Observer Online’s political winners and losers of 2023
The shock resignation of the House speaker, the People’s National Party’s rise in the polls, and strong performances in key sectors are among the factors that determined who won and who lost in politics in 2023.
There are also rising stars in a young senator and a first term Member of Parliament, as well as those who find themselves ‘on the bubble’ as they neither won nor lost. Additionally, there is an honorary mention for a hardworking minister.
See below Observer Online’s winners and losers in Politics in 2023:
Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, or ‘Mr Tourism’ as he is affectionately called, continues to take Jamaica’s tourism into uncharted waters. There can be no question about his impact on the industry which will see Jamaica welcoming a record 4.1 million visitors in 2023 while earning in the region of US$4.2 billion.
Those numbers were underpinned by a sharp increase in airline seats as several new airlines added Jamaica to their respective routes, in particular in the latter part of the year. In fact, 1.3 million visitors were expected for the winter tourist season that got underway on December 15, in large part due to the number of new airlines that have added Jamaica to their itinerary. Over 930,000 of the booked seats are out of Jamaica’s main market – the United States.
Even his detractors will admit that Bartlett is an excellent ambassador for Jamaica who exudes confidence wherever he goes. Under his leadership, Jamaica was named the “World’s Best Family Destination” and “World’s Best Cruise Destination” at the 30th World Travel Awards held at the iconic Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in December. Bartlett, the founder and chair of the Jamaica-based Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre ‘Think Tank,’ accepted the awards on Jamaica’s behalf.
In a statement during the last sitting of the House of Representatives for 2023, just before the Christmas break, Bartlett boasted about Jamaica’s record achievements. He pointed to 20,000 hotel rooms coming on stream over the next 10 years and, importantly, also highlighted that more tourism dollars are being retained in Jamaica than ever before. In this regard, US$336 million or J$52 billion would flow directly into the government’s coffers during the calendar year, an impressive sum by any standard.
Minister without portfolio in the Ministry Economic Growth and Job Creation, Senator Matthew Samuda continues to make his mark on governance. He is without question one of the young rising stars in the Andrew Holness-led Cabinet. His responsibilities include water, environment, climate change and the blue and green economies.
Dubbed ‘Mr Climate Change’ for the passion he shows for an area of importance that is still to be taken seriously by many in terms of the myriad of problems it poses to small island developing states like Jamaica, Samuda has embraced his responsibilities with gusto.
He famously spearheaded the ban on single use plastics back in January 2019, having been seized of the magnitude of the challenge posed by climate change to countries like Jamaica, and is doing a good job in bringing awareness to the issue.
Following the tough stance he took last August after waste from bauxite company Windalco polluted the Rio Cobre, resulting in a massive fish kill, offending companies can now expect to pay significant fines for polluting one of Jamaica’s largest rivers which is a source of livelihood for many. With recent contamination of the river, it is to be seen how the polluters will be dealt with.
Samuda has also embraced the water portfolio and boasts of the never before seen upgrades to the country’s water infrastructure. Residents in many rural communities across the length and breadth of the country are receiving water in their pipes for the first time.
Additionally, he continues to be among the most vocal Government senators in defence of the administration’s policies. For his efforts, Samuda has been rewarded with the safe St Ann North East seat which he will contest for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in the next general election due in 2025, a testimony to his rise within the party and nationally.
Opposition Leader Mark Golding
Opposition Leader Mark Golding had some missteps during 2023 including his participation in the so-called slavery skit gone wrong and his “dead voters” comment for which he was forced to clarify/apologise.
However, of significance is that Golding presided over a less divisive People’s National Party (PNP) whose stocks rose throughout the year, the evidence of which is in the public opinion polls which showed the PNP slightly ahead of the governing Jamaica Labour Party for the first in a long time. Golding’s and the party’s stock rose even though he remains less popular than Prime Minister Andrew Holness and while there is still some amount of division in the party, albeit on a much smaller scale than recent years.
