Andrew in a pickle, JLP in hot water
The People's National Party (PNP) is having the best of times. Its opposition party is in disarray and disunity, many believe, with that party leader embattled and embarrassed.
With alleged assassination plots against Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader Andrew Holness now said to be pure mischief - perhaps internal 'dutty politics' mischief - and the Constitutional Court ruling as unconstitutional Holness' use of undated resignation letters to get rid of dissident senators, it is the worst of times for the JLP. Delroy Chuck, just brought back from the cold a few days ago, jumped at the opportunity to call together fellow members of parliament to deal with Holness' case (however, you want to interpret that sentence!).
Holness' first reaction to the court judgment last Friday was ill advised, ill thought through and provocative. Hearing his hubristic attorney, Georgia Gibson-Henlin, on Nationwide that evening, I could understand how he could have been so badly misled to issue that statement to the media. Holness said in that first response: "... Given the complex legal and constitutional issues involved, we are still analysing the declaration ... ." There was nothing complex about the ruling, except what was concocted in some people's heads. But in all that 'complexity', there was one thing which seemed clear to him: "It must be noted carefully that the decisions summarised in the judgment do not disturb the present composition in the Senate." He was very badly advised.
By the next day, the Andrew Holness I know came back. He was sober, more temperate, more reflective - more humble. He issued the statement that he should have issued in the first place: "The Constitutional Court has ruled that the request, procurement and use of pre-signed and undated letters of resignation is inconsistent with the constitution," he said, unflinchingly, finally acknowledging what the court had stated unequivocally. In that release, he confessed that "the entire situation is regrettable", admitting, frankly, "the embarrassment caused to all of us".
NO LUCK WITH ATTORNEYS
He then assured us of his motive: He did not intend to act contrary to the Constitution. He was misguided by his attorney then (as he seemed to have been by present counsel. He doesn't seem to have luck with attorneys.) Importantly, in that Saturday release, he finally accepted that "the ruling by the Constitutional Court is of such great importance ..." that he referred it to a team of attorneys to advise him on any implications it may have. A day before, he was very clear that "the decisions summarised in the judgment do not disturb the present composition of the Senate".
By Sunday, Andrew had gone even further, saying in church: "It is important to acknowledge that if I have done something wrong or if my action has been declared wrong, then I have a duty to apologise to those I have wronged." Calling Arthur Williams and Chris Tufton his friends (which some will call rank hypocrisy in church), Holness said if it were to be shown that he needed to make "corrections", he would do so.
I have always maintained Andrew Holness is not arrogant and has the capacity to step back and analyse his own actions, and to wheel and come again. That's why I maintain it is never wise to write him off. I think his enemies underestimate him. And I firmly believe that the reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated!
What began as a few calls for his resignation soon fizzled as it became clear there was nothing in that court action demanding that. Andrew's intention, I accept, was not to pervert the Constitution. Indeed, I accept that his motive was to prevent a situation where senators could vote against the party on that crucial issue of the Caribbean Court of Justice, which his party has strongly opposed. (With absolutely no justification in my view. Such an unworthy party position to waste this crisis on!)
PNP senators will boast that they have never signed, and would never sign, any undated resignation letters and that their party leader would never demand that. And that spirit is, indeed, foreign to the PNP. PNP senators will even draw attention to their record of criticising bills supported by their party colleagues in the Lower House. But don't mistake that for complete, unfettered independence.
On the big issues, senators on both sides are expected to, and do, take party positions. The PNP is not as crude about it as Andrew was. But when it comes time to vote on the CCJ, look how many PNP MPs and senators will vote against their party line. Yeah, yeah, I know I can't prove every one of them does not genuinely hold the party's position. But do you really believe that any senator who acts regularly against his party would have a chance of being reappointed? Really? There is a lot of idealism expressed in that 84-page court judgment, which I read very carefully.
Hear the learned judges: "It appears ... that the Constitution intended that once appointed to the Senate, each of the eight such appointees (in the case of the Opposition) would operate with a free will. Their decisions should be arrived at because it is their decision ... . A decision by a senator to follow or obey the instruction of the leader of the Opposition should be arrived at because that is the wish or desire of the senator."
It is clear that the judges hold the view that the Constitution intended senators to be independent, to be their own men and women, not beholden to party positions. In ruling Andrew's action of having undated resignation letters unconstitutional, the learned judges were making a larger philosophical point that PNP senators and others must not miss: They hold the view that the Constitution does not protect party positions but individual volition. To the point where "the constitutional imperative" holds that a senator cannot "fetter his own free will". So Arthur Williams' conceiving this unconstitutional scheme is irrelevant, the court ruled, as is the fact that the JLP senators signed without a gun to their heads.
The court held that "the Constitution has given no express power to remove a senator". The court even agreed that Holness' "desire to have only loyalists in the Senate and, therefore, to remove those who did not support him in the internal election can be considered a legitimate political motivation" . But in the court's view, the Constitution gives neither him nor any other party leader any power to appoint or dismiss senators on the basis of party loyalty.
So do you think, following this view, that our party leaders have been following the letter and spirit of the Constitution, as interpreted by these learned judges? Andrew might have been clumsy with his move to ensure conformity, but have our political leaders been guiltless and pure in appointing senators who are just there to serve 'the public interest'?
Let nothing detract from Andrew's blunder in having these undated resignation letters, which he himself has apologised for and must not go back on. But there are larger issues about our political culture and our history of partisanship that we must bring into the discourse.
As for how the JLP and Andrew Holness will fare, this debacle has done everything to reinforce the image of the JLP as a factious, bitterly divided, constantly warring tribe. It has reinforced many people's perception that "these people" are nowhere ready to govern. If Portia were to call an election now, many believe the JLP would be wiped out.
Last Thursday's Gleaner, whose Page 2 was filled with the JLP saga, also had a Page Three story reminding us about Tivoli and Dudus, with a photo of former Prime Minister Bruce Golding being grilled, juxtaposed to a photo of Peter Phillips telling diplomats about his Government's moving on to passing its seventh International Monetary Fund test, and other good news. The West Kingston commission of enquiry, masterfully marshalled by attorneys for the security forces dramatising the threats the Tivoli garrison posed, as well as JLP internal turmoil, has overtaken discussion about the economy, unemployment and crime.
But I predict that Andrew will ride out this crisis, that the party will rally around him, and dissenters like Vaz, Chuck and others will be marginalised, while Chris Tufton will play his cards deftly, cause no public fuss, and move up in the party, looking to his future.