Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Debaters, non-debaters, and master baiters

Published:Monday | February 15, 2016 | 2:23 AMMichael Abrahams
Michael Abrahams

The reluctance of the People’s National Party (PNP) to participate in the national debates is disappointing. Both parties signed a memorandum of understanding with the Jamaica Debates Commission (JDC) late last year, agreeing to participate. Early this year, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) indicated its readiness and willingness to sign the relevant documents to finalise arrangements for the events. The PNP, however, was reluctant to commit.
Then came the impasse between the prime minister and the opposition leader. Andrew Holness presented what he called a “10-point plan”. In it, he pledged to reform several agencies and systems, digitise government records, rebuild town centres and fix the country’s water infrastructure, among other things. Portia Simpson Miller, however, dismissed Mr Holness’ plan as a “10-point con”, and quoted part of Bob Marley’s ‘Crazy Baldhead’, saying, “Here comes the con man, coming with his con plan. We won’t take no bribe, we’ve got to stay alive.”
Mr Holness responded to the prime minister’s remarks, but she was offended by his rebuttal, demanding an apology and threatening legal action. As stated in a full-page statement in The Gleaner on February 12, 2016 (Page C11), Mr Holness’ description of Mrs Simpson Miller as “the biggest con artist in Jamaica” is seen by the party as “a defamatory and disrespectful characterisation of the prime minister of Jamaica”. The question was then asked: “If he describes the prime minister as “Jamaica’s biggest con artist”, why should anyone wish the prime minister to have dialogue with him?”
This stance by the PNP is perplexing for many reasons. First, trash talk among politicians is common on campaign trails leading up to elections, with candidates often dismissing their opponents and their promises to the populace and baiting one another. I guess you could say that politicians are ‘master baiters’.
Second, the prime minister threw the first stone by calling Mr Holness’ plan a “10-point con”, and used an iconic Bob Marley song to suggest that he is a con man. Third, in 2013, the prime minister said that the opposition leader “should declare whether he's an enemy of the state”.  An enemy of the state is a person accused of certain crimes against the state, such as treason, and such a remark was seen by many to be defamatory. At that time, an apology was neither offered nor demanded, with Holness dismissing her "ridiculous comments".
Fourth, persons in her own party have publicly said denigrating things about her, with no talk of apologies or lawsuits.
In addition to that apology demand, the PNP is also insisting that, prior to debating, Mr Holness apologise for remarks made by him after the shooting at the JLP rally in Sam Sharpe Square; address comments made by Robert Montague suggesting that Jamaica’s importation of oil is linked to ISIS; explain his meeting with a convicted sex offender; respond to the presigned letter issue; and answer questions regarding the building of his house and the purchasing of the land on which it is built.
And even if these conditions are met, the PNP is still not guaranteed to debate, as it rejects participating in the events in the proposed format, requesting town hall-style debates, and declaring that it doesn’t wish to be questioned by journalists.
The statements made by Mr Holness and Mr Montague are not to be taken lightly, and they should be confronted appropriately about them. Some of Mr Holness’ actions are also cause for concern, and the questions posed regarding his house appear to be valid. If he is to run for the highest office in the country, transparency must be demanded of him, and there are even persons within his own party who have questions about his mansion.
If there is nothing shady about his house, there should be no problem providing the requested information, which he is yet to do. These issues need to be addressed, but are not valid reasons to refuse to debate.
Some cynics have trivialised the relevance of debates in the political process, but they are an important part of the modern democratic process. They give us an opportunity to not just hear the plans of our political leaders and see them defend their proposals, programmes and manifestos, but also allow us to assess their ability to think on their feet and handle pressure.
It is easy to persuade the party faithful from a political platform, because in that forum, presenters are not challenged, and can get away with misinformation and propaganda. But during a debate, this is not so easy to do.
Debates serve to assist us in determining who we might want to lead us. Diehard party members already know who they are voting for, and many people's minds are already made up and will not change. But some of us are still undecided, and the debates are a good way to see where some of our political representatives stand on certain issues.
The PNP’s stance, in my opinion, is petty, disingenuous, and disrespectful to the Jamaican people. They take us for ‘big head bud weh born behine cow’. Displays such as this are exactly why some people refuse to vote. To demand transparency from the opposition leader, while avoiding a forum in which their own accountability will be scrutinised, reeks of hypocrisy. We the people deserve better than this.
 - Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.