Throughout the year, Golding appeared to have a firmer grip on the party and was seemingly able to put out fires of discontent before they became major blazes. Even when some western councillors rebelled and crossed the floor to the Jamaica Labour Party, no protracted discontent played out in the media this time around.
What’s more, with Local Government Elections due no later than February 2024, Golding became increasingly visible throughout the year in his attempt to connect with Jamaicans. He donated 80 per cent of his massive salary increase to charitable causes in a show of support to public servants whose average increase was 20 per cent in comparison to the more than 200 per cent salary hike for him and other members of the political directorate. The move followed public outcry against the massive salary increases announced by Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke in May.
Shortly after Golding’s announcement, the prime minister announced that he would be foregoing his massive salary increase that would have seen his salary move to more than $28 million in 2024.
While the wife of the prime minister can be a polarising figure as is evidenced by her handling of how reports are tabled in the Parliament, her seemingly confrontational nature, and in her personal battles in the courts, she continues to rise politically as seen by her promotion to the position of speaker of the House.
Holness had served as deputy speaker to Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert since 2020 but Dalrymple-Philibert’s shock resignation in September saw her being promoted to the role of speaker. Her deputy is Heroy Clarke, the Member of Parliament for St James Central.
The Member of Parliament for St Andrew East Rural, Holness is three months into the job of speaker and is currently locked in a standoff with the parliamentary Opposition about when reports received from the Integrity Commission are tabled in the House. The Opposition wanted to continue the tradition of tabling them immediately, but not so fast, insisted Holness. Those reports now go before the Parliament’s Integrity Oversight Committee before they are tabled and, despite opposition, Holness has held firm.
To be named speaker is a big deal and her promotion alone places Holness in the winners’ column.
Dr Nigel Clarke
It can be argued that 2023 was the year that the Minister of Finance and Public Service, Dr Nigel Clarke transitioned fully from political neophyte to politician, in the process winning as many admirers as he appeared to have lost.
If the analogy of an income statement were used to describe Clarke during the year under review, it would be immediately obvious that he made the firm the most money, however, he also had the most expenses. But he’s in the black.
Clarke is a winner based on several facts, including that Jamaica continues to be the country of reference by the multi-laterals whenever they want to highlight a country that has significantly turned around its economic situation. Also, Jamaica has never been rated higher by the international ratings agencies.
Clarke is finance minister at a time when the country’s net international reserves are at record highs, the exchange rate is relatively stable, and unemployment is at record low numbers with increasing talk that Jamaica may shortly become a net importer of labour as employers struggle to find workers.
All of the above work in Clarke’s favour even if he struggled (uncharacteristically) to explain/justify the massive salary increases granted to politicians in May, when countries with better economies are paying far less, and despite referring to Opposition leader Mark Golding as ‘Backra Massa’, a term many Jamaicans deem to be racist and which he doubled down on, rather than apologise for.
Minister of Science, Energy, Telecommunications and Transport, Daryl Vaz has responsibility for a huge portfolio but is the one minister who can be described as always being on the front foot.
Where he has to react, Vaz does so quickly. As an example, he promptly asked for and promptly got a report on the temporary closure of the Sangster Airport runway in September which caused disruptions to flights in and out of the country.
Quite notably, Vaz got a group of public transport interests to come together and even got the support (initially) of the Opposition spokesman on transport to present a unified front before the Government signed off on big 35 per cent increase in fares for public transport operators.
Under his watch, the government continues its broadband roll out across the country. This and the increasing number of communities being given access to free Wi-Fi are significant as Jamaica transitions to a more digital society.
In October, Vaz provided an update in the Parliament on the Government’s push to significantly increase the amount of the country’s electricity supply that is generated by renewables.
He shared that the Generation Procurement Entity (GPE) under new leadership since 2020 when he was assigned the portfolio, is working apace to make this happen. Following the launch of an expression of interest (EOI) by the GPE, some 100 megawatts of renewable energy is about to come on stream.
