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Editorial | The PM’s burden in party cleansing

Published:Monday | June 24, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness can’t fail to have noticed the deepening cynic’s view of his Government – one, as this newspaper’s columnist Peter Espeut put it, that has a “high threshold for … corrupt behaviour”.

Reflecting on the scandals that have hit the administration in its 39 months in office, Mr Espeut recalled the expectation of many, himself included, that Mr Holness, the first Jamaican PM to be born after Independence, would have brought a “new spirit of cleanliness to the political enterprise and a new political ethos which would have set us on a new trajectory”.

But Mr Espeut lamented: “… The sociologist in me knows that institutions like political parties reproduce themselves by passing on their norms and values from one political generation to the next. The new guard will always resemble the old guard.”

It is not Mr Espeut’s or this newspaper’s claim that Mr Holness uses his public office for private gain, or that he gives his imprimatur to the acceptance of graft and kickbacks or other acts of corruption by public officials. Rather, despite his fine speeches on the issue, Mr Holness hasn’t, up to now, discovered within himself the capacity to fundamentally overhaul the institutions he leads for a jettisoning of dysfunctional attitudes, habits, and behviours.


In the event, insofar as Mr Holness has pursued a transformational path, his focus has been primarily on the institutions of Government – the ministries, agencies and departments – with little, or insufficient, attention paid to the genesis of the dysfunction, the political party. It is they that set out to win state power and choose the people who offer themselves to be legislators and, ultimately, form the executive. It is the party’s ethos, therefore, that finds its way into Government, shaping the attitude and outlook of the administration.

In this regard, the prime minister, if he is committed to tackling Jamaica’s crisis of corruption, and burnish the transformational credentials he sought for himself when he assumed office, should, simultaneously with pursuing reform in the public administration, declare, or make public, his agenda for the overhaul of his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

This demand for cleansing, as part of a larger political renewal, is neither new nor unique to Mr Holness’ party. It is a matter, too, for the People’s National Party and ought to be a central issue in the contest for its leadership between the incumbent, Peter Phillips, and his challenger, Peter Bunting. But, as prime minister, the greater burden, and urgency, for transformation and renewal rests with Mr Holness.


Jamaica has, in recent years, made significant strides in reforming its economy, which, after decades of subpar performance, appears on the cusp of achieving credible and sustained growth. Nonetheless, as Mr Holness observed two years ago at Parliament’s passage of the law for a new anti-corruption architecture, while Jamaica has made gains in the more than half a century since Independence, it might have done far better, but for corruption.

The alliances leaders of political parties have to make to hold their jobs make disruptive action risky business. Mr Holness, however, may have an opening to pursue change, provided by the recent passage of his mentor and former JLP leader, Edward Seaga, who, notwithstanding his great contribution to Jamaica, was also a polarising figure who had a hand in creating the tribal divisiveness and dysfunction we find so troublesome today.

Phillip Paulwell, an opposition MP, in paying tribute to Mr Seaga in the House, observed that it may have been unjust to the life of the former prime minister that Jamaica hadn’t engaged in some truth and reconciliation moment. It isn’t too late. And it need not be the structured arrangements that have been used elsewhere. It can happen with those in leadership, or a single leader, acknowledging past and current misdemeanours, committing themselves to change and being willing to pull their followers towards what is right.