Sun | Jun 16, 2019

Arnold Bertram | The wave of corruption and the political project

Published:Sunday | March 24, 2019 | 12:17 AM

Within a week of the demand by the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Peter Phillips, for a full investigation into reports of corrupt practices in the Ministry of Education and its agencies, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced the resignation of the Minister of Education Ruel Reid as a senator and member of the Cabinet.

It is hard to believe that the prime minister only became aware of these reports of widespread corruption after the leader of the opposition brought it to public attention.

This begs the question: Would the prime minister have acted so promptly to demand Ruel Reid’s resignation if the leader of the opposition had not placed the issue in the public space?

CORRUPTION AND POLITICS

The widespread corruption that is being exposed in the present Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration also raises questions as to whether the millions of dollars being siphoned off are only to satisfy individual greed exclusively. Are these slush funds being used to fund a political project? Is the employment of Reid’s campaign manager in the North West St Ann constituency as a consultant in one of the agencies of the Ministry of Education related to the political project?

Given the razor-thin majority with which the JLP won the last elections, we should not be surprised by the priority they placed on the development of a political project to ensure victory at the polls.

The critical feature of this political project was an election strategy that only a government in power could implement, for the fact that it combined extensive public works programmes for the party faithful with perceived bribery of the electorate and manipulation of the electoral process. While none of the three elements of the strategy was new to Jamaican politics, the extent of the financial component and the efficiency with which all three factors were operationalised in the 2018 by-election in South East St Mary was certainly new.

With this victory, the JLP was confident that its political project now had a tried and proven election strategy to perpetuate itself in power even with only the support of a minority of the electorate.

HOLNESS’ LEADERSHIP UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

Holness’ failure to handle the Petrojam scandal firmly weakened his hold on the party and diminished his leadership stature. The extent to which he protected Wheatley alarmed even some of his colleagues.

To protect himself against any challenge to his leadership, he appears to have developed a plan to fill constituency vacancies with loyalists. Ruel Reid was named candidate for North West St Ann. Pearnel Charles, Mike Henry, Ruddy Spencer, and Karl Samuda were to be retired to make way for loyal protégées.

Winning these four by-elections in the four JLP constituencies, using the South East St Mary formula, would restore his grip on the party, demoralise the People’s National Party (PNP), and set the stage for the holding of general elections in December 2019 after a pre-Christmas spending spree.

Two realities made Holness pause. The first came courtesy of Mike Henry and Karl Samuda, both of whom made it plain that the timing of their retirement was something they would decide in consultation with their constituents. The second was a confidential report, which indicated that neither of the seats held by Pearnel Charles and Ruddy Spencer could be considered safe, and as a consequence, the JLP’s parliamentary majority would be at risk if all four by-elections were held as planned.

Then came the gruesome murder of PNP MP Lynvale Bloomfield in East Portland, which necessitated a by-election in a constituency where the PNP has a decisive majority. As the Holness faction calculated, defeat in a by-election in a constituency held by the PNP would not be fatal, while a JLP victory would restore the party’s ascendency and put early general elections back on the agenda.

THE LOCAL MERGES INTO THE NATIONAL IN EASTERN PORTLAND

Victory in Eastern Portland at all costs appears to be the mantra of the Holness faction. The critical factor would be the amount of money that could be raised. Whereas in South East St Mary public works programmes sufficed, in Eastern Portland, privately funded road construction and maintenance programmes were to be added.

In South East St Mary, PNP voters appeared to have been bribed to vote JLP. In Eastern Portland, it seems that those who could not be paid to vote JLP would be paid to stay home. The budget of $300 million for the campaign was quickly oversubscribed by two major players who seem to have more than a passing economic interest in the constituency.

However, even with seemingly unlimited funds, the JLP is finding Eastern Portland a “hard row to hoe”. The Comrades are determined to honour the memory of their former member of Parliament with a victory, and the magnetic appeal of the PNP’s Damion Crawford is making the campaign a PNP carnival.

Then came the Budget Debate, which further frustrated the JLP’s campaign in Eastern Portland. The masterly presentations by the leader of the opposition, Peter Phillips, and his shadow minister of Finance, Mark Golding, placed the ordeal of the ‘have-nots’ squarely on the national political agenda, and, in the process, gave the election in Eastern Portland a national dimension.

The ordeal of the 700,000 landless who are still squatting in the land of their birth and the increasing abuse of workers’ rights by a contract system of employment were juxtaposed with the rampant corruption of an Administration enriching themselves and transferring valuable state assets to a chosen few.

The exposure of widespread corruption in the Ministry of Education and its agencies took on new meaning against the reality of the hundreds of thousands of students who leave school each year without adequate preparation for the world of work and responsible citizenship.

In contrast to a JLP Administration intent on enriching itself while condemning the poor to the crumbs that fall from the table of the rich, the leader of the opposition committed the next PNP government to eliminate the inequality that has defined Jamaican society for centuries. With the expansion of entrepreneurship at the base, the transformation of education and training and the rebuilding of the rural economy by modernising agriculture and developing a rural service sector, a Jamaica that works for all will truly become a reality.

The building of this new Jamaica carries a special appeal for the young people of Eastern Portland, where the PNP’s candidate, Damion Crawford, in every way, symbolises what they can achieve against the odds given equal opportunity.

 

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former minister of government. Email your feedback to redev.atb@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com