Help me out please, Prime Minister


Sunday, February 03, 2013

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ONE day last week, I found myself at one of those hoity-toity functions where I was in conversation with two individuals, one a Jamaican businessman and the other a foreigner.

The foreigner said she 'knew' me and as I enquired as to how I had escaped the 'relationship' she said, "I have read you and as I see you, hear you, watch you, it is you." Even if I did blush, she would not have seen it in the subdued lighting.

We spoke for about two minutes, at which point someone who turned out to be her Jamaican counterpart, but at a 'moderate' level, approached us, greeted me then whispered something in her ear.

She looked across at me as I was munching on a very spicy meatball a little bit bigger than a ball bearing. One could sense both her apprehension and reluctance. What did he say to her?

She turned to me and said, "Mark... er, why has your prime minister not faced your local press?"

At first I thought that he was egging her on or that maybe she had read one of my recent columns criticising the prime minister for reading too much from prepared scripts.

It came to me a few days later that of all our political leaders, none has spent more time in elective office in preparing for the post as Portia Simpson Miller. Not Busta, certainly not Sangster, although Shearer comes close. A comparison with Seaga also cuts it quite close, as do PJ Patterson and Bruce Golding.

But even if PM Portia Simpson Miller had spent a measly five years to attain the post, why is it that she has attained the 'distinction' of being the only Jamaican prime minister never to have faced the press one-on-one on national issues?

It may well be that she is the only western, democratically elected leader never to have faced her local press unfiltered!

Why is this so, and for what reason is the PNP protecting her?

Why is it that each time the prime minister has to speak, outside of a national broadcast which is penned by a speechwriter, she has to be flanked by Cabinet members to bail her out?

This was never the case with Busta, and although Shearer was quite happy to be drummed out of JLP leadership in 1974, he faced the press even if he, like all political leaders, hated it.

Michael Manley simply manipulated the press in his time because the entire press corps was caught up in his magic. Apart from that, he had the ability to mesmerise most of us, including the foreign press. PJ Patterson and Bruce Golding were quite comfortable with the press, even in their most uncomfortable political moments.

For the brief time that Andrew Holness was PM I never got the impression that he was scared of the press.

What is it about Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller that has made her that much different to our other prime ministers?

Something is radically wrong with the public defender's office

When speaker of the House Michael Peart offered an explanation on Nationwide last Wednesday morning about the state of confusion at the public defender's office and gave assurances about Parliament's ability to get the office back on an even keel, many people who were listening would have left even more confused than before.

The public defender has missed several deadlines in the presentation of the report into the Tivoli Gardens incident of May 2010. Many people were killed, and any self-respecting country would have wanted to create a document based on hard investigations into the matter with a view to taking appropriate actions in the immediate future.

People like activist Lloyd d'Aguilar who was, over a year ago, fired from a radio station because he was, well, being himself and asking too many embarrassing questions, has always been on the side of an open, very public enquiry.

Where my friend Lloyd and I part company is in the socio-political complexity of what was then the real Tivoli Gardens. He is apparently of the view that 90 per cent of what the security forces did was wrong and 99 per cent of what the residents of Tivoli Gardens told him, in the aftermath of the May 2010 incursion, was right. We share acute differences there, so I will leave that for another time.

We were told by the speaker of the House that the public defender's office seemingly has no cohesion because relations between the public defender and his staff have broken down. Yet, the speaker informed us that although the 'bits and pieces' of the report remain uncollated, that is, nowhere near to assisting in the completion of the report, it is only the public defender, Mr Earl Witter, who is reasonably capable of taking the matter to its desired completion.

Mr Witter must be a most powerful man, so much so that even in the face of his office not compiling annual reports for years now, and with seemingly well merited criticisms of his office mounting to fever pitch in places, those very realities have somehow glued him in place at his unproductive desk, made him impossible to remove and solidified him, in the near term, as the only solution.

It is quite probable that Parliament has adopted a good dose of pragmatism. To have parliamentary perusal of the public defender, which could probably lead to an engineering of his resignation, could be very problematic for this highly pressured PNP Administration and would only confine the Tivoli Report to the 'unfinished category' for another five years.

So, maybe the tack of the political directorate is, let us work with an office which is dysfunctional and a man who is probably more than a little bit tired.

One has no idea of Mr Witter's politics and I suspect that it would not matter much in his final analysis and report. No one has criticised the competence or the political allegiance of Mr Witter, but it is quite valid to ask at which point and to what extent does the competence of the boss clash with and interrupt the desired output of his office.

Many of us have criticised the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), but a significant plurality of Jamaicans would never accuse the OCG of inefficiency nor question the competence of the person in charge. With a new contractor general in place, one hopes that the OCG continues in its general trend of bringing about respect to a public office, even if some of us believe that Greg Christie (he gave the office public respectability), who recently demitted office, was too much of a showboater.

It is quite probable that the public defender (who one e-mail contact to me months ago labelled 'Public Offender') knows much more than we do about certain realities etched into the political landscape about the Tivoli matter. It may well be that he has requested certain support from Parliament more than is publicly bared and that has been denied him. And then again, maybe Mr Witter simply wants to complete the report, exit the Public Defender's Office and get on with his life in a less harried manner.

