Daniel Thwaites, Contributor
First, there was an attempt to bring forward the conference date and shorten the campaign, now there's a decision that there will be no public debates between Audley Shaw and Andrew Holness. Horace, call mi! We have to talk. I'm realising that you don't have my best interests at heart.
Not entirely coincidentally, the country's first little foray into seriously discussing publicly funding elections seems to have hit a pothole. It's not an easy issue, but as Audley pointed out, political campaigns don't run on wata and cool breeze. But I do think we have to be on the lookout for opportunities to steer the major political parties away from their existence as quasi-private clubs into being public institutions.
Which is one reason I would like to see Audley and Andrew have a public debate, perhaps more than one. The debate ought to move the campaign away from person- and style-centred questions towards policy and direction for the country. In fact, I have a plan. Andrew and Audley can just come down to The Gleaner, let the journalists moderate, and they'll turn the cameras on. That requires little more than wata and cool breeze.
SERIOUS ISSUES NEED DEBATING
There are serious things that need debate. Consider how, when it's convenient, Mr Holness wears the badge proudly of having "levelled with the people" and told them that "bitter medicine" was inevitable. However, he's been exceptionally cagey about expanding on that single remark and explaining the nuts and bolts of his approach.
Let's hear about reforming the bloated public service, the miles of red tape that choked up the last administration (and is choking this current one), the irrational and anti-productive tax regime, and the mountains of sovereign debt. The bitter part is in the details, right?
When Mr Holness was boasting of tuition-free education, Mr Shaw was paying the bill by stocking up debt. I want to hear them debate this openly and honestly with perceptive and informed questioners pressing them to answer with candour. Veritable truckloads of horse manure in the public discussion of Jamaica's current social and economic circumstances could fall by the wayside if these two men were forced to speak plainly to each other and to the country.
Then there's the sheer entertainment value. Particularly because of its fractious history, the press and everyone else are on the lookout for irreparable slights, deep and intractable insults, stings and welts that may leave lifelong marks. But I don't think the Labour Party contest has been particularly rowdy or raucous so far, at least not in the public announcements.
Of course, one is always aware that the public statements are the dull and sanitised versions of sharper and lacerating barbs passing from hand to hand in the relative privacy of bars, text messages, and FB postings. That's where you hear the savage personal judgements that are the bread an' butta of island politics: who bruk promise, who is bruk pocket, who breed who, who ah buil' big house, who don't have nuh house, who wutliss, who lazy, who is a fifth columnist, who is a closet NDM, who is a closet PNP, etc. Politicians don't often sue for libel and slander because it's their colleagues they'd sue more than anyone else.
Still, in public, it's been all very mild. Audley has responded to the claim that he has a 'red man' contingent backing him by asking, in effect, what is wrong wid being a red man? He also slyly pointed out that Holness kinda red as well.
It was to the claim that he is being backed by wealthy donors that Audley gave his wata and cool breeze comment: "Do you think that political party can run pon wata and cool breeze?" Very funny. Not impolite. Directly responsive to the issue that was raised. And a damn good point!
TUFTON'S NON-CONFRONTATIONAL APPROACH
Meanwhile, when Tufton basically said Andrew doesn't like smart people around him, a tooth or two hit the floor from that roundhouse.
But there's a curious and unusual meme that has emerged comparing Mr Holness' style with P.J. Patterson's non-confrontational approach. So an argument for a candidate in the JLP contest is that they're like P.J.?! If you live long enough you see and hear everything. Who would have thunk it?
Speaking of debates and one candidate inviting comparisons between himself and another prizefighter from the competitor's party, it reminded me of that 1988 US vice-presidential debate when Dan Quayle compared himself to John Kennedy and Lloyd Bentsen responded, saying: "I knew Jack Kennedy ... . Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Audley ... tek note.
Unforgettable political put-down
That was an unforgettable political insult, which as a distinct genre can be a thing of beauty. How about the exchange attributed to John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich (after whom the practice of putting meat between two slices of bread is named), and John Wilkes? A modernised version goes as follows:
Montagu: I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.
Foote: That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.
Wilkes wasn't joking about the mistress part either: History buffs can look up Fanny Murray and Martha Ray. And since we're on the topic of debates, it was Wilkes who, as member of parliament for Middlesex in the late 18th century, made it possible for journalists to publish parliamentary debates unedited.
As you might well imagine, Churchill was one of the masters of the political barb. Recall Churchill's remark that Clement Attlee was "a modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about". That's as withering as it gets, although Barney Frank's reflection that George Bush was "proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of a Harvard and Yale education" shows that the art persists.
Still, the funniest recent political put-down was completely gratuitous and took place after New Jersey Governor James McGreevey resigned on August 13, 2004, after admitting that he had been conducting an affair with his Israeli 'Homeland Security adviser'. Understand that the New Jersey Democratic Party organisation is corrupt enough to shock the conscience of Nigerians. Governor McGreevey famously pleaded: "I am a gay American," and that's when The Onion magazine delivered the headline: 'Homosexual Tearfully Admits To Being Governor of New Jersey'. DWL!
Anyhow, Horace ... sorry ... General Secretary Chang! Please, Sir. Mannaz an' respect, please to line up the debate on North Street. Permit these two mighty gladiators to meet in the open arena. Oh! And it won't cost anything, just wata and cool breeze, which I'm sure The Gleaner editor can spare.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites Law Firm in Jamaica, and Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.