Tue | Feb 7, 2023

'Farmer Joe' calling

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

A.J. Nicholson, Gleaner Writer

As Farmer Joe looked down at me, his furrowed brow could not escape attention. There we were, way up in the skies, aboard an Air Jamaica flight from Fort Lauderdale to Kingston. He said that he had already taken his seat when he saw me in the aisle, trying to find space for my small suitcase in one of the luggage compartments. He announced that there was an empty seat in the row where he was, and immediately invited me to join him.

As we moved along, I quickly reminisced that this was the middle-aged farmer who had been the star of the Jamaica Labour Party advertising campaign during the last general election exercises, among his cultivation with the cellular phone, telling Portia: "A no mi seh suh". My mind flashed back to the shindig over there in Trelawny early last year, where Harry had introduced us, and how I had come to meet an individual who called a spade a spade.

As we sat down, he advised me that Harry was in fine form. In fact, he was on his way home from the wedding of Harry's daughter in Hartford, Connecticut, and had travelled to Orlando to visit his brothers. He said that the wedding itself had been quite a cultural experience, what with Harry's input, and that he was as pleased as punch to have been asked to propose the toast to the bride's parents.

Harry, like his brothers and himself, was more than a little concerned that Air Jamaica was soon to be a thing of the past. They were aware of the financial challenges that the Lovebird had to face over the years, but it had truly come to represent a little piece of Jamaica that flies. What they could not make head or tail of, were the mysteries of the proposed transaction that would remove it from the skies.

They could not understand how the authorities in Kingston were saying one thing and those in Port-of-Spain saying another. Nor were they impressed by the woolly nature of the information concerning the initiatives of the pilots to be a part of the conversation as to the direction that the airline should take. After all, they and their families had been integral to the sacrifices that had to be made through the years and, in any event, institutional knowledge and memory should count for much.

They thought that the timing of the Lovebird's removal from the skies could not have come at a more inappropriate moment, for this would serve further to isolate Jamaica, which is now sadly being placed into that group of countries which are not favourably considered within the community of nations. The question was: how did that unfortunate development take place?

Farmer Joe was satisfied that a significant contributory factor has been the prime minister's approach to governance and legal matters in our country during these past two and a half years. The first wrong move was to have designated himself the permanent government spokesman on legal issues - a most dangerous habit in the Westminster system of government and a danger which is multiplied 10-fold when such an individual is not a trained lawyer. He said that Harry was also deeply concerned about Golding's selective adherence to the rule of law and his selective resort to the law courts.

I told him that Jamaicans should have been warned by his approach to the 'Trafigura revelations' and the censure motion that he brought to Parliament when his party was in Opposition. He was not concerned that the information that he proposed to make public had come to him through a channel that was forbidden by the laws relating to banking, and that it was an offence to divulge any information that came through such a channel.

He was allowed to get away with that flagrant dismissal of the ancient rules that had long been embedded in our law, and in that of all democracies to preserve the confidentiality that must exist between banker and customer. In the end, he was prepared to share that information with the Dutch authorities and, as it has been reported, the banking institution in Kingston eventually suffered in monetary terms for the consequences of what had been done by one of its employees and Golding.

Farmer Joe got the picture and immediately intoned that, buoyed by what he was allowed to get away with and to interpret as a victory, he had carried this selective approach over into his stint as prime minister. He had been so emboldened as to have the constitutional provisions circumvented in the Vasciannie selection as solicitor general and the dismissal of the members of the Public Service Commission "for misbehaviour". He was prepared to sit in the House of Representatives and listen to his energy minister twice conduct a 'trial' of an Opposition member and, later, contemplated no such 'trial' in the House concerning allegations against one of his junior ministers.

He had been selective in having the 'dual citizenship' matters adjudicated by the courts, when an eminently appropriate resolution could have been found by a renunciation by those members who were in breach and then the holding of by-elections which would not be contested. But, he was not constrained by the hallowed rules relating to collective bargaining when he chose to announce, unilaterally, his government's intention to breach binding contractual agreements with public servants.

Farmer Joe said that Harry, who had, some time ago, acquired US citizenship, obviously wanted to know whether the prime minister was on firm ground in the refusal of his government to have the reason(s) given by him relating to the present impasse between Jamaica and the United States resolved by our courts. He assured me that Harry had followed the statements and the commentaries with an eagle eye, so he was keenly aware of both sides of the argument that had been put forward by the lawyers and other groups.

My quick reply was that there was no question that required pronouncement by a court as one in which there is such a deep divide on legal issues. For, in our constitutional arrangements, if not the judges, then who was to break the deadlock? The interpretation and admissibility of evidence, including evidence that is said to have been inappropriately or illegally obtained in matters with a treaty base, are as much legal issues as those arising from statutory or other law, in particular, where a treaty is incorporated into domestic law. Under our system, all questions of law are decided by judges or resident magistrates; the reception of any information into evidence is a question of law.

Foundation principles

That function is a duty that the judge has no power to transfer, or delegate; nor can anyone else arrogate unto himself that power or duty. Farmer Joe wanted to know why this is so. I advised him that the rule was based on two foundation principles: the separation of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and its twin, the appearance of justice having been done. If we deviate from those foundation principles, cracks will appear in the base on which the system rests and the system will be disturbed. That has taken place in Jamaica.

Harry, according to Farmer Joe, had wondered why the Government has not approached the courts if they were so convinced of the correctness of their position. I agreed, and added that if the magistrate felt that the court had no jurisdiction to adjudicate on the matter, and that it was an issue for the minister of justice to decide, then the court would be obliged to make such a ruling. Harry, he said, felt that the prime minister was being selective, again, in his adherence to the rule of law and in decisions which should be left to a court.

Dozed off

We discussed other matters for a while, when Farmer Joe went silent for some five or so minutes, and it dawned on me that he appeared to have dozed off. I myself must have gone off into a deep sleep, for I knew nothing else about the flight until I was awakened by him as we were about to touch down at Norman Manley.

We eventually found ourselves on the outside of the airport waiting to be picked up. I noticed Farmer Joe fiddling with his BlackBerry. Soon, he said, "Listen to this from last Saturday's Gleaner: The Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights contends that the adequacy of evidence, its admissibility, relevance, weight or otherwise, is a matter for the determination of a competent court, established in the Jamaican Constitution and the laws of the land.

"We embark on a dangerous road when the executive authority usurps judicial functions by making decisions about evidence, as such decisions can only be properly made by a court after a full public hearing of the issues and after the hearing of all the parties".

I smiled and told him that "A no mi seh soh", and he burst out into laughter. We soon parted company, but by then the furrow on his brow had returned.

A.J. Nicholson is opposition spokesman on justice. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com