Maybe Mr Witter wants to be with his family and share a few drinks with his friends in the evening.

If one or all of those scenarios exist, we need a much more reassuring stance from Speaker Peart, who sounded much too economical with his words on Nationwide and anything but reassuring.

It was, I think, the day before that Nationwide had interviewed a chartered accountant and spoke to him about a tax seminar that his company was having in conjunction with the Government's new tax policy. Holding to the proposition that the explanation of a matter should lead more to an understanding of the matter than confusion, I was appalled at the radio presentation of the accountant. Basically, if one comes to explain something, one should do that. He was awful, and for his sake, in the future, he should be shielded from radio.

We know, of course, that sections of the PNP Cabinet have not fully rebooted since they were sworn in after the PNP win in 2011. The chartered accountant was not a politician, so maybe we can forgive him and only accuse him of a failure of moving much too far from his desk.

In Speaker Peart's case, he is an experienced man who knows the political landscape. One hopes that even if too many of his colleagues are in their inactive 'default' modes, Mr Peart is, at the very least, plugged in.

Getting the bigger, better deal

Think of the IMF big boys in Jamaica feasting on tenderloin and lobster but meeting and negotiating a standy-by agreement with our well-fed technocrats to ensure that more of the poor in Jamaica have the luxury of dining on turkey neck bones.

If we do that, we are probably capturing the essence of what will be that infamous IMF agreement.

The economy is, at best, in standby mode, but one thing we seem never to cut and carve on is talk time on our cellphones. Digicel seems to be phasing out its $100 and $108 cards for a new $120 top-up which sells on the road for $150-$170.

Second only to cigarettes, ganja and betting on the numbers, the poor — stressed out by the extremely difficult economy — have to keep in touch with each other, especially to share information on that most elusive creature, a job opening.

LIME is the only network where one can still purchase a $100 card. We know, of course, that LIME, in its Cable and Wireless days, needed the shake-up of Digicel to get its show on the road. With new legislation on the telecoms market, a highly visible telecommunications minister, Phillip Paulwell, and number portability coming, the people are most interested in what can both Digicel, the market leader, and LIME do for the Jamaican consumer who is in love with talk.

Digicel, the market innovator in most of its time operating in the country which made it rich, now charges per minute while LIME bills per second.

As example, if one should call a friend just to say, 'call me back' and we assume it lasted one second, a Digicel on-net call (Digi to Digi) would take $2.89 from your card. Were it LIME on-net, the amount extracted would be about five cents.

If one should speak on Digicel on-net for say, 61 seconds, $5.78 would be used up. For the same time with LIME, it would be $3.04. The almost 90 per cent disparity in pricing is very obvious. I have two cellphones, one from Digicel, which I have always had, and another from LIME. If you are in a similar situation, try it for yourself.

On cross-network calls, long a sticking point in the Digicel/LIME competition for market share (Digicel leads), a one-second Digi to LIME is $6.99. From LIME to Digi it would be $0.12.

If we make the somewhat reasonable assumption that most people do not talk for one second, how about a call lasting a shade over a minute, say, 61 seconds? From Digi to LIME, it would be $13.98 while in the reverse direction, from LIME, it would be $7.11. The disparity is close to 100 per cent.

As Jamaicans wait with bated breath on news of an impending IMF agreement and some businesses are feeling the business-downturn squeeze, should one call a relative abroad and speak for, say, four minutes, one second, from a Digicel mobile, it would take $71.30 from your $120 Digicel. From a LIME mobile, it would be a superlatively competitive $12.01.

Put teeth in our fishing laws

Jamaica is about 500 miles from the coast of the Central American country Honduras, and if both countries should ever enter into a major dispute it would be over the attraction Honduran fishing vessels have for our waters, especially the fishing grounds at the Pedro Cays.

There was an incident in 2011 where a Jamaican Coast Guard vessel was forced to open fire on a Honduran fishing vessel that the Jamaican authorities said was about to ram the coast guard vessel.

Apart from the numerous incidents of Honduran vessels 'wandering' into our severely depleted fishing grounds, in last December a vessel was caught, arrested and the Hondurans repatriated.

In 2010, the Jamaica Cost Guard saw a vessel and gave chase, but the vessel sped, off, leaving poor Honduran fishermen, many of whom were underage, in the water. They were eventually taken into Jamaica, processed, and then repatriated.

In this time where our fishing grounds are severely depleted, why are we having some 'dibby-dibby' law on the books which only cost the Hondurans about J$100,000 in fines? This is utter madness!

Who pays for the time we accommodate them? Quite probably the Honduran officials in Jamaica. But which country pays for the inconvenience, and what will our politicians tell our fisher folk, struggling to make a most dangerous living?

My point is, for the Jamaica Coast Guard to spy a vessel, give chase, corral and arrest it then after a few months charge someone a measly J$100,000 is simply an invitation for the Hondurans to keep on poaching in the waters off the Pedro Cays and elsewhere in our waters. How does such a charge even pay for the operation of the Coast Guard in that time?

Our legislators need to get their act together and put some real teeth into the fishing laws.




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