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Stay in your lane, Holness!

Christopher Burns

Sunday, February 18, 2018

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Prime Minister Andrew Holness is an ambitious man. He is not a snollygoster. He wants to change Jamaica. Sometimes he appears unable to lift a simple hammer. At other times, he seeks out and chooses the wrong weaponry, even as he impatiently and stubbornly races toward the dragons he intends to slay. He never learns, because his ambitions appear greater than his capacity to transport them. Therein lies the rub, alongside a prolific fountain of cascading awkwardness for the goodly prime minister.

The prime minister could do himself a favour by electing to stay in his lane. This is true, because ubiquitousness has its value. However, if misapplied, that value could also create unintended negative consequences. Put simply, Andrew Holness cannot be all things to all men, and he certainly cannot be everywhere. If only he could. He should let teachers teach, bakers bake, lawyers practise law, and preachers preach. He would quickly realise that tremendous value exists in focusing on the big picture without trying to “make the perfect the enemy of the good”.

Ambitions aside, Holness should resist the temptations to interfere inappropriately with matters outside of his purview. He should hesitate about going out of his way to show off his nascent iconoclastic tendencies. Instead, he ought to weigh the benefits of recalibrating his focus with the view to innovate, instead of reinventing the wheel. In that regard, staying in his lane would be the safest bet — a bet that could serve to advance the effectiveness of his premiership. That is particularly essential in controlling his penchant to monkey around with the constitutional construct of, and purpose for, the three separate branches of government.

Yet, it is Andrew's brazen attempts at meddling with the premise on which the separation of powers rests that some find unsettling — and with good cause. After all, we have to defend the constitutional safeguards that limit and prevent one person, or body, from having too much or absolute power — the spectre of tyrannical rule ought not to be his experiment or our fascination. Therefore, we cannot rest on our laurels, or thumb our noses and pretend that “a little more” prime ministerial power is akin to simple gratis and is somehow innocuous.

The public unease surrounding the prime minister's latest fiddling with the appointment of a chief justice is reasonable. Andrew's dalliance and attempts to molest the independence of the judiciary on the chassis of his bleak layman's understanding of jurisprudential matters — matters for which he is wholly unqualified by training and experience — deserves the pushback he has received.

In the current circumstances, a recent high court retirement caused a vacancy to exist for chief justice of Jamaica. As customary, the prime minister, after consultation with the leader of the Opposition, advised the governor general of his intention to appoint someone — in this case, Justice Bryan Sykes. Things were proceeding well until the prime minister's head “tek him” and he purposefully threw the proverbial monkey wrench into an otherwise well-organised, respected, and celebrated process. Undoubtedly, the current constitutional arrangements afford the prime minister enormous powers — recommending a chief justice is one such power. That power comes with responsibility.

A concomitant feature between that power and responsibility is for the “power holder” to distinguish between power and the authority that comes with it — even if the constitution is silent on the distinction. There are, indeed, many opportunities for the power holder (the prime minister) to pull and apply the levers and leverages he has as a consequence of the power.

Mr Prime Minister, it is balance — not experiment based on some whimsical assumptions or political sleight of hand — that becomes the essential element in exercise of the enormous power that comes with your office. Stubbornness and invectives are neither levers nor leverages in the construct of such power, but are hindrances to good governance. A good starting point to accepting this observation requires a review of your behaviour and posture over the last two weeks or so.

On the face of it, the prime minister's actions gave the impression that he had an ace up his sleeve and that by using the “temp-to-perm” probationary period he could later draw the 'Justice Sykes has not satisfied his apprenticeship' card as the basis to install someone else.

Real or imagined, rumours abound about the names of ideal political candidates that could appear on the prime minister's shortlist. Rumours are still swirling about how he was unceremoniously hoisted by his own petard when insiders leaked details of the Machiavellian plans to replace Bryan Sykes and appoint someone with strong political connections favouring his own. Alas, Holness allowed his youth and inexperience, coupled with an insatiable desire for unorthodoxy, to surpass application of common sense.

