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An obituary for Greg Christie?

Howard Gregory

Sunday, October 14, 2012    

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THE funeral has become an overbearing experience these days for the family of the deceased and the mourners in general.

It is not that people have become so focused on the mystery and awesome nature of death that they have become overwhelmed by the experience, but rather, that there is so much effort that has been placed on steering the attention of people away from the reality of death and the focus which a Christian burial liturgy brings to the experience that they have substituted a prelude moment to be the main event.

Accordingly, many funeral services are preceded by a range of euphemistic events known as tributes, eulogy, remembrance, and obituary, among others, and by the time they are ended the congregation is totally exhausted.

Clearly the duration is one thing, but what goes into those euphemistic moments is even more significant. Some have seen them as moments to make even the devil’s child being buried look like a saint, in a moment of mutual selfdeception. The latter is understandable, as this is part of the way in which we work through our grief and come to a balanced assessment and acceptance of the death of a loved one.

What is also taking on a place of significance in this whole exercise is the perception that the moment is one for humour, and the more amusing episodes from the life of the deceased that is shared, the better the service.

Even more distressing is the introduction of an element of the vulgar into these moments, whereby some of the jokes told in these moments are certainly inappropriate for the occasion, and some of the details of the person’s life being shared on this public occasion, and before the grieving members of the family, should not only be censored, but be only the subject for conversation over a game of dominoes or a drink among friends.

As if setting the stage for this event, the congregation is requested to wear cheerful colours. In all of this, my ultimate concern as a Christian and as a cleric is that many of these activities are diversionary, designed to avoid the harsh realities of the vulnerability of life and the mystery that is death.

As the curtain comes down on the incumbency of Mr Greg Christie as the contractor general of Jamaica, I can’t help thinking that we are facing one of these euphemistic moments as a nation, when we attempt to make an assessment of his contribution in the face of a moment of separation. Now that he is leaving office and has declared his intention not to seek reappointment, there is a flood of superlatives being used to talk about his positive contribution from some quarters. There are those who would make light of his contribution, while there are others who recount tales that would place his contribution in an unsavoury light.

We seem as a nation to forget the context within which Mr Christie came to office, when case after case of corruption in the public sector came to light only to become the proverbial nine-day wonder in the media, and used conveniently by one side or other of the political divide to score points.

At the same time, the nation was also receiving an unfavourable rating in the international arena where corruption is concerned. It was clear that the Government of the day needed to send a clear signal to the nation and to the world that it was serious about tackling corruption. Apparently, Greg Christie was identified as one with the credentials to fill the vacant position.

It appears that what no one knew, at the time, was the character of the man, and that he would approach his job with alacrity, fearlessness, and in keeping with his understanding of the parameters of the legislative and legal framework which define his responsibility.

As is the nature of jurisprudence, it is clear that there would be disagreement in the interpretation of the law as it relates to the operation of his office and the execution of his task. What should concern thinking citizens are the points at which much of this controversial element entered the picture.

It seems that he dared to make important figures of the private and public sectors the object of investigation, and made public the fact that he was doing so. In addition, he posed a challenge to individuals and institutions of power in the society by challenging their interpretation of his powers regarding the legitimacy of his claim to have jurisdiction over them and their activities.

Clearly, the contractor general could never be right on the interpretation of every matter of law related to the operation of his office and therefore there exists legal channels for challenging his interpretation. What must disturb us as a society which is so besieged by corruption, is that there should be persons and institutions who seem to think that their status and power place them above the jurisdiction of the Office of the Contractor General, and that they should be free to vent the kind of vehemence which has been directed at him in the course of the execution of his duties.

It is reminiscent of those middle class Jamaicans who become so offended when they are stopped by the police because it should be abundantly clear that they are above such humiliation, and the police should go and “catch tief”.

No individual and no public institution should be above scrutiny by the contractor general in ways defined by the relevant legislation. In a supposedly egalitarian society, which we are supposed to be pursuing as a 50-year-old independent nation, such distinctions should be part of a colonial mindset which has been left behind.

It is easy to find in the contractor general a scapegoat. I recall discussing a matter related to the way in which church and trust schools and their financial arrangements are being treated in government regulations being promulgated, and the implications for the construction and expansion of their physical infrastructure. In a very public setting, a senior member of Government indicated that such a matter I would have to take up with the contractor general, as he was the one who was defining these matters in these obstructionist ways.

Within a matter of minutes, a member of parliament who was present made it quite clear to me that what was being said was nonsense, as the matter I raised was one for the Government to address; as it is the Government which frames the legislation by which the contractor general operates and not the other way around.

Much of the furore over the way the contractor general operates has been misplaced. If the office has been abused, or is being misinterpreted, then the place to settle the matter is in the Courts. If it is a case that the legal framework needs clarification, then the Government cannot claim powerlessness like citizens in this matter, it must act.

Perhaps there is reticence here, because the Government is afraid of the signal it may be sending to the world and the nation if it is perceived to be tampering with the office which seeks to address corruption. At the same time, it is possible that the Government is aware that should it act in a way that is perceived as curtailing the activities of the contractor general, then the question may be asked as to what is it doing about legislative changes to correct deficiencies in the law, and improve the efficiency of the anti-corruption strategy regarding the prosecution of persons who are found guilty of corruption, as well as the proposals for a single agency to deal with all matter related to corruption.

So, as the contractor general comes toward the moment of his departure, we may choose to say those nice things as are said in an obituary when the deceased is in no position to hear the affirmation or to act upon them. We may choose also to make a light moment of his departure, or we may highlight what we consider the most unsavoury aspects of his administration.

What we dare not lose sight of in all of this is the major national issue which is the focus of this office and which was the preoccupation of this contractor general, namely, ensuring that proper guidelines are followed in the handling of contracts, and hence, the eradication of corruption.

As life must go on beyond the obituaries, what should be a matter of concern for all Jamaicans is the appointment of the new contractor general. It will be interesting to see who both major political parties are prepared to endorse for the job. But keep your eyes and ears open for the utterances and comments emanating from individuals and power bases within the society, as it appears that some of the comments proffered so far are intended to ensure that a domesticated cat, rather than a saber tooth tiger, be appointed the next contractor general.

Howard Gregory is the Anglican Lord Bishop

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