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Spending, vote-buying, and rank political opportunism

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, March 24, 2019

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The blacksmith that does not know how to forge a gong should look at the tail of a kite. — Igbo proverb

As we draw closer to April 4, the by-election day in Portland Eastern, the People's National Party (PNP) seems to have immersed itself into political schizophrenia. Last Saturday one of our news entities showed footage of Dr Peter Phillips, the PNP president, criticising the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) for neglecting Portland Eastern, a seat that the PNP has held for the last 30 years, of which it formed the Government for 23 years. As the Americans say, do the math!

Then I hear a news story on a radio station and in print media that Phillips accused the Andrew Holness Administration of [vote-buying], via spending on projects in the constituency. An article in this newspaper said, among other things: “The PNP has accused the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government of engaging in what it called a “carnival of spending (of) public resources to influence the upcoming by-election” in Portland Eastern.” ( Jamaica Observer, March 16, 2019)

Heal thyself!

I think Prime Minister Andrew Holness has done the right thing to discontinue payments from the Constituency Development (CDF) in the wake of accusation from the Opposition. Following the nomination of Ann-Marie Vaz, the JLP's candidate in Portland Eastern by-election, last Thursday, Holness said, among other things, outside the Port Antonio Courthouse:

“ 'I've read the letters from the leader of the Opposition, and I've read the letter from the political ombudsman. I have gone through and asked all the agencies whether or not they have made allocations or made payments. So far what I've been told is that no allocations have been made other than what was made previously... before the campaign, and that whatever was in train was stopped,' said Holness.

“ 'I spoke to the head of the CDF yesterday (Thursday) [and] she explained to me that she sent out a letter stopping all payments. And I suspect that all other agencies will be doing that,' he added.” ( Jamaica Observer, March 16, 2019)

If indeed voting-buying activities were going on, Dr Phillips has a right to, as we say in local parlance, “bawl out”. Vote-buying is a scourge on our politics. I said so in this space years ago. I do not resile from that position. Under the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) vote-buying is a crime. Those, like me, who take a keen interest in our politics must, however, ask Dr Phillips certain questions in light his accusations of vote-buying in Portland Eastern.

Recall Paul Burke, former general secretary of the PNP, told Nationwide News Network that the PNP might have got 500 fewer votes in the Westmoreland Central by-election held in 2014, if some supporters of the PNP had not bought votes. When asked if the PNP bought votes, Burke said: “I am not going to deny that there are members of the PNP who made or fulfilled promises... Some of our supporters felt that if they did not do what they had to we would have reduced our majority or lose.” When asked how many votes for the PNP he thought might have been bought, Burke said: “I don't think it could have been more than 500 votes.” For that by-election there were reports in the media of mobile ATMs from which some voters made withdrawals, not having made prior deposits. It was also reported that a certain black, high-end SUV drove around the constituency and selectively distributed wads of cash. Of note is the fact that the Westmoreland Central by-election was a sure win for the PNP.

I have said before in this space, and I maintain, that bribery and variant forms of it have been part of the electoral landscape in Jamaica for decades. Nevertheless, to me, voting-buying and -selling are betrayals almost tantamount to treason.

Mass disaffection from the political process is a main contributing factor that has expedited the growth of the cancer on our democracy, as evidenced in the general decreasing involvement of the national electorate, especially over the last 25 years. I believe we can best begin to fix this problem by liberating more of our people, at a faster rate, through the provision of economic, social and political opportunities.

But back to Burke's revelations. At the time when Burke made his startling revelations, Dr Phillips was minister of finance and de facto prime minister. He kept a stony silence on these egregious matters. Why?

Recall also that it was Burke who revealed that a lot of money was spent to influence the outcome of the party's vice-presidential election in September 2016. He protested that people were paid to not vote for Dr Angela Brown Burke in that election.

Dr Phillips, surely, heard of these appalling accusations by Burke. What did he say publicly? My recollection is that he kept silent as the proverbial church mouse. Why?

Dr Phillips might also remember that the night before Shahine Robinson and the JLP first prevailed over his party people affiliated with the PNP were seen with lanterns and flashlights repairing roads in St Ann North Eastern. Dr Phillips was a leader in Jamaican politics then, as he is now, I do not recollect that he castigated those who participated in this attempt to damage our democracy.

Who can forget this: “Former Finance Minister Dr Omar Davies made the infamous 'run wid it' statement after the 2002 General Election, admitting to increasing spending on government projects to ensure re-election for the then ruling People's National Party.” ( The Gleaner, April 26, 2015)

While hedonistic spending spewed from almost every orifice of the then PNP Administration, Dr Phillips did not make one public statement distancing himself from it. Phillips did as Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI Part 2, (Act 1, Scene 2): “Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum.”

