Hope beyond the Jamaica 50 quarrel

Claude Robinson

Sunday, July 08, 2012    

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DESPITE the best efforts of the minister of youth and culture Miss Lisa Hanna and the previous holder of the culture portfolio, Miss Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, we Jamaicans will enjoy ourselves and each other and our achievements in joyous celebration of 50.

As we get closer to the start of the London Olympics and the Emancipation and Independence Week, August 1-6, we'll forget the controversy over the official song for the celebrations and indulge ourselves in a national feel-good moment as we savour the golden jubilee song and dance and Olympic Gold.

What we cannot forget, though, is that partisan politics — not musicality, artistic talent nor creativity — is at the heart of the controversy.

The stage for the political brouhaha was set before former Prime Minister Bruce Golding sacrificed his political career in defence of constituent and self-confessed gang boss Christopher 'Dudus' Coke. Back then, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Administration appeared to have the politics of the celebrations firmly in their grasp.

The smart money was that a lavish 50th anniversary party and euphoria over the expected gold medal haul from the London Olympics, supported by strategic big spending under the banner of the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme would be an unbeatable formula for a general election which could have been constitutionally held anytime up to December 2012.

That was the context against which Miss Grange was assigned her responsibility. There was no national organising committee or even a bi-partisan approach; it was the sole responsibility of the political executive.

I cannot recall any demands for a patriotic national observance. There was no serious discussion about legacy projects or a national conversation about a sober assessment of the Independence project 50 years on and what we needed to do to make the second 50 years better than the first.

There was no attempt to pull the nation together as happened 50 years ago when the legendary Gleaner editor, Theodore Sealy, was included on a national committee at a time of political division and apprehension in some quarters about our readiness for Independence.

This time around, the Opposition People's National Party (PNP), leaders of civil society, business and culture, and opinion shapers in media (me included) all seemed to accept the prevailing model that the observances should be led by the political administration. If they gained some political mileage, so be it; that's the way of the world.

Of course, we now know that the script was abandoned. Mr Golding was forced to resign; Andrew Holness was drafted into the prime minister's job without contest; and he chose to call an early poll, hoping to take advantage of his 'perceived' newness.

Portia Simpson Miller gave him a whipping; Lisa Hanna replaced Miss Grange at the culture ministry and went on a mission to undo what she found at the ministry and establish her own priorities.

Miss Grange seethed about attempts to ruin her legacy and Miss Hanna set about planning her own festival in just six months. And, as the Gleaner put it in an editorial Thursday, the two ladies quarrelled over "who made the bigger mess on Jamaica 50".

Now, attempting to steer the celebratory vehicle off the partisan path, Miss Hanna last week vowed to depoliticise the celebrations and announced (in Parliament) that she will establish a broad-based national steering committee to lift the event of the partisan fog in which it has been mired.

While applauding Miss Hanna's belated announcement I still ask: Why was this not done in January when the Administration took over? Might such a committee have avoided the squabbling over the planning and financing of the event as well as the choice of a popular song to lift the national spirit?

Up to the time of writing (Thursday), details about the composition and terms of reference were not announced.

In any event, with just four weeks to the start of the official celebratory period, I cannot see the committee having any serious impact, though it may provide the Administration with some cover of national respectability.

Beyond Miss Hanna and Miss Grange

While the current and former ministers of culture have been in the firing line, the deeper issues surrounding the controversy over the celebration predate them and reflect an almost dysfunctional political system in urgent need of repair if the next 50 years are to be better than the first for the majority of the Jamaican people.

By failing to create a national mechanism to plan and execute the observance at least three or four years ago, leadership on both sides of the political divide have robbed the country of the unique opportunity to galvanise the nation around a renewed sense of possibilities and the means to make them real.

Today, more Jamaicans have access to basic services, public health and educational facilities than was the case at Independence in 1962.

Social exclusion based on race, class and language is far less rigid than it used to be. The press is freer and more people feel they have a right to hold their government accountable.

But many things are on the downside, including a wobbly criminal justice system and an economy that has failed to deliver acceptable levels of economic growth over most of the period. Income per person today is the same as it was in 1973, and over the past 40 years, economic growth has averaged only 0.8 per cent.

Clearly, there are several reasons to explain our economic under-achievement. Among those at the top of my list are lack of agreement on broad national objectives; political tribalism; the triumph of political considerations in national decision-making; and an absence of policy continuity between administrations.

Over much of the period since Independence, successive governments have routinely abandoned initiatives of the outgoing administration without sufficient regard to the financial cost or the impact on national development.

So far, the political leaders have failed to use Jamaica 50 to focus the country on what we need to do differently. That failure is not necessarily the end of the story. We, as Jamaicans at every level -- individually and collectively — will have to begin to ask new questions and search for new answers.

Indeed, several organisations are doing or plan to do exactly that. For example, I participated in a recent symposium convened by the University of the West Indies in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat on the subject of 'Economic Transformation and Job Creation: New Governance Challenges'.

One of many challenges underscored at the symposium was the need for new thinking at a time when the Third Industrial Revolution is well under way. Increasingly, low-paying, labour-intensive jobs are being replaced by high technology applications. Government, the private sector and unions have to understand and deal with this. Guess we can start in August when the party is over.





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