Vaz said that with the Cabinet’s directive to transition from expensive fossil-fuelled plants to mature renewables, the Jamaica Public Service will shortly retire 175.5 MW of fossil-fuelled plants and replace them with renewables.
Dr Angela Brown Burke
Chairman of the People’s National Party and Member of Parliament for St Andrew South Western, Dr Angela Brown Burke has been forced to take on an outsized role in the House of Representatives where the Government has a super majority.
There are 49 Government MPs to just 14 for the Opposition, meaning Brown Burke has had to be her party’s spokesperson on several matters during House sittings. As such, she is often the opposition member who is responding to a statement made by a minister of government and she has shown herself to be competent at it.
The role taken on by Brown Burke seemed to have expanded since former leader Dr Peter Phillips is mostly absent because of illness and outgoing MP Hugh Graham has been mostly absent this year.
She is also the first on the opposition benches to stand up for her colleagues in the face of what she determines to be disrespect from the Government side. She has risen on a point of order more than any other MP, a testament to her determination to defend herself and her colleagues while facing an often vocal supermajority on the other side of the aisle.
Brown Burke is also not afraid to stand up to the House speaker when she perceives the Speaker is being biased, even under the threat of a censure or eviction by the House marshal. She led the walkout of Opposition members in March after she was threatened with a censure motion for shouting “shut yuh mouth” at a government member in the midst of one of those heated clashes.
She has also taken the government to task for its lengthy delays in bringing private members motion to the floor for debate.
As for Clarke’s Backra Massa designation of the opposition leader, Brown Burke said she found it to be “unbecoming and racist”.
Opposition Senator Damion Crawford continues to be one of the more high profile spokespersons for the PNP. But he has displayed a greater level of maturity in his public utterances over the past two years as he seemingly embraces the role he is expected to play inside and outside the party as consistently one of its most popular members.
Of note is that Crawford will represent the PNP in the safe North West St Catherine seat (nothwithstanding the closeness of the results in the last general election).
Lothan Cousins is the first-term Member of Parliament for Clarendon South Western representing the People’s National Party.
He was elected to the seat in February 2020 and since that time has distinguished himself in the House of Representatives. A trained lawyer, his contribution to the various joint select committees that he has sat on, and which routinely reviews various bills with a view to strengthening them, has been solid.
Cousins is the Opposition spokesman on water and agriculture, and his contributions to the debates in the House shows both his level of preparedness and commitment to the task.
In December, he pointed out that big companies and professionals who are approved farmers are exploiting a provision in the Income Tax Act to claw back losses caused by natural events. He was speaking after Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, Floyd Green had announce $157 million in assistance to farmers who had suffered loss due to flooding associated with Tropical Cyclone 22 in November.
Cousins highlighted that large Jamaican companies and professionals such as lawyers and doctors who are involved in farming, are routinely able to write off any loss they may suffer in their farming business due to natural events such as flooding, against their income tax filings.
He suggested that small farmers do the same.
“That is the incentive that we (lawmakers) provided from day one for persons who are professionals to get involved in farming,” Cousins stated.
Cousins has also highlighted that foreign fishers are infringing on the livelihood of local lobster fishers due to a loophole in the Fisheries Act.
He said that due to a loophole created by Section 54 (1) of the Fisheries Act, foreigners are brought in by large local companies to fish for lobsters in Jamaican waters.
On the Bubble:
Dr Christopher Tufton
Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr Christopher Tufton made some significant announcements during the year that should have placed him firmly in the win column.
The ‘New Limb, New Life’ programme of the Ministry of Health and Wellness that he heads is giving amputees a new lease on mobility, while also raising awareness about preventing debilitating diseases like diabetes.
Under the $50 million initiative, prosthetic legs and arms are being provided to qualified amputees who have lost limbs due to health conditions or trauma.
The programme “is giving a number of Jamaicans the opportunity to move around and to be mobile,” Tufton said in December at the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre in St Andrew where he observed amputees being fitted for prosthetics. He stressed that a key part of the programme is educating the public about healthy lifestyles, since most amputations result from non-communicable diseases like diabetes.
