Columns

Integrity, lands, and making a deal

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, May 12, 2019

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You don't need to teach a snake how to lie down. — Kono proverb, Sierra Leone

All well-thinking citizens should be extremely concerned by what is clearly an unjustified attack on the membership of the Integrity Commission by the People's National Party (PNP). I believe PNP President Dr Peter Phillips is calling for an urgent review of the commission's membership because the esteemed body is not saying what he wants to hear relative to the Urban Development Corporation's (UDC) sale of the “Rooms on the Beach lands in St Ann”.

Blind spot politics seems to have completely engulfed the Dr Phillips-led PNP. I am not surprised.

The pull of the Pickersgillian dictum is apparently more powerful than common sense and the country's national interest for many at 89 Old Hope Road. That does not surprise me either. Recall, chairman emeritus of the PNP Robert “Bobby” Pickersgill told the country some time ago: “We believe it is best for us to form the Government; therefore, anything that will lead us or cause us to be in power is best for the PNP and best for the country.”

The Integrity Commission is made up of two former judges, the auditor general, a former contractor general and a senior chartered accountant. This commission germinated from the seeds of the Integrity Commission Act, which was approved by both Houses of Parliament; [let me emphasise an important fact here] approved by Government and Opposition members.

It is an independent body manned by Jamaicans of impeccable character, qualifications, and experience, in diverse developmental fields, directly related to the protection and preservation of good governance.

I believe the members of the Integrity Commission are fine folks and they represent some of what is best in us.

'PNP calls for urgent review of Integrity Commission Act — Opposition raises questions over body's comments on OCG's Rooms On The Beach report'. I believe this headline in The Gleaner of May 7, 2019 must have had a very chilling effect on the hundreds of well-thinking citizens who, in many instances, voluntarily, and often at great personal expense, give of their time, experience and rich reservoir of knowledge when they serve on boards, commissions, committees, and other public bodies.

Dr Phillips's ill-founded attack upon the Integrity Commission is a very dangerous precedent which all well-thinking Jamaicans should democratically repudiate with every sinew. It is the membership of the Integrity Commission today. Who will it be tomorrow? This is a harbinger!

PNP Dodgeball

The Gleaner report said, among other things: “The parliamentary Opposition yesterday took veiled shots at the Integrity Commission using words such as 'odd' and 'strange' to describe the corruption watchdog agency's handling of the controversial Rooms on the Beach report.

“Further, Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips has acknowledged that lawmakers, during their deliberations on the Integrity Commission Act, may not have given sufficient consideration to the make-up of the commission when they signed off on the legislation.”

Stick a pin! Lawmakers? During their deliberations? When they signed off on the legislation? Why did Phillips speak in the third person?

Dr Phillips is a lawmaker. He was an integral part of the entire process which give birth to the Integrity Commission Act. Is Phillips now saying that he and all those in the Opposition benches in the House of Representative and the Senate made a mistake after many months of examination, deliberations, consultations, and eventual approval of the Integrity Commission Act?

To some Phillips's third-person dodge might have seemed incomprehensible. I am not one.

Several months ago, the birds, those reliable Black-bellied Plovers, Bananaquits and John Chewits warbled that the PNP would increasingly employ one and/or a combination of the following: fake news, obstructionism, misguided bluster, empty chat, political deflection, 'bad mind', threats of street demonstrations, attempts at filibuster, and/or scorched-earth politics.

Why? In order to try and rescue the precipitous fall in value of the PNP's stock, which is manifested chiefly in the continued failure of Dr Phillips to gain significant political traction, especially among the youth.

Muzzle its own

Perhaps for the first time in our political history one of our two major political parties is more popular than its leader. Dr Phillips is not carrying the PNP. The PNP is carrying him; this according to recent credible poll findings.

As the PNP increases the propensity with which it employs 'political strategies' — which the birds shrieked about many months ago — a miasma of intolerance rises from 89 Old Hope Road.

Recall this screaming headline: 'PNP puts gag on members speaking with media on internal matters' ( Jamaica Observer, July 24, 2017).

The story said, among other things: A resolution adopted at Saturday's meeting of the National Executive Council (NEC) of the People's National Party (PNP) requires that members of the party must seek approval of the general secretary, Julian Robinson, to comment on internal party matters in the media.

The resolution also recommended suspension for a first offence and expulsion for second breach of the rule. It stated:

“Be it further resolved that members are prohibited from, without the expressed permission of the general secretary, commenting on internal party matters in the public media (traditional or otherwise) without exhausting all available channels in the party.

“And be it further resolved that the party empowers the NEC (and its subcommittee, the executive) to recommend, approve and codify clear and swift sanctions for breach of such actions which bring the party into disrepute. These sanctions should consider suspension for 1st and 2nd breach and expulsion for a third breach.

“And be it further resolved that these codified rules must be approved and ready for implementation within three months of this annual conference.”

I remember noting in this space many months ago, inter alia: “The PNP is willing to gag its own members, what might it not do to other citizens were it to form the Administration?”

