Non-commitment: We don't see things through

...A House, a vote, a commission


Thursday, May 24, 2018

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Today, I will address the issue of a new parliament building, the happenings in Venezuela, and the anniversary of the Eventide Home fire. The three issues are in the news, the last two being mentioned by Garfield Higgins in his The Agenda column in the Jamaica Observer of Sunday, May 20, 2018.

In 1960, there was talk about a new town hall for the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC), now KSAMC, with the word 'municipal' added. There was a plan to build a five-storey building in the Old Wolmer Yard at the corner of East Queen Street and East Parade. Perhaps it was too ambitious for the day, as we were still a colony and our Government could not get loans easily from overseas as it can since political independence. At the time, the People's National Party (PNP) was in power and Norman Washington Manley was premier.

In that same year, a decision was taken to erect a parliament building (the present Gordon House) as a temporary measure before a new one was built at what is today called National Heroes' Park. The old one at Headquarters House had become inadequate with more members of the House of Representatives since 1959. In that year, the number was increased from 32 to 45.

The plan was that as soon as the new parliament had been built, the KSAC would occupy what is now Gordon House. Fifty-eight years after Gordon House was built, and 56 years after political independence, that has not happened.

The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) came to power in 1962 and nothing more was heard about a new parliament building. Sir Alexander Bustamante, Sir Donald Sangster and Hugh Shearer, while prime ministers, shelved the plan entirely. The discussion about a new parliament building returned in the 1970s when the PNP regained power and Michael Manley was prime minister.

Again, with so much expenditure going on, what with housing, Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL, now Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning), and a host of social programmes mostly funded by overseas investment banks as either loans or grants, at the end of its tenure the new parliament building was nowhere in sight. The entire plan was shelved in the 1980s when the JLP returned to power and Edward Seaga was prime minister.

The PNP returned to power in 1989 and once more Michael Manley was prime minister. He spoke about the need for a new parliament building. Eventually, P J Patterson became prime minister. It was still a matter on the agenda, but it did not happen. Patterson's Government concentrated on funding for housing and highways.

The plan that originated with the Government led by Norman Manley did not materialise when Portia Simpson Miller was in her first stint as prime minister, which was a year and six months. The JLP returned to power in 2007 and Bruce Golding spoke about acquiring the buildings adjacent to Gordon House and building the new parliament there. It did not happen.

When the PNP returned to power in 2011, with Portia Simpson Miller once again prime minister, there was talk about becoming a republic, but the new parliament building was put on the back burner. It was always a matter of availability of funding, which now has come at last while we continue to develop our highways.

I have consistently argued that we need a parliament building that Jamaicans can visit for information and education. It should have a library for parliamentarians to research material. I recall going into the offices of the clerk of the legislature in 1986 and the office was tiny with documents all over the place from the floor to the ceiling. If this is still what obtains today, it cannot be a good thing.

There needs to also be an audience area for visitors that is behind a sound-proof glass wall through which the audience can hear the members or senators, but the parliament is not disturbed by them. And it can also be a tourist attraction.

We have an awful tendency to criticise things as a waste of money, especially when they are being done by a political party that we do not support. In the case of the parliament building, many PNP supporters are criticising it but do not know that this was the plan of the PNP.

What is understandable is their annoyance that the JLP is taking credit for the idea. But the National Stadium, the Ministry of Education building, and the dumping up of Negril for the tourist industry — all programmes of Norman Manley — were all criticised by his first cousin, Alexander Bustamante, as a waste of money.

Garfield Higgins criticised the PNP for giving its views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict but not saying the same about the situation in Venezuela. I did not recall hearing that the present Government had criticised Maduro and his Government.

So I looked at the comments under Higgins' piece online to see if anyone would point out that the JLP Government has not criticised Venezuela either; and, yes, only Howard Jones pointed this out and gave the discussion some balance. Which party in Government or Opposition would criticise Venezuela when they have oil?

A few months ago there was a motion of condemnation in the United Nations against US President Donald Trump, who threatened to cut aid to countries that voted against him. Our Government abstained. But if they do so in such a situation, do you think they would criticise Venezuela?

In the 1970s when the PNP Government got corned beef from communist China, it was highly criticised. Michael Manley responded by saying, “Cows do not have ideologies. We did not go to China to discuss ideology. We went there to see if they could send us some corned beef in return for what we can trade.”

Regarding the Eventide Home fire of May 21 1980, what was one of the findings of the commission of enquiry? Wasn't it that the fire was caused by electrical short-circuiting? The commission of enquiry finished its deliberations in either 1981 or 1982 after the JLP returned to power. If people doubted the findings of the enquiry why did they not call a fresh commission of enquiry?

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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