As a result, Pandora's box was flung wide open. Concerns and condemnations came from all quarters. Predictably, intellectual tribalist extraordinaire and political cultist par excellence, Teacher Higgins, for whom the prime minister, his Government and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) can do no wrong, found no fault with Andrew's template. In fact, Advisor Higgins celebrated it. Interestingly, though, he suddenly morphed into Student Higgins (demotion of sorts), but offered up the usual poppycock advocacy, buttressed by Tweedledum and Tweedledee strawman theories in defence of the indefensible. Fortunately, his proffered viewpoints were so inconsequential that they were summarily dismissed for the folly they represent. His were consistent with and typical of intellectual tribalism. For certain, it is clear from the reactions of some that “useful idiots” are still part of the polity. Clearly, their duty has always been and shall remain to parrot and propagate cock-and-bull stories with deliberate intentions to miseducate.

Members of civil society, the Church, the parliamentary Opposition, judges, the legal fraternity, everyday Jamaicans, civil libertarians, academia, as well as practitioners from the political commentariat were so consistent and unhesitant in their objections to the prime minister's proposition that their efforts won the day. We can breathe a sigh of relief as their collective approach blunted the prime minister's ill-fated attempt to undermine sound traditions.

I wonder what Edward Seaga's and Bruce Golding's views were on Andrew's infamous experimentation. Did “Champion Boy” Andrew Michael Holness consult with them ahead of his announcement?

While it is unadvisable to ascribe motives, it is fair to draw reasonable inferences based on certain actions and utterances. To me, though rumours are exactly what they are, sometimes they are not as far-fetched. In this situation, the antecedent circumstances were way too neat for reasonable people to turn a blind eye. Evidently something was afoot, and there were plans to confirm someone else as chief justice. Besides the prime minister's bout of contemporariness, the three aspects of the “trick” were already well-established: means, motive and opportunity. Hence, if rumours are anything to go by, the prime minister either lacks the political chutzpah to execute on his schema, recoiled because of the knee-jerk reaction from his ideal candidate(s), or found enough displeasure in the opprobrium that greeted his “the end justifies the means” approach to this situation.

That it took the prime minister's own Cabinet to humble him into schoolboy submission, with deflated balls in tow, on a matter that he clearly had no business interfering with beyond what was necessary, is chilling. That he went out of his way to defend his action as “unconventional” only to overrule himself must be humiliating, to say the very least. William Shakespeare, in Henry IV, Part II, could not have been more prescient than when he said, “…Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…” Sad truth, Andrew made his own crown of thorns. That 97 justices found it necessary to register their collective displeasure with the prime minister's decision to appoint Bryan Sykes, to “act” as the chief justice of Jamaica, until the prime minster satisfies himself with Sykes's performance as chief justice is unprecedented in Jamaica.

All of a sudden, in one mighty move, the prime minister made himself “monarch of all he surveys”, “Principal Evaluator” and “Leader Maximus” of the executive and judicial branches of government. Yuh think Champion Boy Andrew Michael Holness easy?

Mr Prime Minister, as a student of politics, you may find great value in Confucius's emphasis on the importance of history. Equally, you should be guided by one of his many teachings on learning wisdom: “…First, learn wisdom by reflection, which is noblest; second, learn it by imitation, which is easiest; or third, learn wisdom by experience, which is the bitterest…”

It is rather disconcerting, and otherwise serially unwise, that the prime minister continues to see possibilities where others with sounder vision, and far more depth and relevant experience, see impossibility. From the look of things, the prime minster cares little for historical context and dismissively cuffs at any inherent utilisable value that comes with precedence. For him, it seems, everything that existed prior to July 22, 1972 is useless, antiquated, and worthy of discarding. It is his wont to project his post-Independence bona fides, alongside his expertise at playing chess, as qualifications enough for effective and clever political leadership.

National leadership requires pivot, and that swing from political party stratagem to transformational leadership is a “categorical imperative” of sorts. He should not overlook this vital axle at all. For, make no bones about it, no amount of public relations — or selective endowment of gravitas — can mask the profundity of good transformational leadership or sound policy management.

