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The rule of law and a kinder, more gentle society

Sunday, January 07, 2018

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The prime minister's recent Christmas and New Year's messages provide useful platforms for deep and particularised reflection on the prospects for the realisation of his, and the society's, hopes and dreams for the central themes of each message, namely the rule of law (New Year's), and a kinder more gentle society (Christmas).

I share two illustrations to highlight the importance of exemplary conduct, which I regard as the most important element of effective and credible leadership. Let me make it abundantly clear, in my view, effective and credible leadership is not perfection or spotlessness, but in large part it is about how we handle situations when we fail to meet the standards we have set for ourselves or those standards which others reasonably expect of us based on the roles we play.

The rule of law

My family had a most enjoyable tour across the country during the Christmas holidays, travelling from southern Jamaica to north into the east. I had not been to Portland in several months. The parish looks unspoiled, and with good roads the journey was a great experience. But amidst the natural beauty along the coastline, and the cleanliness, especially in Portland, one negative stood out — the dozens of political posters in St Mary South Eastern and in Buff Bay, Portland. Although those in St Mary were the hangovers from the recent by-election, one got the feeling that another contest was brewing.

Both the People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had posters and other paraphernalia. I saw only two tiny posters (about 15” x 20”) with the image of the PNP candidate, but dozens of much larger ones (about 48” x 48”), with the image of the JLP candidate (now Member of Parliament) and the prime minister. Given that the election was held on October 30, the presence of the posters and other political paraphernalia, beyond November 14, constitutes a breach of the Town and Country Planning Act, which requires that signs and other items be removed within two weeks after the holding of an election. While it could be overlooked and forgiven as omission in cleaning up, if there were a few isolated flags, the preponderance of the posters on light post after light post was not evidence of omission but flagrant violation of the law by the leadership of both political parties.

In Portland Western there was a huge sign (possibly 6'x6') with the image of Daryl Vaz and the caption, “Mr Portland - Man of Action”, prominently positioned. Travelling through Old Harbour, on the return trip, we saw the largest of signs, a billboard with the photo of the inimitable Everald Warmington and a large image of the bell with the X beside it.

Some people may argue, as one of my daughters did, that the presence of these signs is not a big deal, and that there are bigger issues about which to fight, such as getting the model of cleanliness that was in evidence in Portland to be replicated in other parts of the country. But it cannot be a case of either/or, it has to be both. So let me commend the Portland Municipal Corporation, along with its partner agencies, and the residents for the superb job being done in keeping the streets of Portland clean. Given the problem of garbage management across the country, the Ministry of Local Government should replicate the Portland model islandwide.

But we must not overlook instances when leaders break the law, regardless of which law is broken. If we do, we cannot expect citizens to obey the law, whether it is about where to build houses, set up shops, or the ridiculous act of holding a party on the only road to the airport. Leaders have a primary duty to set the tone for lawful and appropriate conduct. We reap what we sow. The haste with which the police are being blamed is nothing but a distraction and could only be viewed as credible if elected officials were known for the strictness with which they obey the law.

A kinder, more gentle society

The prime minister in his Christmas message urged us to work towards the realisation of a kinder, more gentle society. How timely and vital a call this is. But as in the case with the rule of law, where the example needs to come from the top, so with kindness. I am a perpetual believer in the will of those who lead to do the right thing, which includes taking action to make things right when wrong is done. With this in mind, I wrote to the prime minister in 2016 about a matter that had all the markings of unlawful conduct and gross cruelty, not just unkindness.

I am sharing this e-mail to illustrate how real the acts of unlawful and unkind conduct are, and to highlight the fact that opportunities are presented to us as leaders every day to act in ways that are consistent with our words.

The prime minister did not get back to me as promised, but thankfully the employee challenged the decision, and a few days ago was advised by the permanent secretary at the particular government ministry that the “…governor general acting on the advice of the Privy Council has upheld your appeal”. One trusts that the Government has learnt its lesson from this case; but I doubt that the people who made the decision were unaware that they were acting unlawfully and cruelly. An employer cannot lawfully dismiss an employee without just cause, as two July 2017 Privy Council judgements reaffirmed (See 'Lessons in Reasonableness' published in the Sunday Observer on August 13, 2017).

Both the rule of law and the requirements of kindness dictate the need for due process. A law-abiding and caring organisation will dutifully follow due process. The Jamaican Constitution guarantees the right to due process. Giving an employee a fair hearing is not discretionary, it is a right. An employee's gender, religion, how we feel about him/her, his/her presumed or actual political affiliation are all irrelevant.

Over 2016 to 2017 the Government removed several heads of agencies and other people from their positions, as well as people who held the lowly positions of garbage collectors. So let's ask the obvious questions:

• How many workers were removed from their jobs, possibly as a result of just being presumed not to be a supporter of the party in power?

• How many have been too fearful to fight for their rights?

• What is the culture being created in the public service?

Both lawfulness and kindness are necessary if we are to have a peaceful and orderly society and for citizens to feel safe. The issue of safety was a central theme in the prime minister's New Year message, “We continue our resolve to make Jamaica safe and secure”, he said.

But the brazen acts of lawlessness and unkindness are not limited to the Government.While unlawful and unkind conduct by those who should know better is not limited to the public sector, public sector administrators have a greater duty, as their actions form a stain on the Government which is sworn to uphold the law and the constitution. A law should be passed that places the burden for payment on public officials, including parliamentarians, when reckless and unlawful decisions end up costing taxpayers. If this law existed, it is likely that care would be taken in how decisions are made and the kinds of decisions that are made. It is also my view that the public defender should take an active interest in these cases, as many employees whose rights have been abused cannot afford to hire lawyers.

Citizens should be able to lean on the Government to protect them. In the same way the Government has apologised to the people of west Kingston over the 2010 police-military operation, the Government should apologise to other citizens whose rights have been breached.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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