Additionally, by mid-December the ministry was reporting that 1,045 Jamaicans had benefitted from its new oral health and dentures replacement programme, Second Chance Smiles.
Second Chance Smiles was announced by Tufton during his sectoral presentation in the House of Representatives in May.
“The goal is to help 10,000 Jamaicans under 60 years of age and we will do so,” he said.
There were other significant announcements during the year, including the addition of over 2,000 permanent posts for doctors in the public health sector. That was announced in May.
In October, Tufton announced that 550 posts had been created for public health inspectors, doubling their ranks at a time when that critical group of workers was overworked and important inspections delayed, or not carried out.
Throughout the year Tufton, as he has often done, continued to boast, and rightfully so, that the current government has invested more in the country’s health infrastructure than any other in the past 50 years. There are also numerous projects in the pipeline to upgrade and expand hospitals including Spanish Town Hospital and the University Hospital of the West Indies which will both get multi-story towers. Health centres are also being significantly upgraded.
However, while Jamaicans await the upgrades, including the completion of works at the Cornwall Regional Hospital, disturbing videos emerged throughout the year of patients sitting in corridors on chairs and pieces of cardboard as they await a bed in overcrowded health facilities. Some waited days before a bed became available.
Additionally, Tufton has been accused of ministerial interference by the former chairman of the Board of the University Hospital of the West Indies, accusations he has brushed aside as “unfortunate”. He has refused to discuss the matter publicly.
The accusations were reportedly made by the now former chairman, Wayne Chai Chong and his deputy, Dr Andre Foote, both of whom resigned from the UHWI board in December. Former head of National Commercial Bank, Patrick Hylton has since been appointed the new board chairman.
The Opposition spokesman on health, Dr Morais Guy has pressed Tufton to respond to the allegations.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness
Prime Minister Andrew Holness continues to preside over a Government that is held up around the world as a model of fiscal responsibility and a case study in how to turn around one’s economic fortunes.
That should be enough to put him in the winners’ column.
Where the finance minister gets credit, the prime minister must also since he is the head of government.
Therefore, it must be highlighted that Holness is in charge of the government at a time of record low unemployment, record high net international reserves and relatively stable exchange rate. This must be contrasted against the economic crisis facing many low wage Jamaicans, whose purchasing power continues to be impacted by inflation.
Holness is also in charge at a time when Jamaica has never been more highly rated by the international ratings agencies. He also said in December that whoever wants a job can find one and that is likely true by the number of ‘workers wanted’ signs that seem to be everywhere.
But, as the country’s economic fortunes trend in the right direction, the prime minister himself has acknowledged that ways must be found to ensure that more Jamaicans reap the benefit; this would ensure that the disconnect between Jamaica being held up as a model country whose economy is trending in the right direction and the large number of Jamaicans who say they are not benefitting, would be righted.
Then there are the personal issues related to the prime minister including him being cited by the Integrity Commission (IC) for possible conflict of interest in relation to contracts issued to Westcon Construction Limited during the time he was minister of education in the Bruce Golding administration. It was disclosed that he was personally affiliated with the company’s principals. A subsequent report from the IC cleared the prime minister, in large part because the commission acknowledged that too much time had elapsed from the time the contracts were awarded and the completion of the investigation and publication of the report.
Meanwhile, Holness has another matter involving the IC that is yet to be cleared up, the commission having yet to certify his statutory declarations going back to November 2021.
Also, crime continues to be the Achilles heel of the government over which the prime minister presides. Sadly, more than 1,350 people were killed in the country in 2023 as Jamaica continues to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
On the international stage, Jamaica made several missteps.
Having been one of the lead negotiators, Jamaica signed the Samoa Agreement but only after a one-month delay. The original signing took place on November 15 while Jamaica signed on December 14 at the headquarters of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) in Brussels, Belgium. The delay followed concerns raised by civil society groups that aspects of the agreement – which aims to strengthen technical cooperation between the EU and its member states, and the member states and regions of the OACPS – could infringe on the constitutional rights of Jamaicans.
