Martin Henry | Fighting crime after SOEs
It's not just the Christmas break that is holding up that trumpeted meeting of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition over the parliamentary impasse on the continuation of the three states of emergency.
Crime is too important an issue for finding solutions to be delayed by a little holiday. Crime is a national public emergency.
The trumpeting is a major part of the reason for delay. Like so much else in our tribal society, crime has been politicised. And big egos and big political stakes are at play in this stalled meeting between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness has rashly and publicly stated that the purpose of the meeting is to seek to secure agreement for the extension of the states of emergency, and he pre-emptively released on social media his letter of invitation to the leader of the opposition.
The leader of the opposition, Dr Peter Phillips, having boldly burned the bridge of retreat in that vote in Parliament against any further extension of the states of emergency, is adamant that the meeting is not to consider a reversal of the vote, but for the Opposition to place on the table alternatives for crime-reduction strategies. And Phillips matched Holness by releasing his response before delivery to the prime minister.
This can't be the way to go and by the top leaders of the political system.
The hard positions are hard to begin with but are not impossible challenges to a successful and game-changing negotiation if both sides come to their senses and adopt strategies of effective negotiation.
Any ordinary citizen can tell Government and Opposition, prime minister and leader of the opposition, that there is a third position on which there is already universal consensus among the parties and the people and which can be the starting point for productive negotiations on anti-crime measures. And that position is this: The prevailing crime situation is intolerable to all and completely unacceptable. It is destructive to shared development objectives. It gives no political advantage to either side as may have been hoped in the days of raw political violence. It must be corrected as a matter of highest priority and most urgent action. To which there is not a single dissenting voice.
We've been there. In the aftermath of the violent and corrupt 1976 general elections, which were held in the middle of a one-year-long state of emergency and a series of parish council and parliamentary by-elections that followed, it became starkly clear that the electoral system was facing a crisis of corruption. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) parliamentary Opposition, led by Edward Seaga, declared its intention not to contest any further elections using the existing system. Jamaica was in the glare of international scrutiny as a democracy at the very time when the Government needed to seek an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for an economy in distress.
Almost simultaneously with the JLP's documentation and protest of instances of corrupt electoral practices carried out against it, Michael Manley, prime minister and president of the People's National Party (PNP), sensing a national crisis, had been leading the National Executive Council of the party in intense dialogue "about the wisdom of removing the electoral system from the direct control of the government and so was able to quickly agree that reform was needed" when he received Mr Seaga's letter [History of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, ECJ, 2014. Available online].
The personal relationship between the two bulls, Manley and Seaga, was at the time bitter and abrasive in a highly polarised political environment. And both men, as the top leaders of their political organisations at war, had no room to bow, no option to appear weak. Mr Seaga made Hugh Shearer his go-between point man in the difficult negotiations that necessarily followed broad agreement that the country could no longer continue on the old electoral pathway. Mr Manley chose P.J. Patterson.
A negotiation committee was carefully crafted consisting of Patterson; Keeble Munn, then minister of national security and electoral matters; and Dr Paul Robertson for the PNP; and Shearer, Bruce Golding, and Abe Dabdoub for the JLP.
An Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) was proposed, its operational rules articulated primarily by Golding and Munn, and voted into law in August 1979.
That EAC has evolved into the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, delivering clean, free, and fair elections and serving as an example to the world.
In another case of bipartisan consensus in the face of a looming disaster staring the nation in the face, there has been a strong continuity of economic reform across administrations since at least 2007.
Almost since Independence, successive administrations have been fiscally loose, pushing up the national debt to unsustainable levels, debasing the currency through rolling depreciation while inflation and bank interest rates were continuously high as outturns of public policy action and inaction. Governments presided over uncontrolled growth in the public sector wage bill and pension obligations as proportions of a generally flat GDP, all the while postponing necessary reform in the face of a growing economic crisis. Under IMF supervision, there has emerged strong bipartisan agreement - without formal negotiation - that we cannot continue like this, and that like the crime situation, there is ultimately no partisan advantage to fiscal recklessness.
LITTLE ROOM TO SAVE FACE
Learning from the EAC story and from the principles of effective negotiation, it would serve the bipartisan discussions on crime reduction well if the party leaders, the leader of government and leader of opposition, did not themselves lead the talks. They have little room to flex and save face. And it leaves no higher level for review and final decision-making. If it is bipartisan crime solutions we want, a team made up of the minister of national security and the opposition spokesman on national security, who in the instant case are also serendipitously party general secretary and chairman, respectively, plus a few carefully selected others would be ideal to purpose. Critical technical advice and support should be provided by the public service and the security forces for data-driven solutions.
There will have to be a post-SOE crime plan if the crime monster is to be finally and decisively defeated. Its timing is the only real point of difference between Government and Opposition. In the current impasse, the Government has much less to lose in a concessionary softening of its position. Adopting and executing effectively whatever recommendations the Opposition places on the table for crime-reduction strategies would loudly signal bipartisan collaboration in the face of a national public emergency and would effectively remove grounds of complaints by the Opposition while considerably weakening any voters' sentiment that there is need of a change of government as far as crime management is concerned.
There are not many bright options for crime control and reduction. Crime-plan negotiators can begin with fundamental points of agreement and then argue out nuances of approach. High-crime communities are known. Crime patterns are known. The general profile of crime and violence producers is known. Crime motives are broadly known. The cultural and social stimuli for criminal behaviour are equally broadly known. The imperatives of detection, prosecution, and punishment for crime reduction are known.
We know that we have to boost the capacity of the security forces, the justice system, and the correctional services for anti-crime action. We know that we have to disrupt by early interventions the steady stream of new criminals. It's time to get down to negotiating and agreeing the fine points of strategy.
The late Dwight Nelson, in his dual capacities as master trade unionist and a former minister of national security, might have offered useful advice, but he left on Christmas Eve. Farewell, my classmate of that pioneering batch of master's students in communication studies at CARIMAC.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator.