Holness's misadventure

Holness's misadventure


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

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On July 9, 2020 Prime Minister Andrew Holness embarked on a journey which he perhaps hoped would have landed him great political stocks, but instead it landed him unending political sticks — a kind of shellacking that has led him to make a 180-degree shift.

Speaking at the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) 77th anniversary event, at which scholarships were being announced, Holness claimed that Jamaica's current socio-economic troubles were attributable to the “misadventures” of the 1970s. My instinctive analysis was that Holness was seeking to start a culture war. His friends, and possible mentors, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, are known for their use of culture wars to keep faith with their respective political bases. Holness seemed to have been making one of those adventures.

Culture wars, as a strategy of rousing a political leader's base, serve the purpose of testing a leader's political strength, as well as providing a distraction from unpleasant current events which are unhelpful to the political leader's image.

In the 2016 General Election campaign Holness made many statements designed to stoke culture wars. His signature cultural war statement was in relation to crime. Holness said then, “...If you want to remain alive you cannot make the mistake and vote for the PNP [People's National Party].” Four years later, faced with his colossal failure to contain crime, he said that “crime is bigger” than he. In both statements what we have is blame being placed explicitly (in the first) and implicitly (in the second) on others. By 2020 Holness should be taking responsibility for crime, having stated that he had the answer, but instead he passed blame. Blaming others, as Trump has repeatedly done, is a key tool in the culture war box.

Holness's most recent stoking of culture wars is an apparent attempt to blame someone else for his failed economic policies. In simple terms, his argument was that Jamaica's current problems are because of “[Michael] Manley's ideological misadventures”. I suspect these sentiments of blaming a dead man, who was as hated as he was loved, would rouse the faithful and strengthen the case for “give me more time to fix it”.

The Jamaica Observer, in a story carried on July 23, 2020, reported that Holness said he was “taken aback” by the reactions to his statement. I dare say Holness was beaten back. The outpouring of rebuttals to his statement has never been seen on social and traditional media to anything this popular prime minister has said. For a man of his popularity to eat his words, as he said with comments to the effect that he “loves and respects Manley” is the testimony of how badly Holness had calculated when he embarked on the misadventure of blaming Manley.

It is a form of poetic justice, and highly instructive, that Holness's walk-back, based on his being beaten back (or taken aback), was made at the launch of the Education Transformation Commission. No other prime minister in Jamaica's history has done more to transform the Jamaican society than Michael Manley. Holness has now, thankfully, recognised and admitted this.

I would love to see the text of Holness prepared script for that event to know whether he had those comments included. But the comments of Peter Bunting, the shadow minister of education and training, may have been influential, pointing inexorably to the fact that, by measures of gross domestic product (GDP) growth, the 1970s were a failure, but in terms of the raising of social consciousness and social transformation no other period since our founding as a nation (or even before) can be compared. Bunting's biting critique was that the period since Holness's incumbency as prime minister has been no better than Manley's when using GDP growth as the measure.

So, if in terms of GDP growth Holness has done no better than Manley, whom he criticised — though he was blaming Manley for his failures — the question is whether there are areas in which he has excelled compared to Manley. Given the extent to which Manley's record of social transformation has been articulated over the past few weeks, I need not attempt a comprehensive discussion of same. But a few are worth restating:

(1) the passage of the 1973 amendment to the 1944 Rent Act, to create the Rent Restriction Act which protected tenants from cruel and greedy landlords;

(2) the 1974 Minimum Wage Act, which repealed the 1938 Act and provided greater protection to workers;

(3) the 1975 Equal Pay Act, which guaranteed a woman the same pay as a man who did the same job — prior to that women were paid less than men;

(4) the 1976 Status of Children Act which made all children equal under law, whether born in wedlock or not — prior to that a child born to people who are not married was called a bastard;

(5) the 1979 Maternity Leave Act, which was designed to protect family life by giving nursing mothers paid leave to care for their young babies; and

(6) the establishment of National Housing Trust (NHT) in 1976, and the creation of the National Housing Trust Act in 1979, which guaranteed every contributing worker a right to a benefit (Holness basks in his ability to break ground and issue keys for NHT projects and houses.)

For Holness to have described this stellar record, despite imperfections, as a misadventure is head-shaking. While Holness has come to his senses, he needs to place his record of achievement beside Michael Manley's (after whom his father named him).

While Holness has now declared support for Manley's policies it is just hard to understand how three weeks ago they were ideological “misadventures” without qualification. While we should accept his epiphany, Holness should not be applauded. I wonder if the next election had been on Holness's mind when he undertook that failed adventure. Could it be that the beating he has received is the reason elections are now pushed back?

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as a senior lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of six books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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