In October, the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) labelled Jamaica’s absence from a United Nations General Assembly vote for a humanitarian truce in war-torn Gaza as “a new low in Jamaican foreign policy history.” The resolution introduced by Jordan called for the protection of civilians and the upholding of legal and humanitarian obligations in Gaza amid hostilities between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers which has claimed thousands of lives. It was adopted with 120 countries in favour, 14 against, and 45 abstaining. Jamaica was among the countries that abstained, with Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith stating that consultations did not conclude in time for the vote. Regardless of the excuse, the vote was a black eye on Jamaica’s foreign policy.
The biggest loser in politics in 2023 was Speaker of the House of Representatives, Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert.
Her fall from grace was as swift as it was sudden.
The woman known to frequently upbraid her fellow members of parliament, in particular Opposition MPs about their “unparliamentary conduct”, shocked the nation on September 21 when she resigned as speaker with immediate effect. She also resigned as MP for Trelawny Southern, a safe JLP seat.
Her resignation came two days after she had brushed aside mounting calls for her to step aside after a damning report from the Integrity Commission (IC) recommended that she be slapped with eight charges related to her statutory declarations. According to the IC, between 2015 and 2021 Dalrymple-Philibert failed to declare on a Mercedes Benz which she had purchased on concession.
She insisted that it was a “genuine oversight” and that she had nothing to hide.
The charges against the former speaker and MP relate to breaches of the Parliament (Integrity of Members) Act. She pointed out that “nowhere in the entire report, has the Integrity Commission raised any question or concern about the source of funding of the vehicle, which was purchased through a loan from Sagicor Bank”.
While the PNP, the church and civil society groups had beseeched the then speaker to vacate the speaker’s chair until she had cleared her name, and in the interest of accountability and transparency until the matter was dealt with in the courts, even Opposition leader Mark Golding expressed surprise at the fact that she resigned as MP.
Minister of National Security, Dr Horace Chang has seemingly carved out a place for himself on the losers’ side of the winners and losers in politics column each year.
While most people will agree that his is the toughest portfolio assignment in the Cabinet given Jamaica’s propensity for violence which has seen tens of thousands murdered over the past five decades in a country not fighting a civil war, Chang does not inspire confidence. He often comes across as reactive, vowing that the security forces will apprehend the perpetrators of the latest double, triple or quadruple murder.
His continued boast (it is indeed factual) that the current Jamaica Labour Party Government has invested more in the security forces and the security infrastructure than any other administration since independence will continue to ring hollow as long as Jamaicans are being slaughtered at more than 1,300 each year, with the country having one of the worst homicide rates in the world.
Chang could have gotten credit for the fact that up to mid-December, murders were down eight per cent when compared to 2022. However, there were a staggering 1,349 murders committed up to December 16 and, as was correctly pointed out by the Opposition spokesman on national security, Senator Peter Bunting, this must be taken in a particular context.
Said Bunting during his contribution to the State of the Nation Debate in the Senate: “…What the government and the JCF won’t highlight is that last year (the comparator year) had the second-highest number of murders since the 2010 Tivoli Operation related to the extradition of Christopher Coke. So the statistics can be down relative to a record bad year but still represent an objectively horrific situation currently”.
Meanwhile, the jury is out on whether states of emergency (SOEs), which the government continues to rely on, are effective in fighting crime. A slew of SOEs were declared between November and December particularly in western parishes. However, murders continued, seemingly unabated in the SOE areas.
PNP General Secretary, Dr Dayton Campbell’s stocks continued to fall during 2023 and most, if not all of it, was self-inflicted.
The trained doctor and lawyer saw his legal woes mount during the year as he was hit with multiple lawsuits by his political opponents over utterances he made on political platforms.
He is also facing opposition from Comrades after he was selected by the party to represent it in the next general election in the Westmoreland Eastern seat once held by former Prime Minister PJ Patterson. Former MP Luther Buchanan, who lost by 11 votes to the JLP’s Daniel Lawrence in 2020, has reportedly stated that he will run as an independent against Campbell in the next election.
