Wed | Jun 19, 2019

Martin Henry | Values and attitudes, a new parliament, and a broken tambourine

Published:Sunday | February 3, 2019 | 10:19 AM

Today has to be one of those eclectic days in this spot. I am a great fan, as both listener and participant, of RJR’s popular many stories news analysis programme, ‘That’s A Rap’, with Earl Moxam.

But first: The four living prime ministers are plotting a comeback around values and attitudes. Well, at least two of them have floated the proposition. And applause has broken out in sundry places, including newspaper editorials and columns.

You just need to watch the route taxis operate, stand in any town centre for 10 minutes, go to any transport centre, drive on any roadway, stop by a school, look into any urban gully, listen to the blasts of night noises – or watch Parliament at work on a regular day – to pick up the urgent need for an upgrade of values and attitudes.

We are a coarse, vulgar and violent, destructive, abrasive and very ugly society. And it’s getting worse.

PJ Patterson as prime minister launched a grand values and attitude transformation campaign in 1994, 25 years ago. I wuz there. Throwing my weight, such as it is, fully behind the programme.

Mr. Patterson moved on to highways and the expansion of ‘headucation’ in secondary and tertiary institutions and left V&A behind to wither and die. Now he’s back with his bosom pardie Bruce Golding for another go, “a last contribution to the national effort.”

“I’ve heard Prime Minister Holness make a number of statements that are almost indistinguishable from what PJ had put forward 25 years ago”, Mr Golding told a business conference last week, “and I’m just wondering whether the former prime ministers shouldn’t make ourselves ready to lend support to get the discussion going.” Applause.

Not only would the combined vision seek to promote attitudinal change and social renewal in the country, it would extend to offering guidance to current parliamentarians on lessons learned and the way forward for Jamaica.

“What I’m talking about is beyond the bounds of legislation. No one can draft that into codified law. I’m talking about a situation where something might not be illegal, but it is just plain wrong and the society accepts that it is wrong,” Golding declared as he spoke on the topic: ‘Governance, Transparency and Ethics: Developing lasting values across the region’.

Mr. Patterson chimed in, “As Bruce said, every pronouncement that is made, however it is articulated, comes out with the central things. We need to change our patterns of behaviour. It is time we move from talking about it, now that we seem to be saying the same thing, to acting on it.”

He continued in solemn tones, “The message to go forth from this conference is that there is a suggestion that the political leaders should seek to invoke the help and support of those of us who have retired. We are prepared to get on board and put this thing at a level where the whole nation accepts. This is not an orange or green business, this is a matter of where we are as a nation.”

PRACTICE OF ‘DUTTY’ POLITICS

Nothing, absolutely nothing, has been more destructive of proper values and attitudes in this country than the practice of ‘dutty’ politics over which these four leaders have presided as party leaders, prime ministers, and leaders of the Opposition. I should have added to my watch list for the urgent need for an upgrade of values and attitudes, a visit to two political rallies, one from each side, and visits to zones of political exclusion on both sides, the centres of the worst values and attitudes in a country of bad values and attitudes. Leaders’ atonement might be in order as a purposeful contribution to change.

But there is another problem. And it is a big one: I am ultra-cautious about what amounts to ‘political’ engagement by retired politicians. I am very much in favour of them riding off into the political sunset and not even appear to be breathing down the necks of current leaders. And this is not to say that they should have no active engagement with civic life. But that they should revert to being plain ‘citizen’ in those engagements.

President Carter, now in his 90s, left the US presidency to found and head up the do-good Carter Foundation. And not campaigning like Obama there and Patterson here. Tony Blair left the British prime ministership to work for international organizations. Just to pick a couple of familiar examples to make the point.

Former Prime Minister = Private Citizen.

And, oh, Edward Seaga left the Jamaican prime ministership to become a university scholar in residence in one place, a university chancellor in another, and chairman of a football club in his old constituency. And should leave it at that.

The indelible partisanship of the former prime ministers were on full and embarrassing display in the public comments by Mr. Patterson (PNP) and Mr. Seaga (JLP) on the repossession of Venezuela’s 49 per cent of shares in Petrojam. For Mr. Seaga, the JLP Government was absolutely right in seeking to unilaterally retake the shares. For Mr. Patterson, the PNP Opposition was absolutely right in rejecting the actions of the Government as dangerous and unconscionable.

And could these former party leaders publicly say otherwise? To oppose their party in public statements is unthinkable and damaging. And silence in political commentary would indeed be golden. And should be expected. As is restraint in political action.

The former prime ministers may mean well in their desire for a last hurrah with values and attitudes, but, sorry, I can’t applaud.

THE NEW PARLIAMENT BUILDING

The courageous move of the present Government to press along with a new Parliament building and Parliament Circle took another step forward last week with the launch of the People’s Choice Exhibition at the National Gallery, showing the five shortlisted locally prepared architectural designs for a Grand Parliament building. But why not at the Jamaica Conference Centre, which is more accessible and amenable? This is not exactly an art exhibition. All the fussing will be forgotten and national pride will bruk out when the deed is done. We’ve been there.

Creating and maintaining beautiful public spaces will go a long way in improving attitudes and values. The vice-president of the PNPYO wrote last Wednesday in The Gleaner that “Green spaces improve mental and physical health”. A Government with a super-Ministry for Economic Growth and Job Creation should be busy laying down public green spaces across the urban centres of Jamaica for all the added benefits.

On more than one occasion, I advised then Prime Minister Patterson in this space that a politician preaching at people was an ineffective tool for generating positive shifts in values and attitudes. The big tools which Government has at its disposal are law and law enforcement and policy. Have you ever noticed how people line up and behave themselves when it is required and expected of them? It soon becomes habit.

Mr. Golding is not exactly right in his propositions that a significant shift in values and attitudes “is beyond the bounds of legislation” and that we need to labour over a national consensus on basic things like the difference between right and wrong.

A 2016 survey conducted by the UWI Department of Government with 10-19 year olds on behalf of the Office of the Contractor General found that a substantial majority of these young students indeed had positive attitudes towards integrity and correspondingly clearly understood what wrongdoing was.

As the report authors put it, “The young people surveyed have strong moral beliefs and a clear notion of what is right and wrong.” The survey results were discussed in a Gleaner column on June 11, 2017, ‘Recognising Wrong, Doing Right, Getting Results’ by Prof. Trevor Munroe, executive director of National Integrity Action, to which I am affiliated.

TAMBOURINE HAS LOST ITS MELODY

People like the bad wud cussing Latoya Nugent, a leader of the (defunct?) feminist Tambourine Army, can descend to low levels and can disregard the rights of others when they think their cause is just and that they can get away with it. And politics and weak and corrupt governance have facilitated the V&A slide big time.

The Tambourine has lost its melody. If it ever had any. Ms Nugent is now facing, if she can be found, a $16 million settlement of damages to Rev Dr. Canute Thompson in a successful defamation suit over Facebook posts she made. Thompson, through his attorneys, demanded that she withdraw the allegations made against his reputation and apologise but the warrior delivered instead an expletives-laced refusal.

Social media defamers should pause to read the judgement. So should traditional media owners and practitioners, considering the 2016 $12 million judgement against Nationwide News Network and in favour of former Prime Minister PJ Patterson over a defamatory story carried by the radio station.

I am all for tambourines and freedom of expression. I am all for the protection of people’s greatest treasure, their character and reputation. The law balance di ting.

I am all for the resurrection of that Lazarus Values and Attitudes Programme, with adequate state support and the mass mobilization of non-state actors. I am more than cautious, however, about the role in it that former prime ministers are proposing for themselves.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com