Sat | Jan 18, 2020

Mark Wignall | Should we thank or condemn Pearnel Charles?

Published:Sunday | January 5, 2020 | 12:26 AM

The lessening of tribal divisions that defined PNP and JLP politics of the 1970s has been one of the quiet success stories in Jamaica. If Pearnel Charles Sr, Speaker of the House, is to be believed, that is the only success story in our politics.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer published on December 29 titled ‘MPs Pay Is Rubbish…House Speaker says’, the elder Charles laid out what he saw as the realities of political representation.

“To be a good parliamentarian requires that you have to take certain interests in the constituency when it comes to the people. For example, education, health of the family, the welfare of the child, and the environment in which people live.”

I am certain that most people would subscribe to that understanding. The two words that perfectly capture that are ‘good government,’ but in Mr Charles’ world, where the reality is often far from the ideal, the monthly pay he collects from the taxpayers is nothing more than frustration wages.

“There is no way $300,000 can compensate anybody who truly going to want to represent a constituency. If you have to assist with medical bills and they come to your office every day; in educating the child, providing books, uniform, transport and food; plus you have to assist those who are not working to take care of the children going and not going to school, that cannot do.

“The politics that we play in Jamaica is not executive politics, where you drive past and say ‘hi’ and wave. That’s not what it is anymore. It is one in which you are like family involved with a constituency. Who don’t have a job, you have to help them with some food; who don’t have a good house, you have to help them fix it; who get a medical bill and can’t buy the medicine, you have to buy it; whose car break down, you have to help. It is total involvement with the people; the involvement is to assist them in their everyday living for themselves and their families.”

While acknowledging that Alexander Bustamante’s original politics of filling bellies instead of preaching education had the unfortunate consequence of setting into the DNA of the poorer voter in this country a generational reliance on members of parliament, in the end, Mr Charles sounds more defeated instead of laying out the facts as he sees them.

Mr Charles admits that after 20 years representing his North Central Clarendon rural setting constituency, 50 per cent of the households have no water and 25 per cent have no light and power. This brings voting on election day high up on the transactional bracket.

“I went to a man to ask him to vote for me. He said, ‘Mr Charles, I will vote for you, but you see the road that comes to my yard, you have to fix it before election.’ Now, this is the night before the election. I said, ‘But boss, election is tomorrow’, him say him no business, and him don’t vote.”

MONEY TO BUY ELECTIONS

No one can accuse 83-year-old Pearnel Charles of not knowing how rural politics hums even as he openly admits that his solutions are only a Band-Aid on old sores. But in his complaints that rural representation comprises little more than a big pot of soup and a long deep ladle, Charles has signalled that election campaign money provides its best utility as gift baskets for constituents in the days leading up to an election.

In the wake of the PNP win in 2011, I arranged to spend a few hours with Paul Buchanan as he drove through parts of West Rural St Andrew which he had just won. At many of the stops he made, there were pockets of his constituents in hand-outstretched mode.

And he had no other realistic political option than to promise them the things that they should have provided for themselves.

So maybe Buchanan and Charles and many other members of parliament know the truth. That truth is, if you are an MP or wants to be one, you are welcome to pass by anytime, but carry the deep moneybag.

Constituencies like North East St Andrew and North Central St Andrew are those with heavy concentrations of middle-class households and garrison areas. The beauty of middle-class representation is that the worst complaint will be about poor roads, encroaching criminality, and the inconsistency of water supplies. Fix or tweak those problems, and the members of parliament will never hear from them.

In the garrison areas, the politics described by Charles is the norm. The very fact that politics of the digestive system as was given birth and prominence in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s still exists in 2020 tells us a lot about how we have marched in place for too long.

Mr Charles would know that the most efficient way to put money in the pockets of his constituents would be to provide them with jobs to match their skills. To do that would require an efficient educational system. To do that would require schools to be built and good teachers hired. To do that would require an innovative local private sector to stimulate economic viability in the constituency. To do that would require loan financing for SME start-ups.

Oh, hell, that is too much! Just carry on with the deep moneybag and the hand-out politics.

EDUCATION POLITICS SHAFTED DAMION CRAWFORD

The PNP’s Damion Crawford can rest easy now. His efforts at pushing his constituents in East Rural St Andrew towards a post-Bustamante, belly politics, ended up with him being booted out of the place.

But now we can see that Damion’s constituents were in the very mode described by Charles. When Charles says, “When a man comes to your office and says he is dying, and he gets a prescription for a drug that is not at the hospital and he has to buy it, what are you going to do? Tell him say you don’t have no money? Or go thief? And many MPs get into trouble as a result of that.

“In today’s world, the man has no light in his yard so him caa watch TV. There is no housing scheme that he can get a house, so apart from the fact that you are not paid well, you have to hide. Many MPs have to hide from their constituents and constituency because they are not able to fund the requests,” what is he telling all of those bright, young people who want to ‘serve?’

What is he telling people like PNP Senator Andre Haughton? Plus, what about the oldsters like him? Should they acknowledge Charles’ statements as facts and address them as major existential concerns? As radical change that is needed right now?

And if Charles is right about our politics, is there something about crime and its bigger connections that has not yet been openly established? Who will be the politician to admit that connection?

There are many, including me, who brought ridicule to bear on young Crawford. Now, Pearnel Charles has proclaimed from the high mountains that our politics is all about eat and belch, and Damion Crawford was simply a casualty.

So let us not prepare to heap scorn on the two-shaded head of the elder Charles as he brings home some unpleasant truths. Many of us see the politics as teats to suck on and feed off then belch, go to bed, wake up and head to the next feeding.

Our political leaders will be quite silent on this because they are, most of them, trapped in it and much too invested to pull out now. That is, sadly, where we are now.

- Mark Wignall is a political- and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mawigsr@gmail.com