Holness's philosophy of power puts democracy under threat


Monday, March 05, 2018

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It is now two full years since Andrew Holness assumed the reins of government, enough time to understand his perspectives on a number of important issues, not least of which is his perspective on power. This is an important issue, as how the leader uses power determines trustworthiness.

A large body of literature explores the relationship between power and trust, including John Kenneth Galbraith's 1983 book, T he Anatomy of Power, and a 2011 article written by Tiana Savolainen and Sari Häkkinen, entitled 'Trusted to lead: Trustworthiness and its impact on leadership'. One overarching conclusion from the body of literature on power and trust is that people's trust in a leader increases/decreases relative to the extent to which the leader is perceived to use power to advance his or her own interest, including protecting his or her ego, versus using power to promote and protect the well-being of others and the organisation.

After two years in office several of the PM's “first 100 days” promises remain unfulfilled. But the failure to keep promises is not new, so Holness is not unique and is not likely to suffer much damage as a result. Crime is out of control, but, again, crime has always been out of control, so the Holness Administration may not suffer an electoral loss as a consequence. What I think will do long-term, if not permanent damage to Holness's legacy is his apparent flawed view that being PM gives him the right to do as he wishes and pursue paths he chooses in the face of strong opposing advice.


The acting appointment

Justice Bryan Sykes has now been permanently appointed after acting in the post for one month. The decision taken by Holness to have Sykes act, despite the objections and appeals from the judges, the Church, the Jamaican Bar Association, among others may be his defining legacy — a full-blown constitutional crisis (less a court action).

The narrative of that legacy, which will be written in the annals of history, reads: Prime Minister Andrew Holness improperly disturbed the sacred principles of separation of powers by seeking to supervise the judiciary, and when challenged he doubled down. When the challenge became irresistible, the PM's justice minister promised that the matter would be resolved in “short order”. The timeline was later changed to “when the furore dies down”, which effectively means “when I am ready”. During that time, there was no definition of what the PM meant by “actions that bring results”. In simple language, the PM backed himself into a corner and is permanently in that ignominious corner.


Been here before

When Holness served as education minister, he appointed one of his advisers to chair the Teachers' Service Commission (TSC). That decision resulted in a major stalemate as the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) objected to the decision on the grounds that the chair had a conflict of interest by virtue of being a political adviser to the minister. Despite howls of protest Holness stood his ground. As a result, the TSC could not meet for several months as the JTA boycotted the meetings. The consequence was that many principals and vice-principals could not be appointed. The education system was in a major crisis. Appeals were made to PM Bruce Golding to resolve the matter, but reports surfaced that Holness contended that the Education Regulations give the education minister the power to decide who chairs the TSC. Eventually, Holness backed down, but not after putting up what was an unnecessary fight in defence, not of some principle, but, from all appearances, his strong ego.

The apparent tendency of Holness to interpret the power at his disposal as a tool to be used to pursue his own interests — and defend his ego — was also evident in the unlawful procurement and use of pre-signed, undated letters of resignation for his senators. It is to be recalled that after his loss in the Constitutional Court in the matter, he went to church and issued a public apology for ejecting senators under the unlawful scheme. Despite that public apology, Holness then filed an application in the Court of Appeal challenging the decision. What this behaviour suggests, as does the recent crisis, is that when Holness takes a position, however ill-advised, he is unwilling to back down regardless of what wise and experienced advice indicates. This is one of the most disqualifying qualities of a person who seeks to lead.

While one may admire various qualities of Holness, the country is placed in the difficult position of its capacity to trust being tested given this repeated ill-advised acts. These actions raise questions of trustworthiness. Trust implies vulnerability. When people in relationships exercise trust in each other they make themselves vulnerable to each other; and in a relationship in which power is held disproportionately, such as citizen and elected official, there is, as Jeffry Simpson (2007) argues, the juxtaposition of people's loftiest hopes and aspirations with their deepest worries and fears. The hope is that the party with more power will use it to enrich and nurture, while the fear is that he/she will use it in ways that hinder, hurt, or destroy the vulnerable party.

At this two-year anniversary, there is an urgent need for the Government, Holness in particular, to consider the reality of the lost trust and the ground that needs to be recovered in order to restore this trust. Unless there is genuine repentance, which means repudiating the trust-undermining acts, Jamaica faces grave dangers.


Courageous or clean-up crew?

I infer from the blunders that one of the resources Holness lacks is a Cabinet of courageous men and women who are willing to say “No, Mr Prime Minister, it cannot be done that way.” The weak defence of Justice Minister Delroy Chuck concerning the actions of Holness, as well as the incongruent reasoning of Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, give every reason to fear that the Cabinet may be likened to what Karl Samuda, during his short stint in the People's National Party, described as “a bunch of yes men and lackeys”, speaking of the Jamaica Labour Party's Edward Seaga shadow Cabinet and top leadership.

The actions of Chuck and Malahoo Forte bring to mind the challenges in the Donald Trump Administration. After Trump makes a mess, his aides do the clean-up.

Charles Handy (1990) warns of the dangers of group-think, which is the tendency of people in closed, power-seeking groups to follow the collective mindset and abandon independent, critical thinking. This is the worst kind of environment in which a leader should operate. A PM is well advised to have people around who will disagree. In the same way a healthy body needs some white blood cells, a healthy organisation needs courageous and independent-minded people who do not follow the group's mindset.

A Cabinet of devotees is only helpful if the PM is thinking short term;. For, as my long-time friend and fellow columnist Raulston Nembhard argues, Jamaicans do not like arrogant people (Maybe because all of us are 'boasy' and arrogant!). So when the country saw that Seaga had become drunk with power and overcome by hubris, he was voted out in 1989, despite a strong economy.

P J Patterson was a model of humility and decorum and kept winning, despite a weak economy as the alternative to him was an unrepentantly arrogant Seaga. Portia Simpson Miller was voted out in 2016 because of, among other things, the hubris that led to the decision not to stoop to debating Holness, and thus taking the Jamaican people for granted. If Holness is to rule for the 23 years some of his supporters desire, he must eschew arrogance and show humility.

Donald Trump has described the press in America as the enemy of the people. While there are not any public utterances here to that effect, there are behaviours that suggest that the Government regards critics as its enemies. This is dangerous for the country, and that attitude places our democracy in danger.


Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or




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