Magnanimity or self-glory?

The evidence of lust in the naming of the highway — and other lusts

Canute Thompson

Sunday, June 17, 2018

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I was travelling through the hills of Westmoreland on Tuesday, June 12, during coverage of the naming ceremony for the north-south link of Highway 2000. The radio signal was unclear at points. I heard parts of Prime Minister Andrew Holness's comments and the word “magnanimity” stood out.

In a report on the ceremony the following day, the prime minister was reported as saying: “As we seek to build a nation, there must be space carved out in the competitive political landscape for magnanimity, respect for leaders, value for national sacrifice, and a certain decency and honour in public affairs.”

The word magnanimity means noble, to be generous towards others, especially one's enemies; high-minded, free from pettiness, and not focused on one's self and one's personal interests. Given the meaning of magnanimity, it seemed ironic for the prime minister to have been making these comments at the naming of the north-south link of Highway 2000 in the name of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. If anyone doubted that irony, having heard the prime minister, the doubts were removed when Seaga spoke. I was not hearing well, so I remained doubtful until I received confirmation later. Hear some of his own words:

“…but when it came to the fact that they (downtown Kingston and Ocho Rios) were so easily joined I said, 'Well, that highway should be named after me…and I wasn't embarrassed to tell the prime minister so. And, in his wisdom, he realised it, and accepted it.”

So the magnanimity of which the prime minister spoke was shot out of the water by the words that were issued from the honoree's mouth. It was all about him. Thus, even if Holness were inclined to rise to a level of magnanimity and to engage in the politically healing and nation-building act of naming the highway after one of his political opponents, his hands were tied.

Naming the highway after Portia Simpson Miller would mean eschewing pettiness and showing respect to another leader. It would also mean heeding the voices of large numbers of citizens (other than his political father and his devotees). But, no, “daddy” (in his non-magnanimity) had made a request which “son” had to heed.

A truly magnanimous person is generous, sacrificial, and resists the human temptation to seek honour or applause. He/she serves to advance a common good, and reminds self that his/her reason for being is service. When others seek to heap praises on him/her, the response often would be: “I was only doing my duty.”

I am reminded of St John 6: 15 in which it is reported that when Jesus learnt that they were planning to make him king, he hid himself: “From the sinful desire of seeking to be great, deliver us, good Lord”.

The apparent belief in self-glory and fame which the saga of this naming discloses tells us a lot about the public relations philosophy of the governing Jamaica Labour Party. It is clear that there is an underlying thinking that politics is a pursuit in self-glory, not the pursuit of self-sacrifice.

There has been a series of moves by Prime Minister Holness to expand his powers and one has to ask to what end?

Here are those which readily come to mind:

1) In a newspaper story of May 4, Prime Minister Andrew Holness was reported as having asserted that Jamaica needs tougher anti-crime laws, arguing that the current threat to safety is beyond the powers and resources assigned to regular law enforcement.

2) A few weeks before, in addressing Parliament, Holness suggested that there needed to be an easier mechanism for the Government to impose tough security measures without having to seek the approval of Parliament.

3) In the recently passed National Identification and Registration Act (popularly refered to as NIDS), there was a clause that was intended to give the prime minister the absolute power to make certain laws, thus removing the requirement for approval by the legislature. The Opposition contested that clause and it was removed.

4) Prime Minister Holness sought to include in the Integrity Commission Act a provision that would give the Cabinet power to decide which contracts the Integrity Commission could review.

5) The prime minister initially appointed the chief justice on probation and only reversed this after the Jamaican Bar Association threatened to take him to court.

I believe that every conscious Jamaican must pause to ponder the desire of Prime Minister Andrew Honess for unilateral law-making powers. How well has Holness been using the powers he currently has? Is it that he believes democracy takes too much time?

Political puppetry?

