Columns

Personal benefits the bane of Jamaican politics?

Lloyd B SMITH

Tuesday, April 15, 2014    

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PORK barrel politics, nepotism, feeding at the public trough, cronyism, call it what you will: Every government participates in patronage. Believe it or not, this observation was gleaned from a Canadian newspaper under the headline 'Patronage, the oil that keeps Canada's democracy turning?' Needless to say, this could easily be superimposed on the Jamaican media landscape, as for decades the word "corruption" has been associated with politics and politicians in this our island home.

According to a history professor from the University of Toronto, Robert Bothwell: "Patronage goes back to the origins of our political system. I can't conceive of any political system — one that lasts anyway — that fails to reward its followers." Patronage is widely interpreted as when a government appoints or hires former candidates, long-time organisers, donors or backers to government jobs; either on boards and agencies, or to the Senate, or even to overseas diplomatic posts.

Inherently, therefore, politics as practised in the modern world can never be totally bereft of any patronage. Indeed, we fool ourselves if we believe otherwise. Perhaps where well-thinking citizens would draw the line is when incompetent or unsuitable persons are appointed to such posts purely on the basis of their partisan affiliation. That is corruption in any country and in any language.

One compelling argument with respect to patronage is that no government would be foolish enough to put persons in important and sensitive positions who do not embrace its way of doing business and governing. One undercurrent of Jamaican politics, especially in the civil service, is the continuing perception — or is it reality? — that when the People's National Party (PNP) is in power, known Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) operatives in the public service carry out acts of sabotage — and these can be acts of omission or commission. A similar scenario, it is alleged, also unfolds when it is a JLP government. Of course, this accusation can be unfair to many civil servants who carry out their duties regardless of which party is in power or whatever their personal party preference is. More power to them!

But patronage by itself is not the crux of the matter. Throw in the controversial issue of personal benefits (handouts) and the picture becomes very contorted and very ugly.

A large number of individuals who vote in Jamaica in essence "sell" their votes. Separate and apart from those who receive cash benefits upfront — usually surreptitiously, such as paper bills taped to a party T-shirt or under a plate of food — after the elections the winning candidate and his party are expected to "tun tanks". In order words, "pay mi fi mi vote".

Since becoming a member of Parliament, I am frequently bombarded by such remarks as, "Ah yuh mi vote for so mi expect yuh fi set mi up"; "Missa MP, wha yuh can do fi mi, ah yuh mi did vote fah"; "Ah fi mi vote mek yuh win so is payback time now!" Such persons have no interest in what the MP or the Government does for the community in terms of infrastructural, social and economic development. It is all about "me" and what "me" must get. It is indeed sad that Jamaica has come to this because this tremendous emphasis on personal benefits is what has pushed many an elected official into the bosom of corruption; because over time it becomes extremely difficult to sustain this level of gratuity, and so creative and/or illegal means will have to be found to satisfy this feeding frenzy.

And it is not only the needy that make demands on the basis of their casting their votes. There greedy ones are to be found at all echelons of the society who make their demands on the MP and Councillor. It might be a call to a minister for a special favour — a waiver was the most popular request until the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put an end to that — or a call to a school principal insisting that he or she accepts children whose parents failed to get them registered early. It could also be a request to get a police officer to drop a matter, and I could go on. The bottom line is that the elected official is made to feel that he or she is obligated to respective voters with regard to personal benefits. And this is a recipe not only for bad governance but corrupt leadership.

Hard-core party supporters are the most difficult to be weaned from the pork-barrel breast. Some do not even want to work, they just want let-offs in perpetuity; and when they do not get it they abuse and threaten the MP. It takes a great deal of courage and testicular fortitude to tell a party hack, "No, not this time".

But if the culture of dependency is to be sufficiently tackled, then the time must come — and hopefully more soon than later — when political parties set about to educate their followers into accepting that the "selling" of a vote is not in theirs or the country's best interest. It engenders slovenliness, sycophancy, dependency, greed, and selfishness. There are many sad stories of politicians eager to maintain their popularity that have given their all and end up in utter penury. Others give their all but also take all from the public purse in order to ensure their lavish lifestyle and continued electability.

Interestingly, when a party is in Opposition it raises the roof about cronyism and patronage and nepotism, but when it is in power it goes silent. And, as one political pundit puts it, "The lack of transparency has fuelled a belief that it's not what you know that lands you a patronage post, but whom you know in the government." Another observation is that patronage provides defeated candidates something to look forward to — a carrot that says the party will take care of them for making a sacrifice to enter public life.

It is my view that in our duopoly, a credible system of appointments should be developed so that there can be transparency and public trust. As one observer puts it, "Loyalty is the oil that makes politics run, and patronage is the fuel that fuels partisan politics." In other words, everywhere you turn "macca jook yuh!"

In this context, personal benefits are likely to remain the bane of Jamaican politics. Lest we forget, good politics should be based on the tenet of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Lloyd B Smith is a member of Parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government. Comments: lloydbsmith@hotmail.com

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