wasn’t a leap that most people would have made. But here we are again…ironically, discussing another German ad featuring Jamaica.

According to Wikipedia – sorry, couldn’t find another reference right now – it is illegal in Germany to burn the German flag. In relation to flags of foreign countries:

“…it is illegal to damage or revile them, if they are shown publicly by tradition, event or routinely by representatives of the foreign entity (§104 StGB –{ Criminal Code}). On the other hand it is not illegal to desecrate such flags that serve no official purpose (especially including any (that) the one willing to desecrate them brings by himself for that purpose).”

That is, it would be illegal to burn the flag at the Jamaican embassy, for example, but it would not be illegal to burn a random Jamaican flag – as in the coffee shop ad.

Should they have burned the Jamaican flag? Well, what were they aiming for? Controversy? Well, they’ve got that. Attention? They have ours. As of today, they have received nearly half a million views on Youtube. A far cry from the VW ad but we’ll see if that number climbs dramatically in the next week.

Flag burning is usually seen as an act of political protest, against a government’s policies.

Just this month alone, a political activist in Hong Kong was sentenced to nine months in jail for burning the flags of China and Hong Kong to protest government policies and positions. In Belgrade, criminal proceedings are being taken against deputy leader of the Serb radical party for allegedly “setting flags of the United States, the EU and NATO on fire” to protest against the Hague Tribunal’s decision to acquit someone accused of war crimes against Serbs.

Last September, thousands of people in Lahore participated in protests where the American flag was burnt to protest against a movie trailer said to insult Islam (in an ironic twist, one protestor died from inhaling the fumes from the burning flag, according to reports.)

But in the United States, that bastion of patriotic red, white and blueness – the flag can legally be burned, as it was in protests during the Vietnam

United States flag being burnt in protest, in ...
United States flag being burnt in protest, in New Hampshire on the eve of the 2008 election. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

War. That’s not to say everybody is happy with the state of the law. Congress has tried to pass laws banning desecration of the flag but these have been struck down by the court. The Supreme Court in 1989 in the case of Texas v Johnson ruled that flag burning is an expression of free speech protected by the constitution.

So the legal treatment of flag burning varies from country to country. But everywhere, it is recognised that  flags are usually burned to protest important, political issues in a dramatic (and offensive) statement of contempt. It is the very fact that the act is one which most people find deeply offensive that makes it such an effective form of protest.

You can’t convince me that this was a misguided attempt to praise Jamaica. Not with the political context and significance world-wide of flag burning. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Be offended. Don’t be offended. That is up to you. But don’t be fooled by assertions that the intention was good and it is actually a compliment to Jamaica. This was a cynical attempt to use a controversial device to get attention, while cloaking it in pseudo-respect for the Jamaican flag and people.

That the makers of the Saturn ad understood the political issues is clear from the storyline of the ad. I assume they thought the attention to the commercial would override the very real risk of offence it would cause. The motive was clearly to get attention. And we are certainly giving it to them.

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