Tue | Oct 24, 2017

Martin Henry | Thanks to PNP and a couple of members

Published:Saturday | September 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
PNP President Portia Simpson Miller.
1
2

As the cash-strapped political organisation struggles to the end today of a difficult annual conference, we should thank the People's National Party (PNP) for its contributions to the country over its 78 years. Despite the ups and downs of performance and purity. Reform and leadership were high on the agenda running up to their annual conference.

But I want to specifically thank the party for its large but unintended contribution to campaign-finance reform and to the broader issue of financing and regulating political parties in Jamaica and to the even larger issue of corruption in governance practices.

The leaked treasurer's report to the National Executive Council complaining that high-ranking party officials had bypassed the central treasury of the party in the last election campaign and had solicited, collected, and spent money from donors has set off a firestorm both within the party and across the country. The Office of the Contractor General has taken an interest in the matter, as have the police anti-corruption unit. The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica has met on the matter and declared that its members would be withholding further donations pending a clean-up of the system.

The upshot of all this is that these issues on which a lot of effort has been expended by advocacy groups with only slow and uncertain progress have now been catapulted on to the front page of public consciousness, must be responded to by the political parties - despite the deafening silence of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) - and must now be taken forward by the Parliament in a far more decisive fashion. The leader of government business in the House of Representatives, Derrick Smith, says proposal documents received from the Electoral Commission last week will be sent to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel "for their attention and urgent action".

The internal troubles of the PNP, dragged into the public domain, has in short order delivered results for reform that could not be paid for by reform advocates, and which cannot now be reversed. The issue of state financing of political parties to reduce the risks of big money and tainted money determining election outcomes, which has faced strong popular resistance here despite its use in many other countries, is now also back on the agenda and in a much more favourable light tinged with orange.

And we mustn't forget to thank Dr Karl Blythe who is expected to be blown away in the internal poll for the party presidency. But that doesn't matter. The media, and the party itself, which rolled out its heavy artillery in defence of a mosquito attack against the incumbent leader, quickly forgot Dr Blythe's clear and declared purpose for challenging Portia Simpson Miller for the leadership of the party. Blythe wanted to demonstrate that challenging an incumbent was OK, especially one that he felt was no longer competent and was a liability, and to open the door for a more winnable challenger to emerge in the near future should Mrs Simpson Miller not get the touch of her Master that it's time to go.

Clear and courageous. But from all appearances a wasted effort. The front runners have wimpishly announced that they'll wait while following a leader in which everybody knows they have lost confidence. The four then sitting vice-presidents, running up to this weekend's conference, second-tier leaders from among whom the top leader normally should emerge, Noel Arscott, Angela Brown Burke, Fenton Ferguson, and Wykeham McNeill, announced that they were Four4Portia. We're not likely to see much internal 'reform' with a line-up of lackey leaders like this.

 

THE REAL BIG MAN

 

But the real big man for kudos is Noel Arscott. Arscott, while pumping up Comrades in Black River earlier this month and warning of street protests, declared that "the Jamaica Labour Party has been victimising PNP people ever since they came to office. They have fired a number of PNP people since they came to office. They cancel people contract. They fire people and they terminate people without just cause."

Even a child just entering primary school this September could pick up what Arscott missed in the passion of his political pontificating. So the PNP, when in Government, had packed the 'neutral' public service with PNP people, which he is now accusing the Labour Party in Government of sweeping out. He didn't even bother to accuse the JLP of putting in their people. If the JLP Government is, in fact, cleaning the public service of partisans and attempting to build its neutrality, then all credit to them. But our nasty political history suggests no such noble prospect.

Political victimisation and its twin, political violence, and the two political parties perpetrating both, have been with us from the founding of the modern Jamaican state with the 1944 general election, the first under universal adult suffrage.

Here's Edward Seaga, then minister of development and welfare, on political victimisation in his contribution to the first Budget Debate in independent Jamaica, speaking on June 13, 1962: "There is a party division arising out of victimisation, and I do not use that word lightly, Mr Speaker, I use it on the basis of facts and information that I have. I use it on the basis of the hundreds of people who have come to me and said that, 'I am unable to hold a job in a certain government department because I am known to be a Labourite."

Seaga pulled from his pocket a letter he said he had received from a man complaining that he had been pushed out of his job at the Department of Housing from PNP victimisation by the previous government. Rattling off case after case, Seaga concluded that the country had never known as much victimisation as under the previous PNP administration.

Mr Seaga's solution, which he said the Bustamante JLP Government was then employing on the Hunt's Bay Scheme and the Sandy Gully Scheme, was not neutrality, but "50 per cent of the work for them, and 50 per cent of the work for us". A formula that has generated endless partisan bloodshed since then.

 

COMMISSION OF ENQUIRY

 

One of the first major acts of the Michael Manley PNP Government that came into power in the February 29 election of 1972 was to establish the daCosta Commission of Enquiry, which held its first sitting a mere three and a half months later on June 14. The commission was to probe victimisation, corruption and waste in the previous JLP Government.

Running up to the election, Mr Manley, as leader of the Opposition, delivered his famous 'Power for the People' contribution to the 1971 Budget Debate on July 7. He opened up, saying, "We have had nine years of the present government and election is drawing near, and all are agreed that this is a time for stocktaking, a time to estimate the total effect upon Jamaica of all that has been done by the Government in these nine years."

Victimisation naturally figured in the Manley stocktaking. He said he understood the "temptation" and the "tremendous pressure". "One understands," he said, "that the henchman, the traditional supporter is going to expect special favours, nobody is pretending that the problem does not exist."

When it was government work, the skewed distribution with supporters of the party in government getting more, Mr Manley said, was understandable. "My quarrel is about what is happening in Jamaica today ... . We have now seen a situation where it is not only that in the giving out of government work that there is favouritism and victimisation of others, but what has now happened, the employment processes of the Ministry of Labour itself have been corrupted to ensure that only supporters of one side can get jobs."

Manley then proceeded to outline how the system works. When people register at the employment bureaux run by the Ministry of Labour, secret lists are prepared by the "henchman of the party" of those who are ruling party supporters, and employers are then pressured to hire from that list.

"We have got to find a system in which victimisation through government, the Ministry of Labour sources come to an end, and that we have got to find a formula for some kind of fair distribution of work between the two sides," Mr Manley concluded.

Political victimisation is not today. Professor Obika Gray has a section on Patronage and Political Violence in his book, which I often quote from Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica. In it, he said of Alexander Bustamante in the 1940s, "In his multiple roles as head of government, as [KSAC] mayor, and as party and trade union leader, Bustamante with the assistance of his associates in government, controlled the levers of both local and national government and used them to reward only political supporters ... .

"The discriminatory use of state largesse obviously victimised PNP supporters and those workers affiliated with the [PNP-attached] TUC.

"But the onset of this politics under Bustamante went beyond merely rewarding loyalists with jobs. It also introduced the practice of 'political unionism' which linked recruitment for government jobs to union membership."

PNP-TUC resistance, and the JLP effort to subdue it, sowed the seeds of political violence in the 1940s, with "partisans of the parties and rival trade unions battling in the streets of Kingston and clashing outside government buildings ... ."

Noel Arscott, a vice-president of the party, in 2016, says PNP street protests against alleged counter-victimisation by a JLP government may become necessary.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.