We now know that at least one of Holness's decisions was informed by the wishes — and, possibly, demands — of his mentor, Seaga. Is this something that should concern us? And does it not now lead to reasonable suspicion that when we hear our prime minister speak, the voice may be the voice of Andrew Holness, but the words are the words of “Papa Eddie”? Is there a danger to the public good and public trust if the holder of the office of prime minister seeks to use the office to fulfil unfulfilled dreams and ambitions of a former prime minister? And what does the level of influence that Seaga has over Holness tell us about his own recent grasps for more power?

I hold the view that the Jamaican Constitution gives the prime minister enormous powers. I also believe that common sense governance principles suggest that a country should not allow for the concentration of maximum power in any single office, whether president or prime minister. As one who believes in the beauty of democracy and the wisdom of the many, I repudiate notions of giving enormous power to any one person. I share the view that absolute power corrupts.

Against this background, I began to research the construct of “the anatomy of greed for power”. The first five Internet sites that came up on the page were about the Enron scandal. Enron Corporation was an American oil company based in Texas. The company undertook some dubious accounting practices in which billions of dollars of debt were hid, leaving shareholders to believe that the company was doing well. These accounting practices also caused the value of the company's shares to be artificially high. But soon the scam was exposed and shares that were US$90 in the middle of the year 2000 fell to less than US$1 in November 2001. While all this was happening members of the senior executive were selling their shares so that when the company collapsed the shareholders, who were kept in the dark, were left holding the 'empty bag'.

I wondered what the coincidence of the multiple Enron stories might mean for my attempts to come to terms with what I see as Prime Minister Andrew Holness's grasp for more power.

The first lesson that struck me was that in the 2015 election campaign Andrew Holness had a relatively substantial reserve of public trust and the value of his stocks were fairly high. But in a desperate bid for power he made a number of reckless promises, many of which he has not kept. I now wonder about the degree of trust that the public has in his many assurances.

For example, when Holness says, as he did on June 12 at the naming ceremony, that: “The Government is working hard for the Jamaican people,” is this a credible assertion?

Delano Sieveright, a close ally of the prime minister defended his $9-million travel bill (racked up over 15 months) by saying he is working hard for the Jamaican people. US President Donald Trump has also claimed that he is using the presidency to work for the American people. Despite the offence that some readers have taken to comparisons between Holness and Trump, I continue to see parallels between the two — though Holness is not as boorish and untruthful.

Here is yet other comparisons: Trump is the first candidate in modern American politics to have run for office without releasing his tax returns. He promised that he would have released his tax returns after an audit was completed. That promise was made over several months between 2015 and 2016, but to date those tax returns have not been released. Holness had promised to pass a law that would require the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition to make their assets and liabilities public. I am not aware that even a Bill has been tabled, and I am not aware that those assets have been made public. Do broken promises like these not raise questions about any leader's credibility?

Trump had promised to drain the swamp. Holness promised to raise the bar on accountability and to ensure that the country gets value for money. But there are at least 10 matters on which Holness has shown lack of accountability or promoted it. These are:

1) exposure of citizens to carcinogens at Cornwall Regional Hospital;

2) babies that have died in hospitals between 2016 to 2018;

3) the $213 million paid to O'Briens International Car Sales and Rental for 200 cars of which only 66 have been delivered;

4) $600 million - $800 million spent on debushing in 2016 and the naming of three ministers by the Office of the Contractor General for alleged improper conduct;

5) $9 million spent by Delano Seiveright, senior strategist, on overseas travel in 15 months;

6) $8 million spent on phone bills by Audley Shaw, as minister of finance, and promises of new rules and payback with no evidence of either;

7) nearly $200 million on 14 high-end cars less than two years after there was strong criticism of $60 million spent on 20 cars;

8) employment of large numbers of consultants, despite having criticised the previous Government for the number of consutants and operatives they hired;

9) job descriptions for ministers – no word has been given on this matter;

10) questionable spending on by-election campaigns.

When is enough, enough? Holness seems to believe none of these things have hurt his popularity, but when does honour take precedence over popularity?

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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