There seems to be a political metastatic cancer of intolerance on the PNP. 'Tek sleep and mark death,' is an appropriate reminder here. We would be foolhardy not to recognise the obvious signs of something which potentially could become very unpleasant for us.

It is obvious to those who wish to see that increasingly anyone who factually criticises the PNP and/or its leader is pilloried in various media by mudslingers and character assassins. Doubtless these are among those whom the PNP's former General Secretary Paul Burke said are social media mercenaries.

No public person should be immune from criticism, but we all must abide by the laws of our land, which set out parameters of slander/libel. Those who are ignorant of these, need to go and learn.

So soon we change our mouths

Unlike others, I was not shocked when I saw Dr Phillips's call for an urgent review of the membership of the Integrity Commission reported in the media:

“Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips has called for an independent audit into the sale of Rooms on the Beach lands in St Ann.

“Dr Phillips says the auditor general should play no role in the audit as the office is 'conflicted'. ( Nationwide News Network, May 6, 2019)

David Ruffin is one of my favourite R&B singers. He was the lead singer of the Temptations for a time. Ruffin [don't remember if it was recorded after he left the group] had a song, entitled So Soon We Change.

It has these among other classic lines: “So soon we change. Soon we will be looking for a new love. You are not to blame. Love's not strong as it once was. I recall about the past, when I thought this love would last at least 100 years or more. I said 100 years or more. But the seasons change. A wandering in the sun can turn to pouring rain.”

I am recalling Ruffin's words entirely from memory. If I got one or two words wrong, please forgive me. Ruffin was, of course, singing about the transience of love.

Political sentiment, especially, is also quite transient.

Should an ephemeral quality be used to measure and pronounce upon the actions of those whom we have agreed should carry out certain critical functions in one of our most important democratic institutions? I say, no!

Recall only a few months ago, Dr Phillips and the PNP sang the praises of the auditor general when the Petrojam report was made public. Today, Phillips is calling for an independent audit into the sale Rooms on the Beach lands in St Ann. Dr Phillips and the PNP seem to have forgotten that that is precisely the reason for the establishment of the Integrity Commission. Phillips needs to explain how it was that, a short time ago, he was holding the impartiality of the auditory general aloft, but today he is questioning it. Dr Phillips's call seems predicated upon an altar of political expediency and desperation.

Critique for within

Member of Parliament for St James Southern Derrick Kellier warned that the rampant devil takes the hindmost approach to politics in the PNP soon after they were defeated in the general election of February 25, 2016.

Kellier, among other things, said: “We are all about power, personal power, and personal aggrandisement, and one-upmanship, that is what we are about.” ( Jamaica Observer, May 29, 2016)

Phillips would do well to revisit Kellier's pronouncements on what ails the PNP.

Give some, get more

I note, Phillips has kept a stony silence on the bit where the Integrity Commission has said “its commissioners unanimously agreed that “the validity of certain conclusions” in former Contractor General Dirk Harrison's report on UDC's Rooms on the Beach sale “was doubtful and could be open to serious questioning if read by an objective person”.

The obvious benefits of the sale of the Rooms on the Beach lands in St Ann dwarf the discount afforded to the buyer. The safeguards and strict timelines in which specific multimillion-dollar developments must take place are obviously advantageous to Jamaica.

The US equivalent of $67 billion in investment is expected to create 7,000 jobs and rake in $4 billion in taxes over three years.

Contractor General Dirk Harrison and the Opposition People's National Party have criticised the deal, noting the sale price is 47 per cent less than the property's valuation. A valuation, I am sure Dr Phillips knows is only a guide. The true value of a good or service is ultimately determined by what someone is willing to pay for it.

I am not a commercial/investment banker, or expert in the pricing of land, but one does not need to be Albert Einstein either to figure out that Jamaica stands to benefit tremendously from the deal.

Additionally, I am sure that the PNP knows that Jamaica is not the only game in town. The investors who bought the Room on the Beach lands could have opted for another country to invest in a similar project. It must count for something — a lot, in fact — that we in Jamaica, notwithstanding all our challenges with crime and bureaucracy [albeit declining] and related issues, managed to successfully negotiate this very good deal in the midst of stiff competition from other investment jurisdictions.

There is no evidence that there was another or better deal on the table. So why all this bellyaching by the PNP? Oh, my bad, I know the answer to that question.

While delivering the keynote address at the opening ceremony of the two-day Make Your Mark Consultants Middle Managers' Conference at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel in New Kingston last week, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw said, among other things: “We've got to stop this hypocrisy and fooling around with the future of our country, because what that is about is courting poverty, and we cannot move from poverty to prosperity with that kind of mentality. It is a thing of the past, and it must go.”

I agree!

The 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell coined a term — the “indignation of hypocrites”. Among other things, might this be the real explanation for the PNP's call for an urgent review of the Integrity Commission and criticisms of the Rooms on the Beach Land Sale? Time will tell.

PS: Big up, Ackaisha Green, who returned a bag containing millions of dollars, which she found in an ATM. May you be forever blessed.

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!

Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. — Mae Jemison


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