PM's foreign trips and politics

Michael BURKE

Thursday, January 16, 2014    

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TOWARD the end of last year there was much ado about the prime minister's overseas trips. When the importance of the trips to China and wherever else was explained, those who complained qualified their stance by stating that it was not the trips per se but the size of the delegations and the unnecessary expenditures and so on. This sort of complaint has been with us ever since the advent of self-government in 1944, and more so since political independence in 1962. And both parties, when in Opposition, criticise the incumbent government for this.

The late Leacroft Robinson, a former president of the Court of Appeal, was previously a member of the People's National Party. In 1958 he was unsuccessful in contesting the St. Andrew constituency in the Parliament of the defunct West Indies Federation. Robinson served on the executive of the PNP and was the attorney general when the PNP won in 1972.

During the election campaign in July 1959, Leacroft Robinson wrote a poem called The JLP Lie Factory, which was published in the Sunday Gleaner of July 19, 1959. The first verse was "The JLP lie factory is on the go once more, and to show their skill in industry they mass produce galore". A later verse was "Sir Alexander Bustamante, God bless him, claims quite false, first gave scholarships free. He gave one to Sangster to tour the globe, yet not one result did we see".

In 1971, the Citizens' Action Group (CAG), an association which was organised by two PNP politicians (before they switched parties) complained about a delegation to Washington, led by then Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, that cost what was an exorbitant sum at the time. The CAG complained that the delegation, consisting of 12 persons, was too large and that the money spent on hotel expenses and so on could have "washed and deodorised" Kingston and St Andrew.

At that time garbage collection was the direct responsibility of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation. It was alleged that the KSAC was being starved for funds to keep the city clean because the electorate in the Corporate Area had dared to elect a council with a PNP majority when the JLP was in power.

Arguments like "ministers of government should not travel first-class on the aeroplanes because it is taxpayers' money" were advanced. Indeed this was a part of the campaign strategy of the PNP leading up to the 1972 elections which the PNP won.

Somewhere between 1967 and 1972, a delegation led by then Trade Minister Robert Lightbourne went to France to have talks with then French President Charles de Gaulle. The story abounded that Lightbourne never saw the then French president because de Gaulle only spoke to heads of government and not to Cabinet ministers.

When Portia Simpson Miller was elected PNP president in 2006 and was subsequently appointed prime minister, I wrote a column advising her that she would have to lead every delegation overseas, and I based it on the story that de Gaulle refused to talk to Lightbourne.

Either Mrs Simpson Miller took my advice, her paid advisors told her the same thing, or she was smart enough to figure that out for herself. In any event, no matter what process she used in making her decision, it was in my opinion the right one.

There were many complaints in the 1970s about then Prime Minister Michael Manley's trips all over the world, especially to the communist countries. There was a large street meeting at the Norman Manley statue in the early months of 1980 when Michael Manley was still prime minister. At that meeting, Michael Manley asked questions of the crowd in his legendary charismatic way.

"Where gasoline come from, Kingston?" Michael Manley asked. The answer came for the crowd: "No!" He then asked if it came from somewhere else in Jamaica, and the answer came back "No!" Once during the questioning, when he asked where some foreign item or other came from, he asked, "Norman Manley foot bottom?"

Then he asked, "Den where it come from?" And the crowd shouted, "Foreign!" And Manley would say, "Ah si, is foreign!" He did that for about 10 or 12 times, asking with whom do we trade our bauxite and so on. And every time the crowd shouted "foreign" he responded in the same way, to the amusement of the crowd.

The way that Michael Manley explained why he had to travel so much at that street meeting was the greatest and most amusing piece of mass education that I have ever witnessed.

However, the PNP went down to a massive defeat in the October 1980 elections, and Edward Seaga became prime minister. And as you might know, Seaga prided himself on being the first foreign head of state to visit then United States of America President Ronald Reagan (foreign travel again).

Politicians will be politicians. I try to remember this as I am personally fed up with both political parties, when in Opposition, using foreign travel as a campaign strategy. I know I cannot stop it and do my best to ignore it. So I write this piece today giving some history of foreign travel by our government leaders to help readers to ignore it also, and to take it for what it is: politics, nothing more, nothing less.

At the same time, reports of members of the delegations living it up at all sorts of parties and so on outside of the nation's business does nothing to help the public perception that the taxes they are required to pay are being wasted. It matters not that these leaders might use their own money to pay for such outings in their private time.

There is nothing illegal or immoral, in and of itself, when politicians use their own money to attend private events in their free time while overseas on the nation's business. But it is sometimes stupid to do so, because in politics perception is reality and it can affect them in the voting on election day.





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