Mon | May 29, 2017

Martin Henry | A prime minister’s workload

Published:Sunday | March 12, 2017 | 3:00 AM
Martin Henry

Among the things we outsiders learned about prime minister-cum-Gleaner editor Andrew Holness from his paper on Thursday, March 2, was that he is working like a beast. Working, working, working like his Mama P before she disowned him for bad behaviour. And we are supposed to praise him, praise him, praise him for bad work behaviour.

The man goes to bed as late as 3 or 4 a.m. and is usually back in the office by 9 a.m. - when it's going to be the office. And he is usually the last person to leave the office where he does "quite a bit of the technical work" himself.

Gleaner photographer Ricardo Makyn tagged him for 15 hours on February 15 from 5:45 a.m. to 8:50 p.m. when the dog-tired Makyn abandoned the prime minister, who was still at it. And this was not one of his busiest days, his security detail told the cameraman.

This is a work pattern that not even the cow cod soup, which he loves, will be able to sustain without serious costs. And, as the calypsonians will remind him, him have homewuk fi do. He should check with his mentor, divorcÈe Edward Seaga, about the costs of such bad work behaviour to family life, something that Eddie has spoken about publicly.

 

Unnecessary things

 

And the pressured prime minister has been spending a lot of quality time doing unnecessary things - like editing newspapers. Controlling The Gleaner two Thursdays ago provided copious brag space on the occasion of the first anniversary of his Government.

Mr Holness should take advice from predecessor Mama P. The splurge by her PNP Government on publishing achievements didn't save them when voters marked their X behind the screen in February 2016.

Mr Holness is also wasting time on a vast excess of ceremonial and social-type engagements. Fortunately, he has come to his senses on this one. "This year," he told the Observer at a breakfast meeting with editors, owner, and board directors of the paper, "I am going to compress that and expand the executive and legislative duties." He also has constituency duties as a member of parliament, and, hopefully, a personal life.

Jamaicans have come to expect that their leaders will turn up at all of their many and varied events. The prime minister most of all. Lazy media don't want to do much journalistic digging on the operations of Government but want ministers, and the prime minister most of all, to feed them precooked pap in press conferences and interviews. And, of course, members of the executive, the prime minister most of all, have to be chief firefighters for every problem cropping up in their portfolio areas.

I have long wondered, with the daily schedule of public engagements by ministers of Government, the prime minister most of all, which is paraded on the evening news, when do they get time to do serious office work as the political heads of ministries and chief policy architects. By the way, who remembers that the prime minister is the Minister of Economic Growth and Job Creation? That new, non-traditional superministry begging for policy cohesion, coordination, and direction?

Much of what political leaders are running up and down the place over properly falls within the purview of the public service to provide public information and solutions to problems. We do, in fact, have a couple of good examples like the National Works Agency (NWA) and how road issues are communicated and handled. One of the worst examples is how politicians regularly rush in to take charge of disaster preparedness and emergency management from the technocrats who have to tell them what to say.

 

Spokesperson needed

 

To the detriment of both politicians and public information, we have not developed the tradition of the spokesperson in government. The Office of the Prime Minister desperately needs an official spokesperson. This is not the job of the minister of information. And ministries and ministers need their own spokesperson. They are so few and so ineffective that it is easy to remember and identify a few good cases, like the late Edwin Thomas at the Ministry of Education and the current chief medical officer at the Ministry of Health, Dr Winston de la Haye, and his predecessor, Dr Marion Bullock-Ducasse. You name two others!

One of the charges levelled against the overcharged prime minister is that he has not been available in press conferences. Media should busy itself with unearthing the shenanigans of Government by alternative investigative means rather than relying on the confessions of political leaders under cross-examination in press conferences.

The prime minister wants to expand his legislative duties. Good. There is a leader of government business in the Parliament, Derrick Smith. Under Smith and his several predecessors across administrations, we have a lazy Parliament sitting regularly only one afternoon per week and only managing to pass an average of about 25 pieces of legislation each year. Very few, if any, of the legislative changes promised on the campaign trail have made it into parliamentary debate, much more into law, in the first year of the Holness Government.

If he hopes to drive transformation through legislation, it's time for the prime minister to stop cutting ribbons and turning soil and talking off his face across the country. Let custodes and other prominent citizens do it! There's a lot of business pending at Jamaica House and Gordon House. Business that he was elected and appointed to mind as his first business.

 

Will not burn out

 

But Mr Holness, leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, may not get the chance to burn out in office if he doesn't attend to the political work that got him there. "I don't think I was as active politically last year as I was the year before," he told the Observer. Kevin Sangster, kin of Prime Minister Sir Donald Sangster and genetic Labourite, in his Gleaner Letter of the Day on the very day when Holness was editor, warned, "Neglect party matters to your peril, JLP". Sir Donald, who was also minister of finance, died at 55 1/2 in Montreal, Canada, from a brain haemorrhage he got while toiling on the Budget in the seclusion of the army camp at Newcastle.

There are deep reasons for the 40-hour workweek and a long and bitter historical run-up to achieving it. Productivity and health are among the reasons. The techie prime minister should do a little Net scan on the subject one evening when he is relaxing at home with his wife and sons in the house that he designed himself and directed the building of and on which he owes a lot of money.

One does not expect a prime minister to work a strictly 40-hour week. But the drop-dead schedule that Andrew Holness is boasting about and that Jamaican prime ministers have been pushing is neither sensible nor necessary. And it is certainly not a good example for health, for family, or for managerial efficiency. Perhaps we need a law to force the prime minister and members of the Cabinet to take annual vacation leaves and to have regular down times like emergency room and critical-care workers and airline pilots are required to have. Political leaders happen to be human. Even if they, and many of the led, don't think so.

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