Wed | Nov 14, 2018

Martin Henry | Everything crash

Published:Sunday | January 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Fifty years ago, 1968, the Ethiopians were belting out Everything Crash to the pulsating beat of rocksteady, which was then replacing ska as the sound of Jamaican popular music.

Look deh now, everything crash ... .

Firemen strike!

Watermen strike!

Down to the policemen, too!

Wha' gone bad a mawnin

Caan come gooda evening, Whoi...

Every day carry bucket to the well

One day the bottom must drop out ... .

That year was a year of rolling public-sector strikes. It was the year of the Rodney Riots sparked by UWI students when the Shearer government refused lecturer and agitator Walter Rodney, a Guyanese historian, re-entry into Jamaica. Rodney's reasonings were deemed dangerous to public order.

Fifty years on, things seem to be crashing around us.

The Cabinet has just emerged dazed out of a three-day retreat to deal with runaway crime, murders specifically, public-sector salary unrest, the next Budget, and who knows what else. Our iconic cartoonists Las May and Clovis should have a field day with their usual depictions of a broke Government trying to hold together a broken ramshackle shack, the national condition.

 

MURDERS AT A GALLOP

 

Murders started the new year at a gallop; 38 in the first six days, over six a day. The police ended the old year sick and started the new year bungling traffic management at a New Year's Day party along the only roadway to the Norman Manley International Airport. Teachers were not prepared to guarantee normality for the start of the Easter school term. And nurses have been waging their own battle with the Government. All rejecting 2+2, which may add up to four, but not to a decent wage increase after years of wage freeze.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary Opposition, through its eager and forgetful newly appointed spokesman on national security, Fitz Jackson, has been squawking that Jamaica is bordering on chaos. His parliamentary and party leader is suffering from even more advanced amnesia as Peter Phillips, immediate past austerity finance minister, beats upon the Government to do better than he did in wage negotiations with public-sector workers.

Even nature seems to be giving us a beating. Unusually heavy January rains have brought flooding, landslides, and road damage on top of what came from an unusually rainy year last year.

Then the tsunami threat came on Tuesday night as an undersea earthquake happened near The Cayman Islands, 272 miles to the northwest of us. Today, January 14, is Earthquake Day commemorating the 1907 earthquake that destroyed Kingston and shook up eastern Jamaica.

Those of us who know better laughed at the pretensions of preparedness for a tsunami event. The people of Old Harbour Bay took matters into their own hands from social-media posts and tried an evacuation. Big suitcases in tow like is farin dem goin'. No alarm was heard, although the Office of Disaster Preparedness Emergency Management is insisting that the early warning system had been triggered.

 

MESSED-UP MANAGEMENT

 

The police messed up traffic management for the Sandz beach party on the Palisadoes on New Year's Day. And they have been messing up murder control for years.

We can quibble over style, but the minister has every right in law to summon to account any operational officer heading a department of government under his charge. The Police Officers' Association (POA) was out of order in the strictly technical sense of the term to have issued a statement of support for the commissioner while rebuking the minister in its news release. On this occasion, I am forced to agree with G2K, the Jamaica Labour Party affiliate, that the "attempt by Police Officers' Association to silence the minister of [national] security is not in the public interest". I go further. It is strictly an undisciplined and unlawful action on the part of armed forces of the State. And potentially quite dangerous. In every functioning democracy, security forces are under civilian political control, perhaps best exemplified in the United States where the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

I am very well aware that the police force is not exactly an army. But it is an armed state force and the indiscipline manifested by its officer corps is both shocking and dangerous. It is the members of the security forces who have no lawful public voice in the matter, not the minister to whom they report.

But as usual, no disciplinary action will be taken. The Government is terrified of bogus claims of interference with the police.

It was very noticeable that Commissioner Quallo attended the meeting to which the minister had lawfully summoned him dressed in his semi-formal workaday service uniform (which he generally wears) while his supporters, including the chairman of the POA, Supt Catherine Lord, turned up in civvies. Were they on duty? The Jamaica Constabulary Force is a uniformed armed force. Dress speaks a lot to the level of discipline in this force, which is up for transformation after 150 years. God help Minister Montague - or his successor - in cleansing this Augean Stable.

 

NO RESIGNATION NEEDED

 

Neither Commissioner Quallo nor Minister Montague needs resign over the Palisadoes parking fiasco. From an adoption of the principle of subsidiarity, the people directly in charge of that operation should bear the direct responsibility - and punishment - for its failure. Unless we are arguing a general operations failure on the part of the commissioner, or a general policy failure on the part of the minister.

The commanding officer for east Kingston, Superintendent Robert Walker, who had direct responsibility, and was pointed out in Quallo's improved report, may have been too tired from his own little peace walk through warring Jacques Road and Goodwich Lane and supervising sports and entertainment events in those communities to have given proper care to the duty of traffic management at Sandz. Head of operations in the Police Traffic and Highway Division, Superintendent Courtney Coubrie, has been also identified as having line responsibility.

The police, an essential service under the law, have taken a sick-out in their wage dispute with Government, an unlawful industrial action. But nothing will be done. The Government is afraid, and has been far too union-controlled for too long. Police wage decisions should long ago have been handed over to a neutral public-sector wage tribunal, which would have set a fair base and made biennial adjustments determined by objective economic calculations.

The stalemated wage negotiations with dozens of different bargaining units, some of them no bigger than the staff of one little agency or institution, will likely yield more industrial unrest like '68. But they also provide a golden opportunity for the Government to bite the bullet and fix once and for all both the public-sector structure and wage bill and the wage-negotiation process.

The failure of the economy to achieve any robust growth in nearly 50 years has pushed the Government into using public-sector employment as a labour mop, providing cheap but secure work at all levels. That rickety house that Jack built is now falling down as Government aims for a wage bill-to-GDP ratio of nine per cent and impoverished public-sector employees aim for double-digit increases with no job losses.

A crash that the striking and rioting '68 could not have anticipated is the currency crashing through the floor - a source of much of the labour unrest and incapacitation of Government today. Since currency conversion in 1969, we have suffered up to a one hundred and thirtyfold decline in the value of the Jamaican dollar.

That there have not been more riots and wage disputes is testimony to the long-suffering of the Jamaican people. But there is opportunity in crisis. The Government should adopt my high-school motto, Carpe Diem, and seize the day.

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