Columns

The quest for political mileage

Lloyd B SMITH

Tuesday, August 12, 2014    

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The culture of blocking roads in Jamaica as a form of social protest needs to be transformed. Political parties and civil society groupings need to begin a process of public education aimed at enabling aggrieved citizens to register their protest without resorting to setting fires on roadways as well as cutting down trees and flooding the roadways with debris, preventing citizens from going about their lawful business while creating a scenario in which criminal elements and anarchy reign supreme.

This is one politician that does not support this approach and I have on occasions made this known to my constituents, even if it means that I end up being a one-term Member of Parliament.

This current form of roadblock destroys the road surface and seriously affects the economic livelihood of many citizens, not to mention students who are oftentimes prevented from sitting examinations or attending classes. Ironically, when the road surface is destroyed, those same citizens will return at a later date to demonstrate for better roads — and the politicians will turn up.

Let me stress that I am not against civil disobedience as a means of attracting the attention of the powers that be, but there are many other effective ways that can be used instead of creating mayhem, endangering lives, properties and the environment.

Unfortunately, to a large extent, it is the political parties that are to be blamed for this recurring blight on our society, because they use the occasion to gain mileage by fuelling the protest behind the scenes or turn up for the reporters and television cameras in order to get the exposure which they believe will translate into votes on election day.

By the way, the more discerning will observe that constituency caretakers and supporters of the Opposition party tend to become more visible at these protests than Government representatives. Get the drift?

But, is there any hard evidence that this type of so-called political mileage translates into favourable votes for a candidate, or is it merely a misguided perception?

In this same breath, politicians are expected to attend just about every funeral in their constituency — sometimes three a day — in addition to visiting the "dead yard", providing food and refreshments for the "set up" as well as funding for the burial, usually from his or her Constituency Development Fund (CDF).

Sometimes when I observe people seeking to gain political mileage during a tragic event, I get sick to my stomach. Believe me, there is hardly any genuine concern, the only aim is to get political mileage. So you turn up in a green or orange shirt and make sure the cameras and the microphones capture you saying how "shocked" you are, while demanding that justice be done. But after the well-staged intervention, is there any real follow-up? Are people's needs taken care of outside of the glare of publicity, or are they just used to get cheap political mileage?

In instances of tragic deaths, politicians like when the media intrudes on the privacy of mourning individuals, robbing them of the opportunity to bring proper closure to their grief. Their private space is invaded, and very little consideration is given to the emotional trauma that they are going through. The bigger and more high-profile the incident is the more intense the quest for political mileage is pursued.

Politicians from the two major political parties, not to mention political wannabes and desperate aspirants to Parliament and parish councils, compete aggressively to see who can make the greatest impact by way of donations in cash or kind. Of course, if the beneficiaries' partisan leaning is well known, then it becomes a one-party affair, while the other tribe stands aside and looks, hardly caring.

Let's face it, people block roads because they usually get attention and positive results. Hence almost daily on 'prime time news' there is captured such a fiery protest with screaming demonstrators, and usually at some stage the politician appears intent on getting mileage from the event. What hypocrisy! When will the Jamaican people realise that they are simply spitting in the sky?

Recently, we saw elements of the religious community stage a number of demonstrations culminating in a mass rally in Mandela Park, Half-Way-Tree, in the wake of the Bain/UWI/JFJ kerfuffle. No fires were set, and there was no cutting down of trees or blocking of roads with debris, but their message was clear and it is fair to say they got the full attention of the nation and the relevant authorities.

It may be argued that this was more of a middle- and upper-class-organised protest, and that the poorer class of people, especially those in the ghettos and poverty stricken areas in rural Jamaica, may not have the "luxury" of staging such a well-organised and incident-free protest and be noticed. But this is where the political parties, non-governmental organisations, professional groups, civil society entities, and special interest bodies must seek to change this culture of fiery roadblocks.

The media, too, must play a more constructive role while competing for news bites and graphic images, and I would love to see the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) and the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) come up with a programme of helping us all to deal, in a more effective way, with this social phenomenon which has the potential to erupt one day into a national catastrophe threatening our image as a preferred tourist destination in addition to driving away potential investors and crippling productivity.

Then, there is the plethora of press releases which media practitioners hasten to transform fluff into hard news, especially on a slow day when a lead story is hard to find. The problem with Jamaica is that we always get excited after the horse has fled through the gate. We are reactive rather than proactive, revelling in nine-day wonders while Jah kingdom goes to waste. When the topic is very "sexy", almost overnight various interest and pressure groups are formed with a catchy moniker. Needless to say that many of these "fly-by-night and pitch-by-day" bodies are wolves in sheep's clothing, secretly aligned to one of the major political parties or are funded by special interests or various puppet masters with hidden agendas.

Nowadays, one wonders where and when altruism ends and ego-tripping takes over in the bid to get mileage out of every seemingly good deed. Jamaica is not short of photo ops and announcements. It is time that people be truly empowered and made to take responsibility for themselves, instead of us perpetuating this debilitating culture of dependency which is the greatest stumbling block towards the attainment of economic independence — the yet to be accomplished mission of this and succeeding generations.

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 of Jamaica. lloydbsmith@hotmail.com

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