Peter Bunting, wealth and Westminster politics

Everton Pryce

Monday, August 19, 2019

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The reported political brouhaha which has erupted in the presidential campaign in the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) between supporters of the party's president and Opposition Leader Peter Phillips, and those of his challenger, businessman and Manchester Central PNP Member of Parliament Peter Bunting, over the issue of his progressive accumulated wealth and bona fide private sector credentials, ought to be of more than passing interest in a society like ours.

As I understand the controversy, Bunting's critics contend that his affluence, which he readily acknowledges and has used on occasions in the past to help his party overcome substantial financial hurdles, raises questions about the unequal influence of money in the circumstances of the September 7, 2019 PNP internal election, and this should disqualify him from finding favour and support among the 2,840 delegates eligible to vote.

Since this controversy surfaced Kingston's bush and social media telegraph has been agog with 'news' that this is part and parcel of a serious “ground campaign” against Bunting aimed at influencing the delegate base of the party. The ferocity of the campaign, some argue, is in direct proportion to the very high stakes in this 2019 PNP presidential election. For the election outcome will not only decide who will lead the PNP, but, more importantly, who will hopefully win the prize of entering Jamaica House as prime minister should the party be returned to power at the next general election.

Bunting's pushback against his critics, up to now, has been swift, decisive, and caustic. The criticism levelled against him on this score, he argues, is emblematic of the scourge of “bad mind” that has taken root in critical echelons of his party's subculture.

He reasons that the persistence of this anomaly in the PNP which he served with distinction as general secretary in the past increasingly makes it prone to wrong moves at critical times when its own sterling and widely acclaimed traditions of national development concerns, and proven people-centred strategies as a function of political power over these past 80 years, ought to be paramount, once again, in its legitimate claim to power and modernisation from the pavilion of the Opposition.

Whatever the merit or demerit of the criticism emanating from the 'One PNP' camp against the leader of the 'Rise United' campaign, however, I take this opportunity to suggest to readers of this newspaper that the substantive issues at the centre of the controversy — wealth and politics — present the society in the context of our post-Independence experience under the Westminster system of government, with a teachable moment to pause and remind ourselves about our capacity to govern.

Westminster government

A crisis of governance has gripped Jamaica for 57 years since our 'liberation' from Whitehall. There is deep public disquiet and unease in the society with issues of corruption, poor governance, and an increasing lack of trust in our democracy and accompanying institutions. The public trust to which politicians are supposed to devote their fullest attention have been sabotaged time and time again on the altar of greed and a preoccupation with advancing on the ladder of material prosperity. Much of this has bred a well-oiled machine of scepticism in the body politic — an aspect of which assumes that businessmen entering politics do so for the sole reason to profit from it.

Be that as it may, one fact not often highlighted by the commentariat class is that Westminster government, first and foremost, a version of which we conduct in these parts, in the final analysis, has little room, if any, in the first place for pauperised, dependent, elected representatives in Parliament, and least of all in the Cabinet.

Such men and women should not only be individuals of honour. Far more critical to our aim to bolster rather than debilitate the structure of public administration, they should be individuals who are independent enough to be able to resign on matters of conscience so that they return to their living outside of the political kingdom.

In other words, prime ministers, their Cabinet colleagues, and parliamentarians in general, were never expected in the Westminster system of government to be “professionals” in the sense of making a living exclusively from political life.

Furthermore, as we have seen throughout our history over these past 57 years, those in Parliament without skills independent of political power are invariably doomed to corruptibility of one sort or another, whether of the spirit or of action. Far too many politicians went into politics lean and hungry and without a bean, only to emerge at the other end well advanced with the splendours of wealth.

The other salient point worth making is that should Peter Bunting succeed in his bid to be prime minister of Jamaica in the foreseeable future, and become our chief public servant, he would dare not behave like a private entrepreneur. In fact, in his elected legitimacy, he — or anyone else for that matter — cannot expose himself to such behaviour without exhibiting an inglorious authoritarian temper which has never found favour with the populace.

Those who do not take care to learn by precept on this score must learn, if learn they can, in the hard school of experience. Edward Seaga's failed attempt at carrying on the business of Carinosa Gardens hotel and attractions in Ocho Rios in the 1980s as a private sector concern, while occupying the seat of prime minister in Jamaica House, is a shining example of this precept.

Accountability

Under the Westminster system of government a prime minister, rich or poor, is forever accountable to the public which pays taxes. So, while it may be legitimate to fear that private sector moguls, like Peter Bunting et al, could very well have the capacity to determine the outcome of elections, they nevertheless lack the 'power' to avoid being accountable to the people for their actions once they become the presiding head of government and head of the executive branch. Such is the nature of Jamaican politics and social reality.

The essential point worth noting, then, is that until we change our political system, the only people functioning as professionals in it ought rightly to be the civil servants, who pay the price of political neutrality for their security of tenure. This, too, is an essential element in our system of norms shaping our post-colonial structure of public administration in Jamaica.

In the final analysis, the luxury of being a professional in our political system is not accessible to the politicians who must, whether they like it or not, face the hustings in order to be elected. Those hankering after power through the ballot box ignore this at their peril.

Concern about the role of wealth in our politics is a live issue, if only because private sector movers and shakers do have the power to determine electoral outcomes in no small way. Both the PNP and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) have benefited in this way and have succumbed to gift-taking from rich friends and acquaintances who may be deemed to be looking for favours out of the political system.

Those within the PNP making heavy weather of Peter Bunting's possible use of his wealth to influence the outcome of the presidential election on September 7, 2019 would do well to remember that governments are constrained by reality, and that within the context of the Westminster system of government, in our fragile existence, self-denying ordinance is best observed in place of self-indulgence. The personal wealth that Bunting would take with him into Jamaica House as prime minister cannot, as a rule, trump his requirement at all times to be accountable to the tax-paying public he would have sworn to serve.

It is full time we desist from expecting nothing but the worst from our leaders in this country, and yet expect them to give of their best. It is also time that our leaders move away from the practice of expecting loyalty and support from us without their willingness to account for their stewardship. It is time, in other words, for us to grow up!

Everton Pryce is a former educator and government advisor. Send comments to the Observer or lxpryc@yahoo.com.


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