Robert Montague - Caribbean man with an international flavour

Published: Sunday | December 6, 2009

Rudolph Brown/Chief Photographer
Mayor of Kingston Desmond Mckenzie (right) jokes with Member of Parliament Robert Montague, minister of state for local government, at the Jamaica Labour Party region meeting at YWCA in St Andrew in April.

Daring, charismatic and a visionary are some of the adjectives used to describe the man greatly associated with local government in Jamaica. Robert St. Aubyn Montague, or 'Bobby' Montague, as he is popularly called, might not be liked by some but surely respected by many who have worked with him.

This young man from the parish of St Mary was introduced to the political scene in 1990 at the age of 25 when he was elected councillor for the Carron Hall Division.

His election was nothing surprising to him as he was the offspring of parents deeply grounded in Jamaican politics.

Bobby father's, Asquith Nathaniel, was a charter member of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), and his mother, Earline Leila Harris, was the constituency secretary for West St Mary.

In 1980 when most teenagers were preoccupied with the latest reggae songs by popular artistes like Bob Marley or Steel Pulse, youthful Bobby was heavily engrossed in the political ramblings in the country at the time.

So wrapped up was he, that acting on the advice of the police, it was decided that he, along with some other schoolmates should terminate their schooling in the interest of their safety.

While others might have been traumatised, this only motivated Bobby more.

Thirteen years after his political debut, Bobby Montague started to bear fruit from the seeds he had sown. His Jamaica Labour Party in 2003 topped the local government elections, sweeping 11 of the 12 parish councils plus the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC).

He was also elected mayor of the St Mary Parish Council and it was then the world was introduced to Robert Montague.

Being poised and articulate, Bobby represented Jamaica at international fora, so much so that he was selected to represent Jamaica on the board of directors of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF). He served as deputy chairman.

He approached his responsibilities with the same vigour and zeal as he did the everyday running of his local parish council.

Eagerly filled slot

In 2006 when a vacancy at the top level of the board of the CLGF emerged, Bobby was eagerly embraced to fill the slot.

Much to the disappointment of many of his colleagues, Bobby's stint as chairman was cut short in 2007 when he was elected member of Parliament for Western St Mary and elevated to minister of state with the responsibility for local government reform.

Although he steered the ship for a year, the ride was considered both joyful and productive as he would be remembered as the front runner with a number of key initiatives that have helped raise the profile of the organisation.

Secretary General of CLGF, Carl Wright, referred to Bobby as a "dynamic chair and board member, playing a key role in policy and programme development and also getting involved at the grass-roots level.

Immediate incoming chair, Basil Morrison, claims, "Bobby Montague was a hard act to follow".

"As chair of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum Conference in Auckland in 2007, Bobby led the event with professionalism and respect of local protocols, taking on the Maori welcome with ease and understanding. He is well respected in the Commonwealth Local Government circles for his knowledge and commitment to local government reform and improvement," he was quoted as saying.

Similar sentiments were also echoed by Father Smagaliso Mkhatswa, secretary general of the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa.

Father Mkhatswa summarised working with the rising politician as enlightening, noting that it had helped to bring a better understanding of local government in different countries. "Robert's expertise has been an inspiration to us," he said.

When the Libran born took the oath of office in September of 2007 and was given the mandate to reform local government in Jamaica, he adapted a very different approach.

In light of the negative external forces at work, Bobby charged local parish councils to operate in a "business-unusual fashion". He encouraged them not only to shift their modus operandi but to also find their own sources of revenue.

'Business-unusual campaign'

Bobby even took his "business-unusual campaign to the 2009 CLGF conference held in The Bahamas. Being one of the key speakers at the conference, he seized the opportunity to urge his international colleagues not to be fearful of the storm but rather "learn to dance in the rain".

He explains his now-coined term as "you cannot continue to do the same things the same way and expect different results. You will need to employ new measures to improve your revenue streams."

This advice was accepted by the participants and, according to Wright, "is something we should all heed as we strive to improve and deliver better value for money in the current economic climate."

His level of responsibility also positions him as chair of the Caribbean Forum of Local Government Ministers (CFLGM) and vice-president of the Hemispheric Ministers responsible for Decentralisation, Local Government and Citizen participation (RIAD).

He was one of the many heads behind the development of a regional policy and cooperation framework which was funded by the government of Canada.

Councillor Marvin Hunt, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), who also had the privilege of working with Montague, said, "He has been a driving force in supporting local government in the Commonwealth and in the Caribbean, in particular."

Regional Policy Document

The Regional Policy Document is intended to be a cogent and coherent response to local governance and local democracy in the region. It was spearheaded by a technocrat team of local government specialists from the region and complemented by an international advisory group comprising representatives of international organisations working on local governance programmes in the region.

Bobby is also being credited with playing a key role in the development of a proposal for a broader programme of support for improving local governance in the region.

Many with such international clout may not know how to walk on the ground. This would not be the case with Bobby as, just recently, he was given rave ratings by his constituents based on his performance as a member of parliament.

Family members and close friends will vividly recall Bobby's immense sacrifice being the caregiver of his ailing mother for two years prior to her death in October 1997. "She was my mentor, my hero the greatest political teacher in life. I am still inspired by her and what she wanted," he emotionally claims.

His deep passion for the elderly and the youth, and keen interest in the well-being of the underprivileged, can very well be deemed the secret to his success in the local-government world.

Shaping people's lives

One such example lies in the comments of Father Mkhatshwa, who admiringly states that Bobby's technical help, such as being involved in an election-monitoring team in Sierra Leone, a country emerging from conflict where local government has a very important role in shaping peoples lives and helping to provide political stability, was highly revered.

Minister Montague's commitment to local governance, worldwide, has taken him almost around the globe from countries such as Belgium, New Zealand, Uganda, Scotland, Kenya, Pakistan, England, Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Fiji.

He has had such a resounding effect on many that former Mayor of Suve Ratu, Peri Volavola, one of his colleagues in the Pacific, had this to say:

"Hon Robert Montague stands as a beacon of hope and champion of small-island states throughout the Commonwealth. To us in the Pacific, where vast expanses of ocean separate one small island nation from another, Robert's unique ability to bridge the gulf between small-island states, through his vision and influence, has served as an example of a leader who inspires regardless of borders - a ray of hope that inspires us to meet our developmental challenges with confidence and passion."

Moved by the sentiments, Bobby simply said, "I want to be remembered as one who made a difference, gave people hope and allowed them to reach their zenith, whatever that is."

From the looks of things, seems like he is well on his way.

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