Concededly, to the extent that the prime minister, as head of the executive branch, can mandate changes to the conduct of national affairs, including the smooth and efficient administration of the justice system and adherence of the rule of law, he should do so without tarry, yet, grounded in scholarship. Understanding, and dare I say accepting the truism that, “If it ain't broke, do not fix it” could go a far way.

Attempting to conflate the desire to attain greater efficiencies in the justice system with imposing himself (executive branch) in a way that could effectively change the reporting arrangements and structure of the office of chief justice to make the prime minister the chief justice's boss is just wrong and dangerous. However ambitious and attractive, not all ideas are bankable, Mr Prime Minister, and your latest antics fit perfectly in the category of unbankable ideas.

In furtherance of that bit of advice, I humbly commend to the prime minister one of Confucius's most significant personal accounts of his “spiritual” development (excerpts from The Analects). I am offering this advice against the backdrop of his being in his mid-40s, the stage at which he ought to have no hallucinations about the 'art of the possible'. Confucius said: “…At 15 years old, I set my heart on learning. At 30 years old, I firmly took my stand. At 40 years old, I had no delusions; at 50 years old, I knew the mandate of heaven. At 60 years old, my ear was attuned; and at 70 years old, I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries…” Evidently, there is still time and space for our beloved Andrew to mature and become even wiser.

Lest we forget, it was in the Supreme Court of Judicature of Jamaica, in full court, the claim #2012 HCV 06428 was heard before the Justices Courtney Daye, Marva McDonald-Bishop and David Batts. They met in the matter of the Constitution of Jamaica and the matter of an application by Arthur Williams, alleging a breach of his rights under sections 13(3) (b) Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (Constitutional Amendment) Act 2011. The matter was between Williams, the claimant, and Andrew Holness, defendant, and known broadly as the 'Pre-signed, un-dated letters authorisation and resignation from the Senate' Case.

Long story short, Holness concocted a scheme to block party dissent in the Senate on a vote that would make the Caribbean Court of Justice Jamaica's final Appellate Court, effectively replacing the UK's Privy Council. In that matter the justices concluded: “…That the pre-signed and undated letters of resignation and letters of authorisation, as well as the manner of their use to effect the resignation of senators … from the Senate of Jamaica, are inconsistent with the constitution, contrary to public policy and are, accordingly, null and void…”

Prime Minister, you have no luck at all with courthouses! Stay as far away from them as is feasible. Take leave of dabbling in legal or constitutional matters, even if your life depends on it. Do not make 'duppy fool you' about the merits of your legal arguments. Furthermore, you'd be doing yourself an enormous favour by electing to stay in your lane. Let me cut you a little slack, though, you are trying your best to make a difference. It's well appreciated. Your arguments about improvements in the administration of justice, as well as your concerns about the inefficiencies, deficiencies, and inordinate delays in the justice system are well founded, but underfunded.

As prime minister, you cannot become and forever remain “Captain Obvious”, since observation alone cannot fix the justice system. Neither can you become and forever remain “Chicken Little”, since excitability cannot fix it. What if your Government had diverted a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to win the St Mary South Eastern by-election toward the justice system? What if your Government redirects some of the monies it plans to spend to retain the St Andrew North Western seat toward the justice system? Quality jurists are needed, performance of the chief justice is essential, but court infrastructure and technology are indispensable to speedy and efficient justice.

The justice system needs investment. It starts with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The solicitor general and administrator offices need investment. The correctional services are in retreat and need investment — more so, after your party played footsie and applied political gamesmanship with the UK prison deal. The courts need investment. I agree with your broader thrust to start meaningful and systematic constitutional and justice reforms and modernisation. That notwithstanding, it behoves you to lead your Administration toward prioritisation of government spending and programmes.

You have to leave the low-hanging fruits alone, Prime Minister. Instead, turn your sights and efforts on issues that will enhance the rule of law and things that can have the greatest positive impact on people's lives.

Burnscg@aol.com

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