Mon | Oct 22, 2018

Martin Henry | The gimmickry of ministers back to school

Published:Sunday | July 29, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Since he can't change them, he's going to train them. Like enraptured Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration impulsively calling out for the building of three tabernacles, corruption-bruised Andrew, in the euphoria of breaking ground for a mere 212 NHT-serviced lots over in Trelawny, announced that he was making it mandatory for all members of his Cabinet to undergo training in good governance and best practices, this as a measure to safeguard against corruption.

"I believe that I will have to put through my Cabinet, and make it a standing practice, that all members of Cabinet are exposed to good-governance training and practices so that there is no misunderstanding of the roles, so that they are thoroughly seized of what we need to do to ensure that we are able to fulfil the very mandate that we have set," the prime minister threw out.

He noted that corruption has resulted in the downfall of many regimes across the globe. "This business of good governance and anti-corruption is a serious matter. It is a wave sweeping across the world, and it is a wave that has swept out governments. I do not intend it to affect our Government," Holness said.

Training is the all-powerful cure for all performance ills. But as a trainer myself, I've always argued that if ignorance is not the problem, training is not the solution. At least not training in knowledge and technical skills.

Since the announcement, the prime minister has been busy on his trip to Namibia and South Africa, while still outing fires at Petrojam, literally one of the most flammable places in the country. We will see what comes of this tabernacle-building project when he gets back.

So are the boys and girls of the Cabinet going to wear uniforms? In which case, I would recommend the national primary-school uniform: navy blue tunics and white blouses for the girls, with white socks, and khaki for the boys.

With a couple of twists: The girls should be required to wear Westwood straw hats and ribbons in the colours of the flag, and the boys should be required to wear short pants and knee-high socks cuffed at the top as I had to do in my first three years in high school. And they will need a Cabinet school tie, which should have the

Petrojam logo on it. There's a lot lurking behind this prime ministerial proposition to train Cabinet ministers to behave themselves and to govern properly. First of all, and glaringly so, is the tacit inference that they are not doing so now. And so we have a corruption-prone and incompetent Government. But votes could take care of that as I'm sure the Opposition would be only too happy to assert.

Then, who is this parent prime minister to arrange these mandatory extra lessons for these Cabinet children? The prime minister, with a growing bag of portfolios, between the OPM and the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, plus oversight responsibility for all the other corruption-prone, poor management ministers as chief of Cabinet, and a clear ignorance of constitutional democracy revealed in his training announcement, will need extra training. Provided by whom, please? Whoever that is immediately assumes superior authority to the prime minister and the entire Government of Jamaica. A coup d'Ètat, not by the army, but by the trainer!

Constitutional parliamentary democracy rests on certain basic assumptions, assumptions that are now almost totally forgotten, as revealed by the prime minister's proposition. Those assumptions include that the citizen participating in the life of the polity is capable of self-government, has personal integrity, and has an intelligent understanding of the life and the mores of the polity. And can himself be called upon by virtue of being such a citizen and for no other reason, to play an active role in government.

Democracy has been famously described as government of the people, by the people, for the people. Outside of politics and government, the same assumptions are made in the operations of a free democratic society. We see it in the jury system, which is now under threat by techno-lawyers. We see it in the system of justices of the peace who are expected to have a basic understanding of the law, particularly the common law, and a mature grasp of the principles of natural justice, without technical legal training but by virtue of being alive and engaged in the polity. Constitutionally, the chief of the JPs in any parish, the custos, can be called upon to serve as head of state, governor general, without any additional role training.

In practice, we operate a representative democracy. Contrary to popular sentiments, our political representatives, the members of parliament, are generally smarter, better educated, and more accomplished in some area of regular life than the average citizen. A Cabinet drawn from the best of them is even better.

We should pause to run the distinguished profiles of Holness' ministers. Andrew Wheatley, the erstwhile energy minister who was responsible for Petrojam before the prime minister seized control in the face of corruption issues, is a research biomedical scientist with original contributions to science and medicine who probably has a higher IQ than the other Andrew.

 

More than classes

 

Proneness to corruption and weakness of governance on the part of Cabinet ministers are not factors of ignorance and incompetence. And training isn't going to fix it. Any degree-laden minister of only ordinary intelligence can in an hour on his own figure out the ins and outs of the Jamaican Constitution. A morning with their permanent secretary and senior ministry staff can teach them, already highly accomplished citizens, all a minister needs to know about the generalities of public administration and the specifics of their portfolios.

The question is whether political leaders want these systems to work as intended. Perhaps it is training in moral integrity that is needed, rather than training in good governance. Our fundamental governance issues are centred in corrupt party politics and the diverse battles of the tribes over the years, the politicising, corrupting, intimidating, and emasculating of the public service, the complexity, slowness and opacity of processes which facilitate selling and buying workaround favours. All of which are fed by, and which feed, the general Anancyism of the population at large from where governors and governance spring.

The prime minister, the Government's own information agency, the JIS reported from that Trelawny ground-breaking, had high praises for the Jamaican parliamentary process, which he noted is tailor-made for a healthy democracy and one that keeps the Government on its toes.

Running his ministers through crash courses in good governance and anti-corruption may very well simply serve to embarrass intelligent, highly accomplished citizens leading Government, confer enormous power on the trainer, but will accomplish little in fixing the ills of governance if those other matters, the real problems, are not decisively dealt with.

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