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Holness's blatant breach of his own standard

Sunday, July 08, 2018

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The year 2018 will be go down in history as the year in which Andrew Holness, prime minister of Jamaica, blatantly breached a most scared standard that he had set, and sought to cover this up by an unconstitutional use of the powers of the Cabinet as a means of avoiding personal responsibility for an action that he, and he alone, is constitutionally empowered to take.

In the 40th year of his birth, and in the second year of his reign as leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, Holness declared as a “dark day” in Jamaica's politics the failure of the then prime minister to dismiss from her executive a minister in whom, according the Holness, the public had lost trust. In furtherance of his consternation, Holness, then Opposition leader, declared that the Opposition would no longer sit in Parliament with one in whom public trust and confidence had been eroded. The prime minister capitulated.

The man on whose conduct the Holness standard had been crafted, Richard Azan, had bypassed the established procedures and constructed about 10 wooden shops to house vendors in the Spalding market. The vendors, some of whom declared that they were not political devotees of Azan but were grateful for his assistance, were required to pay for the shops. The investigations which were later conducted revealed that Azan had not engaged in any act that advanced his political interest or resulted in personal financial gain.

The key elements of the Holness standard of accountability are:

(a) swift action in response to alleged misconduct;

(b) complete removal from the executive of anyone accused of misconduct; and

(c) the urgency of immediate action of removal notwithstanding an impending investigation.

In May 2018 reports emerged about poor governance practices at the country's only refinery, a $200-billion company. The reports included failure of the board to meet for nine months; a 200 per cent cost overrun on a project; questionable direct procurement practices; an absentee board chair; high levels of staff turnover; questions about the size of the compensation package for the new human resource manager, whose earnings are about 33 per cent more than her predecessor; possible fraud in the allocation of donations to entities in the minister's constituency; and gross inefficiencies at the operations of the company.

Notwithstanding these occurrences, and more, and despite howls of protest from the Opposition, as well as various groups and individuals, for the minister to resign or be fired Holness merely removed one element of the minister's portfolio. That course of action by Holness was the very opposite of what he enunciated in his 2013 standard of accountability.

The question of what explains Holness's barefaced breach of his sacred standard will occupy some for a while. Is it hypocrisy? Is it weakness? Is it bare chat and no guts? We may never know.

For my part, I am not surprised. I have been arguing for a long time that Holness had mastered the art of saying one thing and do the very opposite without any seeming discomfort.

In seeking to explain the decision to remove the energy portfolio from Minister Andrew Wheatley, the Office of the Prime Minister reported that the decision was made by Cabinet (not the prime minister) and the agreement of Wheatley was sought.

Let us remind ourselves what the constitution says about appointments to Cabinet: Sections 69 (1) and 70 (1) give the prime minister the power to appoint members of his Cabinet. The power to determine the assignment of a minister rests exclusively with the prime minister. This pivoting to Cabinet on this Wheatley re-assignment matter must, therefore, raise eyebrows.

At the sitting of the House of Representatives on June 26, 2018 — the day on which Wheatley was scheduled answer questions on the Petrojam matter — Justice Minister Delroy Chuck was heard saying “what scandal, what scandal?” and was acting in support of the actions of House Speaker Pearnel Charles, who was seeking to silence the Opposition. Chuck previously served as Speaker and must be presumed to know the importance of impartiality and fairness which are the hallmarks of a good Speaker. But his conduct clearly suggests otherwise.

I was doing a radio interview recently and, among other things, spoke about the standard of political leadership being provided by the Holness Administration. While making generous allowances for the fact that leaders are humans and will make mistakes, and thus acknowledging that the country should not expect flawlessness from our leaders, I suggested that, nonetheless, we should expect that they honour their word and, when they fail, they would be humble enough to admit same and make amends. What will Holness do in this instance? And this is not the first time he has erred. The appointment of an acting chief justice comes readily to mind. He is yet to admit the folly of his way, but we go forward as we have a chief justice in place.

What we face, as revealed in the Petrojam matter is a Jamaica in which the canons of accountability are applicable only for some. An example of this is that, while Minister Wheatley is seemingly protected by the prime minister, staff at Petrojam are being told to resign or be fired.

The breach of trust and the display of bad faith could not be worse. At various times after enunciating his dictum on accountability in 2013 Holness has reiterated same, including at his swearing-in when he declared that he would not tolerate corruption. He has also famously said there is, in his vision of Jamaica, a place for everyone. Can we really trust what the prime minister says when we see what he does?

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 canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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