Fri | Jun 18, 2021

Editorial | Lead from the front, PM

Published:Thursday | May 13, 2021 | 12:06 AM

PRIME MINISTER Andrew Holness may have had a lapse about the job he holds, its authority and responsibilities, and the risks inherent in it. In which event, he perhaps needs a whisper in the ear from his wife and fellow parliamentarian, Juliet Holness.

Last November, having observed how rivers had reclaimed their floodplains and seeing houses teetering on hillside precipices in her East Rural St Andrew constituency, Mrs Holness warned her constituents of her willingness to work with the authorities to enforce environmental and zoning laws.

“I have seen areas where people are building on the hillside, and they are obviously squatting,” she said. “I have no problem reporting them to the KSAMC (Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation), and I don’t care if they vote for me, yes or no.”

Lives and social order were more important. At the time, Prime Minister Holness echoed similar sentiments.

The issue now is that Mr Holness seems to have doubts about his obligations as prime minister and responsibility for charting national policy. He could well be in danger of conflating his position with any ordinary Joe.

Last week, in the context of an announcement of a design competition for low-cost housing, which we interpret to mean homes with a price cap of around J$5 million, Mr Holness raised the matter of Jamaica’s swathes of informal settlements, where an estimated 900,000 people, or around a third of the island’s population, live. Fixing the problem, he moaned, would likely be constrained by the “politics of poverty”.

Said Mr Holness: “... the idea of addressing the problem frontally, and speaking of it … (is) at the risk of being criticised, because within the social dynamic of the country, whenever you speak about the issues of poverty, you face the risk of being criticised, of being unsympathetic. And I think that the greatest trick that has been played on the poor of the country is that they, and I call it the politics of poverty, is that people who represent them would never confront them with the issues of poverty.

“Let’s say the Government decided that we really should, in a structured way, in an equitable and fair and just way, for the national good, say to these persons, who are poor, who are living in these unstructured, unplanned communities, ‘Let us form a partnership, let’s have a social contract about relocation into better circumstances’. Could it be done?

“I don’t think it is beyond us to do it. But is our politics ready for it? People would stand up in Parliament and say, ‘Yes, we agree. There should not be informal, unplanned, irregular settlements’, but the next day go somewhere and say, ‘No, no, no, you shouldn’t move’.”

The prime minister, in his dissertation, missed, or skirted, several important factors about how policy is formulated and executed in government and his own role therein. For instance, under the Westminster model of government, including the version practised in Jamaica, the Cabinet by custom, and in our case by the power of the Constitution, is the prime instrument of policy, whether with respect to how the Government responds to squatter communities or anything else.

Further, while the philosophy of the Westminster model is that the prime minister is primus inter pares – first among equals – among his Cabinet colleagues, he is in reality, by constitutional authority, the boss – with enormous leverage and power. Indeed, some scholars have, with only slight exaggeration, referred to the Jamaican premiership as a constitutional dictatorship. In other words, the prime minister’s capacity to influence the work of government is much beyond moral suasion. If it does not always begin with him, the buck stops with the prime minister.

More fundamentally, transformative leadership often demands that the leader clearly articulate his new or bold vision and to pursue them from the front, which does not necessarily mean ramming them through, but making an effective and persuasive case for their efficacy and worth. That usually is very hard work, including, sometimes, often rigorous debate.

Additionally, while Mr Holness’ remarks may have been interpreted as a critique of the current Opposition, we suspect he spoke broadly. For both the current Opposition, the People’s National Party, and his own Jamaica Labour Party have benefited from squatter communities and the opportunities they provide to corral votes and shore up parliamentary seats.

In the circumstances, among Mr Holness’ tasks would be to clearly bring his party fully onside for ‘the demonstration effect’ of his proposal as one that is “equitable and fair and just”.