Mon | May 27, 2019

Carolyn Cooper | Can Holness really disown Spencer?

Published:Sunday | March 25, 2018 | 12:04 AMCarolyn Cooper

State Minister of Finance Ruddy Spencer put himself into a big ants nest last Sunday. No mind English! ‘Ants’ has to be plural. One ant is not a nest. In his now-infamous remarks at a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) meeting in Bellefield, Manchester, Spencer declared:

“Labourites, we have a system where we will now have our own chairman of RADA ... .”

Spencer didn’t have to say one more word. That single sentence was damning enough. The chairman of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) should not be owned by Labourites ­ or Comrades, for that matter! The statutory body should operate in the interest of all farmers, without the influence of partisan politics.

According to its website, “RADA is committed to promoting the development of agriculture in Jamaica, as the main engine of economic growth in rural communities, through an efficient, modern and sustainable extension service which will enhance the national economy and improve the quality of life of rural farm families.”

All the same, Spencer felt comfortable enough to speak his mind in the company of his fellow Labourites. So he pressed along: “Where you never have a parish manager for RADA, you now have a Labourite being the chairman of RADA, so whatever problems you use to have ... .” Spencer was even interrupted by a reminder that the media were present. His response: “No, no, I want them hear.”

A sensible man in the audience gave Spencer a sharp warning he should have heeded: “Mind weh yuh a talk seh!” Spencer didn’t mind and flung himself over the precipice: “Whatever problems you used to have, I believe now most of those problems would have gone away because you have your own manager to assist in the management of RADA ... .”

HYPOCRISY OR DISCRETION

Spencer has clearly killed his political career. But he refuses to resign. As far as he’s concerned, his remarks were not political. They’ve been unfairly given a “tribal interpretation”, presumably by partisan PNP supporters. Furthermore, Spencer claims that his statement was taken out of context. So what is the right context? Not politics?

Spencer brazenly said, “Labourites, we have a system.” This is the crux of the matter. Politics in Jamaica has always been tribal. The mistake Spencer made was to tell it like it is.

Proverbial wisdom reminds us that is not everything good to eat good to talk. As a politician, you really can’t go to a public meeting and admit that your party is going to look after your own people.

Call it hypocrisy or discretion! The system is not designed to operate in such a vulgar way. There should be the pretence that a statutory body like RADA is operating in a principled way. The leader of the Jamaica Labour Party and prime minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, cannot appear to defend his minister’s remarks.

According to a Gleaner article published last Wednesday, the prime minister declared: “I think it is a very unfortunate and inappropriate statement and I am expecting that Minister Spencer will make a fulsome withdrawal of the statement and will do everything in his powers to ensure that no such statement is made again.” Spencer’s statement may very well be “unfortunate” and “inappropriate”. More to the point, is it untrue?

TELLING THE TRUTH

The prime minister’s choice of words is not reassuring. The repetition of “statement” is troubling. True, the statement is the obvious issue. But what about the underlying reality to which the statement speaks? The prime minister seems more concerned about the optics of the statement rather than its substance: whether or not a JLP chairman of RADA is going to be acting in the exclusive interest of Labourites. Wink, wink!

I would have expected the prime minister himself to have made a much more fulsome statement condemning both Spencer’s statement and partisan politics more broadly. But is that expecting too much? Can the prime minister really distance himself from Spencer? Can he disown an MP who seems to be telling the truth about how the Jamaica Labour Party is actually operating?

We have a political system that appears to allow the ruling party to use public funding covertly to run election campaigns. In November 2016, $800 million was allocated by the Government for debushing. And that figure included a huge increase of $200 million over the original budget. According to a Gleaner article published on January 17, 2017, “The debushing programme developed into a political issue, as it was launched 10 days before November’s local government elections, and the opposition party has maintained that the programme sidelined elected representatives.”

In 2017, as the by-election in SE St Mary loomed, the Government spent $250 million on infrastructure in the constituency. That was the official figure. According to the Opposition, it was twice as much. Was the timing of Government spending intended to buy votes and ensure that “our own” would win? I suppose Ruddy Spencer would say that this question reveals a tribal interpretation of the facts, and it’s all taken out of context. Fi real!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com