Reimagining political leadership — The challenge to Andrew and Peter

Dr Canute Thompson

Sunday, April 16, 2017    

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With each new development in our political life, many citizens renew or develop fresh expectations about how our leaders will conduct themselves and what their conduct will mean for the nature of our politics and our collective life as a people.

The newest development, while long in coming, is the installation of Dr Peter Phillips as People’s National Party (PNP) president and Opposition leader. While Phillips is no newcomer to politics, he now has the opportunity to bring a new approach to the leadership of the PNP. Indeed, it is expected that he will do no less. Only time will tell what the substance of his leadership will be.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness did not have much of a chance to stamp his style and substance on the office of prime minister in 2011 as his time then was so short-lived. Here, in his second and real innings (about 14 months old), we have a chance to see him for who he really is.

The question that we may ask about the leadership of both men is whether what we know gives us confidence about the future of the country under their leadership, regardless of the side of the House from which each leads.

I completed this article on Sunday night with the intention of sending it in on Monday. The substance of the piece has remained, but I have made some minor modifications based on a report in The Gleaner in which the new president of the PNP was quoted extensively on the issue of corruption.

Dr Phillips seems well aware of the trust deficit that politicians face generally, and he has given his commitment to ensuring that corruption is not countenanced in the PNP. This is a laudable stance, and the country has every right to hold him to his word. But we await actions beyond those words.

The prime minister has made similar commitments, but we are yet to see a full-bodied expression of his word, and his handling of many issues raises serious questions. Since the issue of trust affects both parties, I wish to suggest three areas of focus that both leaders should address.

(1) Complete disclosure needed

There are a number of curious occurrences that must be addressed if trust between politicians and the people is to be rebuilt. These occurrences include Trafigura, Manatt-Dudus, political campaign finance investigation, the $600-million bush-clearing programme during an election campaign, issuing of a cellular licence, and most recently, alleged extravagance in spending at the Ministry of Culture.

In the midst of some of these occurrences we have seen Jamaica’s ranking fall on the revered corruption perception index. I submit that if both the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition are to convey to the country that they stand firmly against corruption and nepotism in word and deed, then they need not make nice statements about their positions; they must show by action. Such action will require, in my opinion, the prime minister to provide all the details on the $600-million de-bushing programme, answer the unanswered questions about Manatt-Dudus, and give full answers to all questions about the Caricel licence matter. On the other hand, and at the same time, the leader of the Oppositon must exorcise and put to rest the Trafigura and campaign finance matter by ensuring transparency and full disclosure. And both leaders must be willing to ensure that those who are to be held accountable are in fact held accountable — whether by way of apologies for poor judgement or more severe sanctions. There is likely to be the loss of ‘friends’ when people are held accountable, but if both leaders place those friendships above what is in the best interest of the country, they would be guilty of a form of treason.

I am not aware of any evidence that suggests that Dr Phillips was party to, or knew about any of the matters related to the PNP, at the time of their occurrence, so I am not suggesting that he is personally culpable. I am saying, however, that insofar as he is the one with whom the buck now stops, he has a duty to address the matters, given his desire to win and win back supporters for his party.

On the other hand, while the prime minister was not head of Government during the Manatt-Dudus affair, he has an obligation to come clean on the matter, in the same way he has apologised for the Coral Gardens incident which occurred 10 years before he was born, especially since he plans to also apologise for the Tivoli joint military/police operation. The Caricel and multimillion-dollar de-bushing programme, and the facts surrounding alleged extravagance and questionable contracting at the Ministry of Culture are Holness’s own babies. And if he is to close the severe deficit of trust that surrounds his Government, he must come clean on these.

(2) Cooperation between Government and Opposition

The Leader of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives Phillip Paulwell recently accused the Government of not demonstrating sufficient regard for the Opposition in terms of how some decisions are made. As an example, he pointed to the plans concerning the new government campus to be built at Heroes’ Circle. There have been other complaints by the PNP about Holness having departed from his promise to lead a Government that makes cooperation a hallmark of its modus operandi.

The Government is expected to spend heavily on infrastructure in dealing with the problem of squatting. New communities are likely to be created, and already there is suspicion that the Government is likely to create political advantages for itself in relocating residents. Minister Horace Chang, in whose hands this project rests, is appealing for reasonableness and is calling on his political associates to ensure that the programme is not handled politically. I find it strange that the minister is the one making this appeal when the responsibility for the project is in his hands. One hopes that this appeal is not a preemptive rebuttal designed to deflect attention from the very thing being done, whereby the securing of political advantage plays a major role in the management of the project.

The country neither admires nor benefits from cass-cass between the Government and the Opposition, and so it is incumbent on both leaders to ensure that the tone for real collaboration, in the interest of the country, is created.

Either leader may initiate the efforts at cooperation. Both have a duty to do so. In seeking to accomplish this, both leaders should hold quarterly summits at which they discuss ways to strengthen the level of cooperation between the Government and the Opposition, and at these summits the media and members of the public should be able to ask questions and receive factual responses. The tendency to conduct the business of the country in secret is becoming too ingrained. As taxpayers we have a right to full and factual information, and the Government needs to show that it is committed to transparency by leading in the process of full disclosure.

(3) Common courtesy and decency

The boorish behaviour that is often characteristic of the House of Representatives must stop. Acerbic debate, stern rebuttals, sharp wits, and cute remarks need not be disrespectful and nasty. The Broadcasting Commission may soon have to require TV stations to warn viewers that coverage of some of what goes on in Parliament is not suitable to be viewed by children.

To be fair, I have not seen either Holness or Phillips engage in the kind of crassness for which some of their members are known, but both have a duty to ensure that they hold their members to a higher standard of conduct. It is most unfortunate that we cannot hold up the conduct of our parliamentarians as models for our students. It is a shame. If we are to halt this race to the bottom, both Peter and Andrew need to make it clear to their members that certain behaviours are simply not acceptable.

Finally, there is a graver area of courtesy that both leaders need to master if they are to win the respect of citizens. Both must strive to be leaders for all Jamaicans, not just for some. The practice of pushing non-political appointees from their positions, as we have seen since 2016 — which is reminiscent of the 70s and 80s — should be rejected.

Another level of common decency that must be practised by both leaders and those around them is that of being caring enough to take the time to respond honestly and frankly to questions and queries from every citizen, whether that citizen is a journalist with a news organisation, the head of a private company, a student, or a farmer in the hills. It is also unacceptable for government officials to refuse to respond to questions and concerns raised by citizens. A public official has a duty to be responsive to the people. Former Prime Minister P J Patterson was known for returning calls received by his office and responding to letters sent to him. He had a knack for listening to the concerns of people and answering in ways that were authentic. Little wonder then that he kept on winning. I know of ‘ordinary’ people whose calls he returned and to whose letters he sent responses or ensured that his office followed up.

I urge both leaders to invest in showing (not merely verbalising) care and respect for all people, not just some. The most basic expression of respect that leaders show for those they lead is in their willingness to listen to them and showing regard for their concerns.

Postscript: An online reader has repeatedly accused me of initially favouring the $1.5-million tax break because (as he claims I said) it was equitable. He now contends that based on subsequent columns I have contradicted myself. Let me be clear. I was never in favour of the tax break as I am of the view that indirect taxes are inequitable and, in this case, the policy amounts to giving a dollar and taking back a dollar and 10 cents. The $1.5-million tax break is an ill-conceived policy for which the country will pay an unbelievably high price.

Dr Canute Thompson is a management consultant and lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies. He is also co-founder of the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative and author of three books on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or





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