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Holness's many missed opportunities

Canute Thompson

Sunday, August 05, 2018

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The office of prime minister is one of moral leadership, as Eric Goldman (1952) recounts Teddy Roosevelt saying of the US presidency. With this high bar for leadership, a prime minister is expected to be purposeful, swift, and decisive in the decisions and actions he takes on issues related to the conduct of those over whose performance he has direct control.

Above all, the preservation of the moral authority of the office depends on keeping one's word. It is in this regard that Prime Minister Andrew Holness has repeatedly failed, and thus has missed one opportunity after another to show that he is committed to doing differently than his predecessors in relation to weaknesses in governance and moral leadership of which he aggressively criticised his predecessors.

Holness has shown, and continues to show himself weak and indecisive in his latest set of failures. Among them his bowing to public pressure concerning the continued presence of Dr Andrew Wheatley in his Cabinet. He did not have the guts to take responsibility for the actions for which he ought to be personally and directly responsible by asserting that he has relieved Wheatley of his Cabinet position.

In this latest case, as when Wheatley was stripped of the energy portfolio, the action was not owned by the prime minister. In that former case, Wheatley agreed with Cabinet to give up the energy portfolio after negotiation, and in this latter case Wheatley decided to step aside after consultation with the prime minister. In the end, what has been indelibly recorded in history is that the prime minister vacillates, bundles, leaves things to fester, and does not take charge when it matters most.

As I stated in an earlier piece, the prime minister showed that he is the undisputed leader of the party when he reshuffled his Cabinet recently — relegating his former rival for leader and finance minister to a less senior ministry (not likely by consent on Shaw's part), as well as removing portfolio responsibilities from two veterans (Karl Samuda and Mike Henry — the latter who himself had challenged Holness's mentor Edward Seaga for leadership of the party), but what is now apparent is that the prime minister is being influenced by a not-so-hidden fact of Wheatley's power base.

Words without action

But, despite his evident waffling and indecisiveness on matters of corruption, Prime Minister Holness, with words, not action, would wish to seek to convince the country that he is committed to anti-corruption, transparency, efficiency, good governance, and accountability. I respectfully submit that a mountain of evidence shows anything but a leader who is decisive when it comes to the foregoing values — the effect of which is the erosion of the moral authority of the office which he holds.

Despite missing one opportunity after another to show he has the steely resolve to tackle the big issue of public corruption, the prime minister turns to the country after each missed opportunity and proclaims by tweet or a big speech that he is committed and claims to be keeping his word. One of those tweets was put out on July 20, 2018, which states:

“Our Government must stand visibly and demonstrably in support of transparency, good governance, and with a firm stance against corruption. I will make it a standing practice that all members of the Cabinet are exposed to good governance training and practices.”

That tweet was made the same week that the grouping of organisations had written to the prime minister demanding certain decisive actions to stem the haemorrhaging of public trust. The reality is that it was the very fact of the prime minister's failure to “stand visibly and demonstrably in support of transparency, good governance, and …firm(ly) against corruption” which had led to the group's letter.

Following the meeting with the group on July 31, the Office of the Prime Minister put out a statement extolling the virtues of the prime minister and his commitment to anti-corruption and calling on the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) to clean up corruption in their ranks, referencing the latter issue as one of the things discussed at the meeting. This appears to be that, having challenged the prime minister on matters of corruption, he simply called out the PSOJ in response. But what is truly remarkable is that not only did the report of the meeting fail to mention any concession or acknowledgement of shortcoming on the part of the prime minister, but the meeting singularly failed to produce any concrete action that will serve to prevent a recurrence of all that has taken place over the past three months. Still, according to one report: “The meeting ended on a positive note.”

Missed opportunities

In order to appreciate the enormity of the lost opportunities in the Wheatley/Petrojam saga, we need to look at the many missed opportunities which preceded. See table.

What cannot be overlooked is that there are consequences for these missed opportunities. There are at least three ways in which Holness's missed opportunities to show a different kind of leadership and maintain the moral authority of his high office will hurt Jamaica.

In the first place he will suffer declining public respect and tolerance, and thus risk being a lame duck prime minister. But, assuming that when Holness leaves office he returns to lead the Opposition, given the reputation he would have acquired of being indecisive on matters of corruption, if he fails to salvage his image he would be equally or even more ineffectual in speaking on corruption.

The Achilles heel of the People's National Party (PNP) is the fact that it too had its share of scandals, thus many question its moral authority to be taking the Government to task. But our constitution and governance arrangements give the Opposition the role of holding the Government accountable. The PNP has to work through how it will maintain credibility in doing its work, but it must do its work.

My recommendation, which I have made before, is that the PNP should come clean on its own past, while setting out very concrete steps for preventing recurrence. But, at the same time, the PNP is encouraged to continue carrying out its constitutionally assigned duties and responsibilities.

A second consequence of Holness's missed opportunities lies in what would happen if the electorate gives his party a second term in office without Holness showing that he is more than a mere talker, and not an actor, on matters of public waste, corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and administrative bungling. If Holness gets a second term without changing course then the prospect for an even more corrupt Government looms.

Thirdly, Holness's missed opportunities which have effectively lowered the bar on leadership makes it easy for his successor to operate by the lowest standards of leadership. The responsibility of a leader, with all his or her human frailties and imperfections, is to leave an office in a better, not a worse state, than that which he or she inherited. I am not sure that anyone can honestly express confidence that Prime Minister Holness is raising, or has raised, the profile of what it means to be prime minister of Jamaica.

As I have shown in the accompanying table, there are some situations in which the lost opportunity is lost forever, but there are some which are redeemable. I urge the prime minister to seek to redeem those opportunities.

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

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