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Aiming for higher

...and the return of Dr Andrew Wheatley

Canute Thompson

Thursday, November 08, 2018

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Jamaica is at a crossroads in relation to two of the most critical variables that affect the long-term quality of life of our people and which define the foundations of our democracy. The reason I suggest we are at a crossroads is that we are faced with the opportunity to choose between one standard and another.

If the society accepts one standard versus another then our chances of long-term stability as a society is threatened. If there is one lesson that the US elections have, happily, taught is that checks and balances on those who exercise power are critical to good governance. I personally celebrate the takeover of the Lower House by Democrats, as it signals to President Donald Trump that he is not a law unto himself.

Crime management

Jamaica undoubtedly faces a crisis with crime and lawlessness and the Government has used tough measures to bring the murder rate under control. While murder in St James has been drastically cut, police data show that of some 11,000 people who have been taken into custody in all three areas under states of emergency, only 3.6 per cent, less than 400 of those youngsters, have been charged with crimes. Thus some 10,600 black or mostly black youth have been subjected to some form of humiliation and pain at the hands of the State. Who knows what that humiliation and pain will do to the future of those youth, each of whom now has a criminal record? Should we care?

Did not the Government promise us that policing would be “intelligence” driven? What kind of intelligence would have a 96 per cent failure rate?

My simple position is this: We need a crime plan, but not any and any crime plan. We need a crime plan that is truly intelligence-driven and one that will protect the rights and future prospects of all citizens. Or is this kind of massive round-up of youth part of what the attorney general had promised when she warned that rights would be “…abrogated, infringed, and abridged”?

Not any and any NIDS

A number of international organizations, including the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), have listed accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion as the hallmarks of healthy democratic societies. Pursuant to its commitment to promote development, while at the same time supporting the attainment of the aforementioned democratic values, the IDB recently funded a tour of representatives from a number of Caribbean countries to visit Estonia and study their system of e-governance, including their national identification system (NIDS).

There are things Jamaica can learn from Estonia's digital advancement; these include e-policing, I-voting for nationwide elections, and the company registration portal. It is striking to note that in Estonia no one is forced to register, but rather incentives are given for registration. This common sense approach is akin to the suggestion of the chief justice that Jamaican passports should be free.

So while NIDS should be welcome, we should not be willing to accept any and any NIDS, and the questions asked by Chief Justice Bryan Sykes and Justice David Batts in the recent case brought against the NIDS by the People's National Party remain relevant. Those questions, among other things, raise the spectre of totalitarianism and the notion that elected officials know better than the rest of the society. This mindset is antithetical to the hallmarks of accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion.

I think it is high time we shift the debate about NIDS from binary (either/or; for or against) thinking to quality, and one focused on ethos and ethics in which we ask: What kind of NIDS should we have?

The return of Wheatley

It is remarkable that nearly four months since the stepping aside/resignation of Andrew Wheatley from his Cabinet post, there has been no real replacement. I was one of a number of individuals who argued that as a chairman for one of the Jamaica Labour Party's most powerful area councils, it is almost politically suicidal for the prime minister to keep Wheatley out of the Cabinet. I speculated, as did others, that the delay in filling the post was in order to leave it vacant for the return of Wheatley. That speculation may have been correct, as Wheatley has now broken his silence and is, essentially, claiming he did nothing wrong. I am prepared to bet that that interview he gave, in which he made those claims, was not accidental in terms of either timing or content. I am predicting that he shall return.

But if I am correct then it tells us something very troubling about the quality of our governance. Wheatley admitted in the interview, and the facts show, that a number of unacceptable things happened under his watch. But the apparent narrative (which had long been in train) is that the facts that those things occurred does not make the minister personally culpable. I debated the issue of ministerial accountability with an advisor to the Government and cited the Ministerial Code of Conduct as a standard. The highly paid advisor dismissed my position, arguing that the code was never passed and at any rate it is a code, not a law.

It is instructive that the prime minister had given copies of same to all members of the Cabinet. To what end did Holness issue the code and, given the breach that has occurred in the case of Wheatley, what should be done?

If the prime minister reappoints Wheatley to the Cabinet, given what is established to have occurred under his watch, we are simply lowering the standards of governance, and the country will not be better for it. But let's see if Holness shares the view that Wheatley either did nothing wrong or nothing major – as he ruled in relation to Wheatley's involvement in the $600-million de-bushing scandal.

The emerging cloud of a Wheatley return is symptomatic of a larger issue of the quality of leadership standards to which the Government, in general, and the prime minister, in particular, is committed.

It will be recalled that the prime minister has, on two occasions, set aside the researched and considered advice of the Office of the Contractor General – one in relation to the de-bushing matter and the other in relation to a cellular licence to a company with adverse traces. The fact that the prime minister would have taken it onto himself to substitute his own findings of fact for that of a body that has quasi-judicial powers amounts to trampling on the independence of such a body. Those decisions portray an approach to leadership and governance and create antecedents and precedents which should cause concern.

An even more troubling set of antecedents and precedents are to be seen in the pre-signed letters of resignation saga for which Holness is yet to accept that he acted improperly. It is to be noted that it was after he had apologised to Christopher Tufton and Arthur Williams that he launched his appeal against the ruling of the Supreme Court which had found that he acted unlawfully. It is also to be recalled that now Justice Minister, Delroy Chuck, speaking as an expert in law, while in Opposition, had asserted that a leader of a political party against whom the court had ruled twice was not fit to be prime minister. While I can see Chuck's reasoning, my bigger concern is that I cannot find anywhere where Holness said he was wrong and that he regretted what he did. This kind of conduct gives a sense of the prime minister's attitude to the judiciary. This attitude is borne out, as well, in his appointment of the chief justice on probation, from which he later backed down under mounting pressure and threat of a lawsuit from the Jamaican Bar Association. Although Holness backed down, he had promised to apologise, but never did.

The troubling pattern I am seeing, and to which I am calling attention, is the Holness's seeming lack of discomfiture with lowering the standards of leadership and accountability in a context in which an unquestioned behavioural commitment to higher standards is demanded.

Postscript: Commendations in order

As night fell on the evening of Tuesday, October 30, 2018 I was heading into Kingston and, on reaching the section of the Mandela Highway after passing the Ferry Police Station, I noticed that I could hardly see the temporary concrete road dividers as there were no reflectors on the vast majority of them. It was dangerous and scary driving in the right east-bound lane. When I reached the end of the road I placed a Whatsapp message to the prime minister's phone, addressing him in his capacity as the minister under whose responsibility the project falls. Less than 24 hours later, the permanent secretary sent me a return Whatsapp message advising that my message had been received and that the National Works Agency had been directed to action the matter immediately. A few days later, while again travelling in the area, I noticed that the moveable concrete dividers were fitted with red and yellow reflectors. We will never know how many lives have been spared.

I applaud this kind of responsiveness, even though this should be normal. The fact is, however, that this level of responsiveness is not the way it is most times. Many calls to offices go answered, messages left are often not returned, and promised follow-ups are too often not executed.

Thank you, Prime Minister. This should be the standard.

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 four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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