Fri | Jan 28, 2022

Editorial | PM should explain Cabinet decisions

Published:Thursday | January 13, 2022 | 12:08 AM

FOR A public underwhelmed by, and still attempting to make sense of, Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ reshaping of his Cabinet, there may be still something to be salvaged from the exercise. Mr Holness should be persuaded to give detailed explanations for his choices, as well as issuing those long-promised job descriptions to ministers.

Even if the explanation did little to assuage people, the descriptions would give them the matrix by which ministerial performance is to be assessed. That should help in holding the Government accountable. Which can only be good.

With respect to the personnel changes announced by Mr Holness on Monday, the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), on the face of it, emerged as the clear winner. Nothing the prime minister did will lead to significant fissures in the party. In that sense, Mr Holness again displayed a talent for walking between the raindrops. Others might claim him to be a risk-averse leader.

Among the most notable of the PM’s actions relate to Marlene Malahoo Forte, lately the attorney general (AG). That made her the Government’s top legal adviser, although she was not formally a Cabinet member. During her six years in the job, the Government came out at the wrong end of most of the major legal and constitutional challenges it faced – e.g., the National Identification System and the constitutionality of previous states of public emergency. Mrs Malahoo Forte also had a penchant for making statements that embarrassed the Government, including her suggestions of a willingness to derogate from the constitutional rights of citizens, and seemingly casting aspersions on the integrity and competence of judges. She regularly scrambled to recover.

Now, Mrs Malahoo Forte has been supplanted as AG by Derrick McKoy, a former contractor general and university law lecturer. Yet, Mrs Malahoo Forte was rewarded with a Cabinet seat and a full ministry. She is in charge of legal and constitutional affairs, a reflection, according to Mr Holness, of a “greater focus and attention” being given to legal and constitutional reform. Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, who previously had these subjects in his portfolio, will presumably now pay attention solely to the operation of the courts.

Security Ministry

In other circumstances, Mr Holness might have been minded to have a fresh face, and someone with new ideas, at the notoriously difficult Ministry of National Security, especially given the expectation of change after last year’s 10 per cent increase in murders, for a homicide rate of approximately 52 per 100,000 – one of the world’s worst. However, Dr Horace Chang, the incumbent minister, is known to be loyal to Mr Holness, and is also the general secretary of the JLP.

While Dr Chang may be willing to absorb the pressures of the ministry, it is likely, too, that part of Mr Holness’ calculation is that any sense of Dr Chang being demoted would probably cause unease in the party, especially in the western section of the island where the minister is politically influential.

Montague move

A similar political calculus might have attended the PM’s decision with respect to Robert Montague, the former transport and mining minister, who has been sent to the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, of which Mr Holness is the substantive minister. That ministry, along with the Office of the Prime Minister, is often seen as a place where either loyalists of the PM and people to be watched over are relocated and given the title of minister without portfolio. Which is what Mr Montague now has.

Mr Montague might have escaped a public clamour for his removal from the Government – after agencies in his ministries were subject to myriad scandals – because of his chairmanship of the JLP, and his acknowledged skills as a grass-roots politician who knows to keep the party’s base onside. He, too, has to be kept onside.

There is no obviously rational explanation for why Audley Shaw, the former minister of agriculture, industry, investment and commerce, has been given Mr Montague’s old job, or why he has been followed into that portfolio by his deputy, J.C. Hutchinson, whose only known skills are in agriculture. There is, however, a better reason, other than the official one, why Pearnel Charles Jr’s old ministry – housing, urban renewal, the environment and climate change – has essentially been disbanded. It did not make sense. He is now in charge of agriculture.

While Mr Charles, in the old job, had the mirage of a superministry, all the agencies to make it functional rested at the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation: the National Housing Trust, the Housing Agency of Jamaica, the National Environment and Planning Agency and related agencies, and the Urban Development Corporation. Mr Charles merely hung out a shingle. Resources and capacity were with the PM. From that perspective, one of the positive developments of the Cabinet shuffle is Mr Charles’ liberation. He has an opportunity to have a real go at the portfolio.

There will be questions, too, of why, if not fear of antagonising and dissent, Mr Holness has stuck with old JLP stalwarts, such as Karl Samuda (labour and social security) and Olivia Grange (culture, gender, entertainment and sport), whose backs it is known he would like to see, rather than introducing new talent to the administration. And if young Matthew Samuda was doing a good job as Dr Chang’s deputy at the national security ministry, why was he moved to economic growth and job creation?

The PM should address these matters, not because he must, but to open a window into his thoughts and to aid the understanding of the philosophy around which he has crafted his administration. For it may be that all of what we believe we know or understand is misplaced. Indeed, this kind of transparency, allied with the promised job descriptions, can only help to enhance public trust in the administration.