Sat | Jul 20, 2019

Martin Henry | Moral issues at Christmas

Published:Sunday | December 23, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

I wonder if Dr Andrew Wheatley has got around before Christmas to making restitution payment for that US$1,000 birthday cake that Petrojam lavished on him?

Although Easter is more the traditional time for token penitence and restitution, Christmas is a good time, too, on top of all the eating and drinking and merrymaking like at that now-infamous Wakanda party for the then minister of energy. Christmas is the nominal ascribed birthday of that moral North Star, Jesus of Bethlehem, the Christ. "And the Word became flesh, fixed His tent of flesh, lived a while among us ... full of grace and truth." And He has made some heavy moral demands upon those who accept His invitation, "Follow Me."

Disciple or not, Andrew faces a substantial moral dilemma in offering restitution. This is the man who has solemnly declared that he was not a party to the arrangements for his surprise birthday party. The Sunday Gleaner ran a story on December 9, 'Party payback - Wheatley looking to return US$1,000 used to buy birthday cake and more'. That news report said, "Stung by the public criticisms that followed a disclosure that some $1.5 million was spent by Petrojam to throw him a surprise birthday party, former energy minister Dr Andrew Wheatley is in talks with friends and backers about paying back the money to the state-owned oil refinery."

But here's the rub: "Wheatley [has] declared that he was not aware of the level of expenditure and attended the party based on an invitation, having travelled to Montego Bay, St James, for official business. 'I must,' he said, 'express my disappointment and shock and put things into context. I was surprised by the party. I was not aware of the source of funding, and I would not, under any condition, support the use of public funds for any private event,'" Wheatley told The Sunday Gleaner. "That is something that is against everything that I believe in. People who know me know that I would rather do without than use public funds in a manner like this,' declared Wheatley. 'This has caused a lot of distress in my family and it has been a teachable moment for me. My mother has not stopped crying.'"

Millions of dollars are spent (misspent? squandered?) in staff celebrations in ministries, departments, and agencies of Government annually. And at no time more than Christmas time like now. 'Tis the season to be jolly. And staff, seeking a little sweetener after being overworked and underpaid, devise creative ways around fiscal constraints placed on parties.

The fÍted minister said that he was not aware of the level of expenditure attached to the birthday party, said he graciously accepted an invitation in good faith, and certainly did not himself use public funds in that manner, a course of action that is against everything that he believes in, he penitently declares. What then is his moral culpability? Or legal liability, for that matter? What's the point of his penitent act of restitution, which is to be executed through gift contributions from friends and backers at that?

The former minister may be guilty of incompetence, dereliction of duty, mismanagement, and all the other epithets hurled at him by circling sharks smelling blood, but he could hardly be accused of misusing state money for personal benefit in that birthday bash in Montego Bay, the home of scamming. Making restitution only serves to establish liability where none exists and to open a door for more. In the financial fiasco exposed at Petrojam, running into billions of dollars, where does the disgraced former minister's liability begin, and where does it end?

 

Fuel pricing

 

Far, far bigger than Wheatley's US$1,000 birthday cake as a moral issue of governance is Petrojam's murky and mysterious, and very likely downright dishonest, fuel pricing as a state monopoly.

It is not hard to call up other immoral acts of the Government. The police have just signed a wage agreement after painful and protracted negotiation. The way Government breaks its own labour laws to abuse police overtime is another case in point of downright immoral state action. So is the unconscionable holding down of public transport fares at subcommercial levels without subsidy to the private operators as is given to the JUTC. All laws and public policies have moral content.

And, just in time for Christmas, Buju Banton has come home to a hero's welcome after eight years in a US prison for drug smuggling, a crime both here and there. So far, the hero's welcome has been from the people, with the State remaining silent.

Buju is a musical hero but also a convicted felon. In this case, the silence of the State is golden. A fierce debate has broken out in the media and in bars and on verandas about how to handle the return of the Gargamel. It is a deeply moral issue. Neither his musical prowess nor his criminal conviction can be reasonably and rationally ignored. How to balance them?

In the answer style of Jamaican popular music, an Iraq military veteran who was 'Dumbfounded at hero's welcome for Buju Banton' [Gleaner letter, December 13) was answered next day by a defender showing, 'Why Buju got a hero's welcome'.

The defender threw sexuality into the defence, writing, "Let me explain why SOME Jamaicans are only too ecstatic about the release of Buju Banton. Some share his views about sexuality and sexual orientation and believe this is the reason he was targeted, and not because he was a drug kingpin. Many Jamaicans were worried about him being placed in the US prison system, having expressed strong views against homosexuality."

Human sexuality is a deeply moral issue. The parliamentary committee reviewing legislation on sexual offences has ducked and run on the most morally controversial aspects of the laws. The committee has recommended to Parliament a referendum on buggery, abortion, and other issues of "broad public divide". A recommendation that has earned them the designation "cowards" by an angry human-rights attorney writing to the press. We have a good idea how the public vote will go in this hypersexualised but 'Christian' country, which is home to Boom Bye Bye Buju, who has fathered 17 'owned' children with multiple mothers.

But surely, there must be some basis bigger and more enduring than the voices of articulate interest groups to guide our choices, not only in personal conduct (and society cannot exist with an infinite variety of personal choices), but in the formulation of laws and public policy and in the behaviour of the State and the Government.

Contrary to contemporary popular belief, the Christ of Christmas is a hard moral taskmaster. In his inaugural address, aka the Sermon on the Mount, He drastically declared: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly I say unto you till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever, therefore, breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Christmas could have been a great time to consider the moral claims of the Christ upon men and their transient kingdoms.

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