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JLP conference, election and governance

Published:Sunday | November 20, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Martin Henry, Contributor

It is expected that more than bells will ring today at the 67th annual conference of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) which will, by acclamation, endorse Prime Minister Andrew Holness as the party's anointed leader. The trumpet, it is widely expected, will sound for an after-Christmas, end-of-year election.

The prime minister, who alone can blow the trumpet and 'fly di gate', to use a Patterson metaphor, has already told us, "I don't want to disturb anybody's Christmas, but I am sure that people want to have a happy New Year ... . From what I am seeing ... it will be a massive conference, and who knows, who knows, who knows ... ?!"

Actually, a particularly bad way to disturb people's Christmas is to have an election campaign running through it. While a third of 15 general elections have been held in the favourite month of December, the latest date was the 20th in 1949. And a happy New Year for many Jamaicans, the polls are indicating roughly half of the voting population, would come from the removal of Prime Minister Holness and his JLP Government, making him the second shortest-serving prime minister in independent Jamaica, a tad ahead of Sir Donald Sangster who died in office just under two months after appointment (February 22-April 11, 1967).

The prime minister's challenge to the Opposition "to make this election the most peaceful election since Independence" may be a little misguided. Holness' constituency base of West Central St Andrew has been one of the most violent constituencies in the political history of the country, delivering the most political killings in that 'murdersome' election year of 1980 which saw the national murder numbers doubling from around 450 the year before to more than 880, and never seriously trending downwards again until last year following the security incursion into Tivoli Gardens for the Christopher Coke extradition.

rise of Political violence

By the time of the first election in Independence on February 21, 1967, guns had begun to replace bottles and stones in cross-party political conflicts and 'zones of political exclusion', to use the prime minister's now favoured euphemism for garrisons, had begun to emerge. A state of emergency, the first in independent Jamaica, had been imposed by the Bustamante Government the year before in Western Kingston, a seat held by his minister of development and welfare, to quell violent clashes between JLP and People's National Party (PNP) supporters in that belt of urban poverty.

The first commission of enquiry into political violence had been held years before in 1949 when a man was killed by a mob in political clashes in Gordon Town during a by-election for a vacant Kingston and St Andrew Corporation seat. And The Daily Gleaner noted the association between some gentlemen politicians and thugs in a November editorial ahead of the December 20 polls that year, only the second under universal adult suffrage in 1944.

Political violence escalated from 1967 to its peak in 1980. The Manley Government declared a state of emergency, as a response to worsening political violence in the run-up to the 1976 December 15 election. Members of Prime Minister Holness' Cabinet were among JLP people detained in what has widely been regarded as political persecution.

But at the height of the ideological battles between the leaders of the Michael Manley-led PNP (in Government) and the Edward Seaga-led JLP (in Opposition) and the physical battles between party thugs, the two parties undertook what may be, to date, their greatest act of collaboration in the national interest: the establishment of the Electoral Advisory Commission (EAC) in 1979. The commission was to have an equal number of representatives from both parties and a majority of independent members agreed by both parties. The convention quickly emerged of accepting the unanimous recommendations of the tripartite EAC.

The EAC is now the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), which has, over three decades, engineered a relatively clean, free and fair electoral system which will annul constituency polls marred by any detected acts of corruption, intimidation and violence. The incentive for violence has been squeezed out of the system. It is widely believed that the Owen Ellington-led Jamaica Constabulary Force (with both sides warmly supporting the commissioner) is not about to perform the police feats of the past to see no evil, hear no evil and respond to no evil in electoral malpractice.

But perhaps the biggest change of all in the move towards peaceful elections is the shift of gangs away from straight political enforcement to other nefarious lines of business while still embedded in the garrison structure created by politics.

fostering corruption

The non-profit company, National Integrity Action Limited (NIAL), with which I am associated, has been running advertisements to end secret campaign financing and calling for full disclosure, a position held by the ECJ itself but not yet enacted into law. It is widely believed that secret campaign financing leads to the manipulation and corruption of Government by moneyed special interests.

It must be noted that financing for the operations of the NIAL is largely from foreign government donors. It is time for the Jamaican private sector to go beyond undercover contributions to the political parties and also make visible donations to organisations dedicated to cleaning up political corruption.

But all in all, it is going to be very difficult for the upcoming election, whenever, not to be one of the most peaceful - not just since Independence in 1962 but since Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944 and the rise of the two dominant and violence-prone political parties in that period.

The prime minister should direct his anxieties to winning what will be a closely fought election, to keeping his party's candidates from being disqualified over electoral malpractice, and, most of all, to the critical challenges of governance should he be called upon by voters to continue.

JDIP, trafigura controversies

The trumpet will sound today, or in the near future, with the Opposition PNP mired in its own Trafigura mess and the Government formed by the JLP sloshing through the mire of the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP).

The judge hearing Trafigura has declined the request of the PNP for in-camera hearings, surely a politically damaging request. And the auditor general has delivered a special report raising serious questions about the operations and accountability of JDIP, which is handling the largest pool of infrastructure-development financing in the history of the country.

The auditor general has been stonewalled by the executing agency, the National Works Agency, which has had its offices refurbished with more than $100 million of JDIP money, in obtaining critical data for the audit. The JDIP audit must be politically damaging to the JLP. Beyond 'licky-licky' diehards and special-interest beneficiaries, the country is in no mood to tolerate corruption. Unfortunately, the biggest segment of potential voters, combining the will-not-vote and the undecided, feel that their onerous option is to try to figure out which of two nearly identical middle-of-the-road parties is less corrupt.

Constitutionalist and founding father David Coore, once member of parliament for the Holness constituency of West Central St Andrew, has departed, leaving only one surviving member of the Constitution Committee, Edward Seaga. I have long felt, and perhaps should have done more about it myself, that the constitutional founding fathers should have been asked and assisted before their passing, in documenting what the Constitution was intended to mean. Coore, QC, was himself an eminent legal mind.
Unlike the American founding fathers who collectively left copious writings on the intent and interpretation of the US Constitution, our founders have produced precious little. As constitutional reform again shifts to the front burner, especially after the dual-citizenship imbroglio and the recent enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it would have been most useful to have founding documentation of intent and interpretation as a point of departure.

Still struggling

Coore was the minister of finance and planning who took Jamaica to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1977 when the policies and programmes of Government enthusiastically pursuing change for the betterment of the masses under the banner of democratic socialism bared the Treasury. The IMF is back as the Jamaican economy continues to struggle.

Legend has it that Minister Coore first heard of the free-education plan of the Government when Prime Minister Michael Manley publicly announced it as a gift to the people of Jamaica. The minister of finance, caught flat-footed, had to scramble to fit the gift into the already-cast Budget. Like I said, this is only legend. Many members of that Cabinet are still here (and some are still politically active) and can disconfirm. The failure to disconfirm can only strengthen the legend. In any case, the Access to Information Act will, in due course, make those records of Cabinet meetings publicly available as documents of history.

But the larger point is that fiscal and budgetary indiscretion by successive administrations, like the Golding administration's precipitous cancellation of health-service user fees, and cost-sharing in secondary education, have cost this country dearly.

PNP president and the leader of the Opposition, Portia Simpson Miller, has described Mr Coore "as one of the chief architects of modern Jamaica", and correctly so, as Mr Seaga has also been widely described. But the descriptor is a double-edged sword. For modern Jamaica is what modern Jamaica is, and the architects are who the architects are, warts and all.

The country and its prime minister should seek to learn as much as we can from an honest rendition of the country's modern political, social and economic history in order to resolutely correct the negatives of the past and build on the positives.

Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to and