Dr Fenton Ferguson, a former PNP vice-president and former minister of health, picked up the muddy run-wid-it baton in 2014. A letter published in the Gleaner of July 28, 2014, said among other things:

“Dr Ferguson, a Cabinet minister, stated in full glare of the media that he and the party's leadership plan to sit with the party's workers to determine how basically scarce taxpayers' money will be spent to ensure that they — the PNP workers and supporters — are taken care of and help to bring victory for the PNP.” Dr Phillips did not rebuke Ferguson. Why?

And who can forget that in 2015 “Finance and Planning Minister Dr Peter Phillips said the Government will not be spending irresponsibly in the run-up to the general election to benefit constituents in return for their political support.” (The Gleaner, April 26, 2015)

In March 2015, the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) revealed to the country that former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's Administration had spent $8.3 billion more than was budgeted in the December 2015 quarter. I remember the former Contractor General Greg Christie called for a budget spending investigation following the PIOJ's revelations. According to The Gleaner of March 7, 2016: “Christie says the report raises serious questions about the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration, which formed the government up to last Thursday. He says the questions are being raised in light of the previous Administration's public commitment and demand for fiscal responsibility.”

St Luke's gospel reminds: “Physician, heal thyself!” Dr Phillips may or may not be a believer in the Bible, but he should at least check Google before he pontificates.

Bring back the SOEs

The previously imposed states of public emergency (SOEs) proved effective in the reduction of crime and violence in Jamaica. Those who continue to deny that fact are like ostriches with their heads in the sand. The SOEs reduced murders by 21 per cent in 2018, compared to 2017, and caused 350 fewer Jamaicans to be murdered.

I have said in this space that the Opposition's decisions to end its support for the continuation of the SOEs was a retrograde step. The decision by the PNP last December was calculated. I heard Fitz Jackson, the Opposition spokesperson on national security, say on the radio recently that the PNP knew it would have got backlash from its decision to withdraw support for the SOEs.

I said in the space some weeks ago, and I maintain, that I believe the decision of Dr Phillips's Opposition not to vote for an extension of the SOEs is predicated upon rank political opportunism. It was a desperate effort by Phillips to eke out political relevance and simultaneously separate the political wheat from the chaff in the PNP in order to safeguard his presidential perch. I believe the Chaos Theory used by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov [Lenin], is at work here.

Up to the end of the December last year when the PNP pull the plug on the life-saving SOEs, figures from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) showed that murders were down by 22.2 per cent. How then does a party which mouths that its primary concern is the security of the nation not realise this glaring contradiction?

There were 359 fewer murders in 2018 compared to 2017. St James, where there was an SOE for a year, saw a 69 per cent reduction in murders, and 203 fewer people murdered in the parish compared to 2017. It is critical that this trend is maintained and improved upon, notwithstanding the PNP's uncaring and cruel decision to withdraw its support from extending the SOE in St James, sections of St Catherine and the Corporate Area.

Some days ago I heard that there has been a 50 per cent increase in murders in St James compared to a similar period last year. I maintain that any upsurge in shootings, rapes, robberies, murders, and similar crimes must be placed squarely at the feet of the PNP. I believe the Holness Administration should heed the call of the ordinary citizens who do not live in gated communities, or who cannot afford to hire a private security company or have a licensed firearm and/or a pack of pit bulls to help defend person and property. We are too often oblivious of the realities in which some our fellow citizens are literally held hostage by criminals.

Radio Jamaica carried a news story on March 11, 2019 which said, among other things: “An RJRGleaner Group commissioned poll has found that there was overwhelming support for the Government's imposition of SOEs last year, and the vast majority of Jamaicans would want to see the measure continued. The poll was conducted between February 15 and March 3, with 1,000 respondents islandwide.

Pollster Don Anderson said the survey found that 90 per cent, or nine out of every 10 Jamaicans supported the states of emergency.

The Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MBCCI) and Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) have repeatedly expressed support for the SOEs. An article in The Gleaner of March 10, 2019 said among other things:

“The western parish has also witnessed several other violent incidents since the SOE was lifted at the end of January.

“The second city's main business groups pointed out that the implementation of the state of emergency, which began January 2018 and ended in January this year, “resulted in unprecedented reductions in murders and general criminal activity and brought in large measure a sense of peace and calm to the business community and citizens in the parish”.

Ordinary citizens have repeatedly shown massive support for the continuation of the measures. Who is the PNP listening to?

Head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, Major General Antony Anderson, and head of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Lieutenant General Rocky Meade asked for more time so that the enhanced security measures could achieve all objectives. The credentials of these men in security matters are impeccable. Dr Phillips and the PNP said no!

As I understand it, the sitting Government can declare/effect a state of public emergency for 14 days, and renew for another 14 days, given its numbers in Parliament.

I believe the Administration should access that option. If the PNP wants to take the matter to court, then let them.

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!

The impatient idealist says: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.” But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace. — Chinua Achebe

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.


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