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Edward Seaga's work deserves to be properly memorialised

Peter
Champagnie

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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On June 23, 2019, Jamaica's fifth Prime Minister Edward Seaga was laid to rest at National Heroes' Park. If my mother, Helen Champagnie, were alive, his funeral would not have missed her. Equally, she would not have missed those who now unreservedly sing his praises, but in past times could not resist a degree of schadenfreude on the occasions of his electoral defeat.

In the period leading up to the 1980 General Election my mother worked as a secretary at 20 Belmont Road, the Jamaica Labour Party headquarters. She interacted closely with people such as Dr Mavis Gilmore, Dr Percival Broderick, Prudence Kidd-Deans, Bruce Golding, many others, and, yes, Seaga himself. At the time of her death, in 2014, down to the 13 dogs on her farm were Seaga loyalists. It is therefore not surprising that given my mother's strong political views, and the very close bond that I had with her, I in my formative years at university in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw Edward Seaga and the Jamaica Labour Party as the preferred choice to be in Government.

Fortuitously, near the end of the pursuit of my law degree one Sunday afternoon I met the now president of the Senate, Tom Tavares-Finson, whilst he was doing a house-to-house campaign in my neighbourhood in St Andrew. His political rival then was none other than the now 'Acting' Minister of Education Karl Samuda. The result of me meeting Tavares-Finson eventually saw me joining his and that of George Soutar's law practice. This, however, was preceded by my first-hand experience on the political hustings in support of various JLP candidates. Out of this experience came the privilege of meeting Edward Seaga.

One such occasion was a late afternoon on election day in 1997. He was in Tivoli Gardens at his office. The mood was sombre as by then it was clear that the JLP was again on its way to another electoral defeat. On seeing Seaga I had expected to experience from him little or no acknowledgement, with the full understanding on my part that he would be preoccupied with what was unfolding in terms of own political life. My expectations were not met. Instead, Seaga greeted me warmly and, immediately thereafter, his major concern was whether I had eaten anything for that day. He then pointed me to the lunch area. His concern for my well-being at the time, be it as a result then of my naturally thin and emaciated appearance or otherwise, struck a chord in me. How could this man be concerned with such mundane matters at this period of his political life? I was impressed.

Another memorable encounter with Seaga was in 2001 moments prior to his appearance at the first West Kingston Commission of Enquiry chaired by retired Justice Julius Isaac.

At a meeting of his New Kingston Office, Seaga disclosed the general approach that he would be taking at the enquiry. On this, a point of law arose which saw me having a different interpretation from that shared by him. Notwithstanding that I was the least at the apostles at the meeting, I thought it important to make my voice audible enough for the people sitting immediately beside me to hear, and for that person to be my confidant. The next thing I heard was my confidant blurting out to Seaga: “Sir, I think young Champagnie has something to say.” I recall Seaga looking up at me with a twitching of his face and saying, “Yes, what is it?” Having heard my concerns, his response was terse with a strong disagreeable tone. Looking back now, I do believe that I may well have been set up for that one by my trusted confidant. It didn't end there, though.

During a brief recess of the meeting Seaga, armed with a legal precedent, called me aside and sought to explain his position. His approach was not dogmatic, but instead was one of a sincere desire to win me over. As I was in 1997, I was again impressed with him.

Seaga was an extraordinary man. In paying tribute to his life and legacy, Leader of the Opposition Dr Peter Phillips noted that his death represents the end of an era. He is, of course, correct. However, that era should be properly memorialised in more ways than one for posterity.

What say us, then, to an Edward Seaga Library or Museum? Either institution would, after all, be the perfect tribute to a man who himself has been the architect of so many national institutions. Then again, of what value would this be really, since 24 Tucker Avenue remains virtually unknown and rarely visited by the public? Yes, 24 Tucker Avenue, the former residence and now museum of Sir Alexander Bustamante. On display at this museum are original correspondence between John F Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Alexander Bustamante. Clothing, artefacts, and insignia of the Order of National Hero are all on display, even personal letters of Sir Alexander Bustamante to his then secretary Miss Longbridge. All these are yet to be seen by many Jamaicans. The preservation of our history and heritage are important and should, whenever possible, be institutionalised. This, I am sure, Seaga would not have had any disagreement with me as he did at our meeting in 2001.

At the risk of being labelled a tribalist, I respectfully submit that, to date, Edward Seaga is the greatest prime minister this country has produced and, arguably, akin to his seemingly dichotomous personality, the worst politician ever. He, of all prime ministers, has had the greatest challenge and rose to the occasion without fear, favour or malice. By 1980 Jamaica's economy was at its worst ever in our history. Our social infrastructure was in shambles. The Cold War had stifled our political maturity and threatened our stability as a nation. Seaga turned all this around in a positive direction. In strict political terms however, to his detriment, he at the same time took politics out of politics when any shrewd politician would have done otherwise for the sake of political power.

To you, Sir, Edward Phillip George Seaga, I salute you. May your soul rest in peace.

Peter Champagnie, JP, is an attorney-at-law. Send comments to the Observer or peter.champagnie@gmail.com.


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