Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Prime Minister's assault on the Public Services Commission

I have had grave reservations about the whole controversy over the firing of the Public Services Commission and the mess surrounding the appointment of the Solicitor-General. The PM thought he was being cute by citing misbehaviour, when everybody knew it was about the Commission's refusal to back down from their recommendation to appoint Professor Stephen Vasciannie, a man who compared Bruce Golding's return to the JLP as akin to someone flinging a dead cat on the deck of a ship...i.e., it would stay there and stink up the place, and then someone would wash it off. A particularly nasty comment, I thought, but if you are like me, you revel in these moments when the gloves come off and nastiness rules among people who really ought to know better...ahem...your petticoat is showing...

The PM dipped into the controversy during his presentation on the Budget Debate. Perhaps it was unwise, as he really didn't score any points, in my humble opinion. He trumpeted the letter written in 1977 by the then Chairman of the Public Services Commission, written to the GG, tendering the resignation of the members, and tried to use that letter as proof of the rectitude of his position in forcing the firing of the last board of members, since they were defying his wish for them to resign on the change of government.

Someone should have told him not to read that letter. It does not advance his position one bit.

For those who didn't hear the Budget Presentation, simply put, the then Chairman, Prof. Gladstone Mills, related in the letter that PM Manley had demanded their resignation on the basis that ideological positions had been staked out in Jamaica, in light of the mandate Manley believed that the PNP had received in the December 1976 elections. Prof. Mills pointed out in his letter that the position of the PM was fundamentally wrong, and unprincipled, in light of the constitutional protection afforded to the members of the PSC, as distinct from statutory boards etc., who were expected to resign on a change of government. He stated quite eloquently that no such requirement existed in relation to members of the PSC. He related a meeting that was held with Manley, where their position was put to him, and Manley basically told them to fuck off, principle notwithstanding. Prof. Mills went on to state in the letter that while he maintained the PM was wrong, he wasn't about to pick a fight with the PM however, and so, with regret, he and the other members would resign.

How does this support our current PM's position? I submit it does not. All it does is put him in the same unfortunate position that Manley found himself in, in pursuing a wrong-headed ideological position, flouting principle and the Constitution and bullying public servants to do his bidding. Daisy Coke and others did not want to back down and either resign or appoint the favoured choice for Solicitor - General, as they are entitled to do. Does our current PM mean that because Manley did it, he is entitled to do it? Clearly that is untenable. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.Then he tried to cloak his position with noble aims...saying that he could not blame 'other people' (i.e., the PSC) if he failed the public in his mission, implying that he needed to get the former members of the PSC out of the way in order to do his work.

What that did - which is interesting - was betray that his real aim in firing the PSC was not the charade of misbehaviour as claimed in the papers, but in order to push through his agenda, whatever that is. It is still unsupportable.

Once we begin to jettison principle and the Constitution on the altar of political expediency, we begin to walk down a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line and who is entrusted to draw that line?

Mind you, I understand the PM's dilemma in that he feels it necessary to stack the deck in the way he wants, in order to move full speed ahead. I suspect that the PNP did its own hatchet job on the impartiality of the civil service, and probably deserve a large portion of the blame. In fact, I would wager that the subversion of principle is something that Jamaica has been living with since the 1960's. It probably reached fever pitch in the 1970's with the ideological fervour of the PNP's socialist position and the creation of odious bodies such as the Pickersgill Committee, and everything since then has been a reaction to the monster that was then created, to wit, an ideologically charged civil service. The Gladstone Mills letter would be exhibit A in my submissions on that point.

I do not, however, believe that continuing down that path is the method of correcting it. My own view is that the PM should simply have let the PSC continue and then deal with the issues as they arise. One wrong does not deserve another. If the PSC appoints someone who misbehaves in the execution of their job, then let the chips fall where they may and fire that person's rass. I also think that we might be inventing a problem that either does not exist or can be tamed. I say this because I do not see Daisy Coke, whether she is a PNP sympathiser or not, or the others on the PSC, defiling their reputation by presiding over the appointment of unqualified persons to critical positions, whether those persons are PNP sympathisers or not. I therefore think that the risk the PM perhaps saw might have been just a little bit exaggerated. I also think it is more important to get people in positions who are competent than politically aligned to you.

My view is that if your (i.e., the political directorate's) policy aims are legitimate and credible, competent professional people will be on your side. The need for people who are sympatico is only critical when you are trying to do shit, and you need people who will hold their noses as they shovel your shit. That may have been why the PNP felt it necessary to stack the deck, one might argue!

So my advice to Bruce in a quiet moment would have been this - "If you believe that what you are doing (in terms of various policies) is correct, then press ahead. If apparatchiks in the civil service block you, then get rid of them. But don't fall into the trap of subverting principle for pereceived expediency, because all you are doing is behaving like you are just another politician, as opposed to a leader".

In politics, as in life, it is never sufficient to simply fall back on trite explanations like those that have been proferred to justify the PM's railroading of the PSC. Leadership demands an elevation of perspective, vision and conduct; that certain quality that says "I am the leader because I deserve to be, as shown by my exemplary approach".

That is why I felt Portia was never qualified to lead the PNP or this country, despite her cheerleaders in the media, i.e., Mark Wignall et al. They know themselves and have thankfully already said their mea culpas.

Bruce has strong 'leader' potential. He is also a skilled politician, but don't hold that against him. Leadership is not perfection. Truth is I am expecting him to eventually join NW Manley, Michael (despite his glaring flaws) and Eddie as our top tier of leaders. He must live up to it. This episode does not help him in that journey and is a needless blot in his copybook.

Do we amend the constitution to solve the problem? Tricky tricky question. As I have said before, it is dangerous to legitimise the politicisation of the PSC and by extension the civil service. When ideology begins to take priority, it is principle that suffers. In the USA, political appointments to places like the Supreme Court, the Federal bench etc., makes for law that is more expedient than correct, and I don't know if in our fragile democracy we will be well served by going down that path.

Why can't we simply have an arrangement where our Governor-General exercises his absolute discretion to appoint 3 members of the PSC, and have the PM and the Leader of the Opposition nominate one each? Could that work, or am I being naive?

We have to believe in the sanctity and primacy of the law, because it is the law which protects us all regardless of our political allegiances, from the excesses of the political directorate. Call it myopic if you will, but that is the root of our objection to the PM's approach. Laymen are fond of saying the law is an ass, until such time as they run behind it for protection. I am not advocating a static approach to the law however, but the issue here is how best to deal with what is, and also a debate on what it should be.

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