It is highly unusual for a party general secretary to face that type of resistance from within his own party.
Campbell also engaged in behavior one could call juvenile, such as when he and the PNP President, Mark Golding, participated in that now infamous slavery skit that blew up in their faces. While the idea behind the skit was understandable – the PNP wanted to demonstrate the economic struggles being faced by ordinary Jamaicans – to have Golding, a white Jamaican, unlock a chain from the neck of a black man to make the point that the PNP will liberate Jamaicans when next it forms the government, was not so well thought out. Campbell choreographed the skit for which the backlash was swift and severe and he should shoulder the majority of the blame for it.
Known for his sometimes reckless statements, even when he served as a Member of Parliament, Campbell is now the subject of at least three lawsuits over comments he made on the political stage. Those comments were made at a PNP meeting in the Clarendon Northern constituency in late July.
Campbell is being sued for defamation by Government Minister Daryl Vaz, St Thomas West MP James Robertson and former MP for St Ann North Western, Othneil Lawrence.
Campbell was warned by Alexander Williams and Company, the law firm representing Lawrence and Robertson, that he would be sued for defamation unless he agreed to pay them millions of dollars in settlement.
Both men demanded a retraction and apology with Robertson demanding $20 million and Lawrence demanding $15 million of Campbell if the embattled general secretary wanted to avoid going to trial.
They accused him of making “false, malicious, and defamatory,” statements which they said caused them “irreparable harm”.
For his part, Vaz alleged that Campbell’s statements were “meant to convey or imply” that he “had engaged in criminal conduct” and had “committed an offence”.
Vaz is seeking damages for defamation; exemplary and aggravated damages; interest; an injunction barring Campbell from repeating the allegations; costs and “such further and/or other relief” the court deems just.
The lawsuit also claimed that Campbell’s request, during his address, for “a moment of silence for Dianne Smith”, was “by way of innuendo… a reference to the reckless allegation” that Vaz was involved in Smith’s murder four decades ago.
“The rumour,” Vaz said, “was based on a graffiti in a PNP stronghold”.
The Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Desmond McKenzie has been quietly working to improve the lot of the homeless and indigent Jamaicans as is evident by the number of shelters being opened, and the number of housing solutions being provided for the poor.
His efforts in this regard have not gone unnoticed and the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation, recognised those efforts by naming the Desmond McKenzie Transitional Centre for the Homeless on King Street in downtown Kingston in his honour. Phase two of the project is slated for completion in January 2024 and will increase its capacity from 40 to 100. It is part of the Government’s drive to provide resources and infrastructure to improve the quality of life for Jamaica’s homeless population, the municipal corporation said. Kingston’s Mayor, Senator Delroy Williams said the facility provides a holistic programme that aims to offer shelter and the basic social needs to assist needy persons to rebuild their lives.
While challenges remain with garbage collection, the 50 new trucks that arrived in the island in late November last year and commissioned into service shortly after have begun to make a major difference in this area. Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced in September that there had been a 54 per cent reduction in the backlog of solid waste disposal complaints since the Government’s acquisition of the 50 new garbage trucks. The situation with garbage collection is much improved from where it was in October 2022 when McKenzie was begging Jamaicans to exercise patience. He said then “I just want to appeal to everybody again, just have some patience. The trucks are on (their) way and we will be seeing an improvement in terms of the efforts of solid waste over the next two weeks leading up into the Christmas holidays (2022)”. No such appeal was necessary leading up to Christmas 2023. And, with another 50 units being procured, the backlog will be reduced further once the units arrive on the island sometime in the new year.
An important area under McKenzie’s portfolio which often goes unnoticed until there is an emergency is the Jamaica Fire Brigade. There is no question that under his leadership the country has seen construction of new buildings and renovation of others as well as the procurement of equipment, including fire trucks, on an unprecedented scale. An honorary mention is therefore in order.