Tue | Jun 19, 2018

Editorial: In a state of anarchy | Timid leadership and lazy parliament

Published:Sunday | January 7, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Among the many vexing issues with which Jamaicans had to contend this past week, two acknowledgements which, though not the most dramatic, were particularly troubling to this newspaper.

One was the suggestion by Horace Chang, a senior government minister and general secretary of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), that the Holness administration was quite ready for a new round of Vale Royal Talks. Tomorrow, the Cabinet, if it gets around to it, in-between discussing the fraught wage negotiations with public sector unions, will determine the proximate dates for meetings between the Government and the Opposition. Having those dates, however, doesn't automatically mean the beginning of the talks. There will have to be, we assume, discussion with the People's National Party (PNP) to ensure that the dates are feasible and, critically, that there is agreement on the agenda.

The second matter was the Opposition politician Ronald Thwaites' observation in his column in this newspaper that "every meeting of the House of Representatives started late this year (2017)". Often, according to Mr Thwaites, there is a no quorum, that is 16, or a quarter, of the 63 members the House, required for the session to start. The delay is usually because of the absence of a minister, including the PM.

Mr Thwaites went on: "Although an outlined agenda for each sitting is sometimes available, at best the night before we meet, this is subject to whimsical change and there is seldom enough time to prepare reasoned debate. The quality shows."

These matters are important. For, to a large extent, they signal why Jamaica's situation is at it is, and the country remains on this headlong march deeper into its state of anarchy.

The Vale Royal Talks, named for the venue at which they have taken place, have been held sporadically since the 1990s, usually at times of stresses in the society that political leaders felt were best defused with bi-partisan intervention. The worsening state of crime in Jamaica is precisely the kind of issue for which the Vale Royal Talks ought to be useful in helping to build a national consensus for a solution.

Barely a week into 2018, perhaps a score of persons has already been murdered in Jamaica. Last year, there were over 1,600 homicides, an increase of nearly 20 per cent on 2016, the highest since 2009. Just as significant and frightening, is the brazenness and sense of impunity with which the murderers seem to operate.

Vale Royal can't be about robbing or extricating the Government from its responsibility of leadership. But in a society where parties are evenly matched and support is often of tribal intensity, it provides a forum to depoliticise issues, and none requires this more than crime. It was in part for this reason that in March 2016, at the start of his premiership, we urged Prime Minister Andrew Holness, with his slim parliamentary majority, to get Vale Royal going again, particularly on the matters of crime and corruption, and to expand the process by bringing the private sector to the table. We did so again, last September, when the murder count was 1,200, panic was deepening in the society and the Government was under pressure to find solutions to the crisis.

In early December, Prime Minister Holness, in response to remarks of the Opposition leader, Peter Phillips, on the need to come to terms with political misbehaviour of the past that helped shape today's problems, promised to reconvene Vale Royal. What has surprised this newspaper, given all that has gone before, is the seeming absence of urgency on the part of the administration to build the bi-partisan consensus and the broader national mobilisation to confront and arrest this state of anarchy. The head of government must take ownership of this process.

The absence of a sense of mission in confronting crime and the lackadaisical approach to the country's legislative affairs, as outlined by Mr Thwaites, are merely different sides of a same coin. It suggests an inability, beyond declarations by rote, by political leadership to internalise the idea that Jamaicans not only want, but deserve the best, and their incapacity to deliver on that promise. It is a long-standing failure of leadership, across administrations, that Mr Holness still has an opportunity to up-end.