Andrew Holness — A prime minister on the move

Raulston Nembhard

Saturday, March 11, 2017

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When Andrew Holness was monarchically anointed head of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) by then Prime Minister Bruce Golding, I was one of the strong critics of such a move. It was not that I thought Holness did not have it in him to be a good leader. In fact, his stint at the ministry of education had demonstrated latent leadership and management capabilities which, if properly honed and directed, could augur well for him as a future leader of the party and government. My concern arose out of a visceral suspicion of such anointing of political leaders in a democracy.

I felt then, and still feel, that those who aspire to leadership - especially of a political party - must face the acid test of competition for that office. Furthermore, it would isolate others who felt that their time had come and could cause deep fissures to arise within the party.

Needless to say, the net result of Andrew Holness’s anointing was the later leadership contest for the presidency of the party by veteran JLP politician and loyalist Audley Shaw. Some would forget the deep tension in the party when the contest was fully engaged, and combatants on either side spewed invectives at each other. The JLP was in a tailspin and never seemed to get its act together. Andrew was seen as a "my way or the highway" sort of person, challenging those who could not get with his programme to head for the proverbial exit.

He won the leadership contest, which frankly should have occurred before the anointing, but political egos that have been bruised do not heal easily, and so discontent continued in the party as Holness’s leadership was seen as lacking. Party stalwarts like Mike Henry, Delroy Chuck, Daryl Vaz, and Chris Tufton - who had had disagreements with Holness - were alienated from the mainstream of JLP politics. The party once again seemed destined to reassert its long stint in the Opposition political wilderness.

But almost overnight, like a mushroom on well-dewed bovine mess, Andrew emerged as a confident new leader of the JLP. He had listened well to the ultimatum given by influential members of his party to "shape up or ship out". These members were understandably concerned about the drifting direction of Alexander Bustamante’s party, and needed Andrew Holness to come up with a set of leadership criteria to justify his continued leadership of the party.

And he responded by reaching out to his erstwhile detractors. In the run-up to the February 25, 2016 General Election he demonstrated that he was the person truly in charge of the party. The public was sold the idea that grievances had been settled and the party was well on the way to healing and readiness for government. The people seemed to have bought into this, as the JLP’s razor-thin margin in the elections demonstrated.

Since assuming the role of prime minister on his own merits, Holness has shown himself to be a prime minister on the move. He is now more confident than he has ever been. He has demonstrated a humility in governance that is very refreshing and that is a far distance away from charges of arrogance that have come from some detractors. Part of this newfound confidence is evidenced in his communication style. He talks to the Jamaican people as one who is genuinely interested in their welfare. He is studiedly concerned that his policies in fighting crime do not injure the human and civil rights of the ordinary Jamaican. This is commendable, given the long history of those rights being trampled on by successive governments.

He listens to important stakeholders in maintaining the integrity of the environment. I believe that his stance in this matter is largely responsible for the Chinese not announcing a coal-fired plant to be built at Alpart at Nain in St Elizabeth. This may also be responsible for the shelving of the Goat Islands project as conceived by the previous People’s National Party (PNP) Government. Those who say that he arrogantly does not listen to people are indulging in an alternate universe of fake news. It is really not true. Neither is it true that he does not engage the press as if he has anything to hide.

Road to growth

One of the strong points of Holness’s stewardship to date is his steadfast and single-minded commitment to economic growth. His Economic Growth Council is beginning to concretise this commitment in the body politic. But the super ministry that has been created to oversee the government’s growth agenda is, in my view, proving to be very unwieldy.

A lot of power has been placed in the hands of few ministers who, despite their best efforts, do not seem to be getting the traction that the growth agenda really merits. There seems to be overlapping in some areas and there is not a clear definition of who is in charge of what. People seem to be learning on the job as they go along.

Despite the vaunted statements emanating from the prime minister’s office, the vexing question of the ease of doing business in Jamaica persists. Many of the bureaucratic bottlenecks remain. There is need for greater clarity of functions and decision-making from this super ministry, and one hopes that this will become more evident in the second year.

Notwithstanding this, the Holness Administration has stuck tenaciously to the fiscally sustainable programme begun by the PNP. The macro-economic numbers are trending in the right direction. Inflation is the lowest it has been in 45 years, and there is a growing optimism among businesses, local and foreign, that Jamaica is emerging as a place where it is safe to do business.

This optimism, however, is dampened by the persistently high murder rate. At the last count, we have had over 207 murders in a population of almost three million people. However rosy a picture a Government paints of economic variables, this one social variable - as is well known - is enough to sink any prospect of a vibrant, growing economy.

We are lucky so far that anyone would want to invest their hard-earned cash in such a murderous environment. If there is anything that the Holness Administration - and any other for that matter - would want to get right, cauterise, and bring under control, it is this crime rate.

So far the emerging consensus is that we have only seen piecemeal responses from the Government. Robert "Bobby" Montague, the minister of national security, is a good politician, who talks a good talk. He is gifted with a good command of the local vernacular and can have a commanding presence when he addresses audiences. But at some point he has to deliver some solid achievements if he is to convince people that he is not all about talk but no action. Crime is the big gorilla in the room and it must be brought under control.

Allied to this is the problem of corruption. Jamaica has fallen on the international corruption index. Although the prime minister claims that he is bothered by this, we have not seen a robust response from his Administration that the Government wants to bring corruption under control. Like crime, corruption is hard to fight, but there needs to be a clearer signal from the authorities to convince people that they are serious about ridding the government of this scourge. A single, truly independent authority with sweeping powers of detention and prosecution must emerge in this fiscal year.

Apart from the $600-million de-bushing programme in the run-up to the recent parish council elections, and the piecemeal approach to fighting crime, there have not been any serious scandals or stumbles by the Holness Administration in the first year. With a razor-thin majority in Parliament, the prime minister has held the ship of state afloat. If I were to grade his efforts as a hard taskmaster, he would deserve a grade six out of 10 for his efforts to date.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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