Thu | Sep 20, 2018

Gordon Robinson | House of mirrors

Published:Sunday | July 1, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (right) and Leader of the Opposition Dr Peter Phillips leading members of parliament into the chamber at Gordon House. All the talk about a "purpose-built" Parliament building is a smokescreen for and copout for lazy, ineffective legislators, writes Gordon Robinson.

On Thursday, May 17, PM Holness defended the plan to build a new Parliament building at the expense of Allman Town and National Heroes Park. As edited by The Gleaner then me (for word count only), he said:

"Discussions about a new Parliament building have been on the table for more than 50 years, but this is the farthest we have pushed the needle ... ."

What needle? Pushed where? This "needle" is inserted into Allman Town's heart to inject unadulterated toxicity. Discussions about constitutional reform, crime reduction, and electoral reform have been on the table for 40-plus years, but needles have been only tinkered with, not pushed. For example, we improve election security but maintain an anti-democratic electoral system. Why push this particular needle?

PM continued:

"Jamaica hasn't had a purpose-built designed Parliament building in 52 years of Independence."

What the granny gungus natty is a "purpose-built designed Parliament building"? Do specially designed air conditioners cool excess hot air, extractor fans suction out loud farts, and chairs apply electric shocks when puerile behaviour swamps propriety?

More from PM:

"At Independence, the country's legislators moved out of Headquarters House, then our Parliament, ... into newly constructed Gordon House.

"But Gordon House was designed and built for meetings of the KSAMC ... .

"Yes, our sovereign building where we pass legislation was really built for a parish council ... . The building itself lacks the stature and functionality of a modern parliament."

Jeez, Louise! What's the difference between a building "purpose-built" to pass laws and one "purpose-built" for KSAMC? Why's it suddenly infra dig for MPs to sit in a building intended for a municipal corporation? Are we seriously saying Parliament needs more "stature"?

Specifically what are the "functionality" inadequacies? Are accommodations tight? Poor things! KPH patients might have a thing or three to say about their tight accommodations as they're packed together like involuntary Middle Passage passengers, including in spaces earmarked (oops, sorry, "purpose-built") for walkways. Are facilities lacking? Oh, snap! Police might want to jump in here and insist on upgraded facilities so they can enforce laws passed in a building "purpose-built" for a municipal corporation.

Government's selfishness is thoroughly exposed by this issue. Nobody disputes Gordon House's inadequacy. But a new parliament building should be so far down Jamaica's priorities list, we'd need microscopes to find it. But governments act as if they should be protected from ordinary citizens' daily discomforts. So, they seek medical treatment and education abroad, enjoy large security details, and part traffic like the Red Sea wherever they go.

Meanwhile, we struggle with overstretched public healthcare because of populist 'no-user-fee' policies, schools with pit latrines and unqualified teachers, soul-sapping crime, and massive traffic jams caused by Government's inefficient roadworks and poor public transportation.

So why fuss about a new Parliament building? What if some of us are dislocated? What if we must start a war just to have Jamaican professionals involved? So what? Our political leaders are entitled!

Now THIS you gotta hear. PM went all philosophical on us:

"Investing in a Parliament [building] is not wasting the people's money. It's because we haven't, as a country, made the investments in the symbols of our sovereignty why we have fundamental issues with respect for rule of law and fairness and dignity of the State ... ."

Somebody must be high! Failure to build concrete sovereignty symbols is the reason for Jamaica's high crime rate? Disrespect for the State is unconnected to the scandalous way politicians have conducted our national affairs for decades? Instead, it's inextricably linked to Jamaica still having a crummy Parliament building? Somebody thinks we're the planet's most gullible if we're expected to swallow that bull crap.

PM: "And until we break that and show that the Jamaican State isn't a kleptocracy, enriching itself for a certain class or sector ... but is making an investment for everyone to be able to access and benefit from it, then we'll continue as we are."

Jamaican State not a kleptocracy? Governments not at all about enriching members and hangers-on? DWL. Was this really said with a straight face despite variegated government scandals since Independence, the latest of which is unravelling as I write at Petrojam? A new Parliament building breaks that historical trend?

PM: "Just imagine, in a few years, this space ... will be transformed into a vibrant, enviable iconic destination; the centre of the Caribbean.

"Because this is how we must see ourselves, Jamaica as the centre ... for business, culture and lifestyle ... innovation and creativity, on par and exceeding anywhere else. Yes, we can be the superpower island of the world."

Alrighty, then. Build a new Parliament building, knock down old ministries, demolish Allman Town, build more government buildings. Then we'll be a SUPERPOWER! Christ on a crutch, this must be the Guy Lombardo Show!

Listen carefully.

PM: "All of this has to be paid for ... . We're not going back to a situation of debt, so it means we have to incorporate the private sector ... .

"A part of the development will have commercial value ... . There are some who feel we're trying to throw out the people who live here. Block and steel don't make a city, people make a city.

"The people give you that vibration, that energy, that culture. They create the lifestyle, warmth, reception, but if the block and steel isn't built in a particular way, it could also create a culture of crime and violence where people don't relate well with their built environment or use their built environment to perpetrate crimes.

"So we're taking into consideration the people and the built environment, so there'll be 5,000 homes when this project is done around this area and not homes exclusive for the rich. There will be homes of all grades and classes ... . So nobody has to fear."

Permit me to translate that for you from political gobbledygook into English. At least a portion of the cost of these comfy new government buildings will be paid for by commercial development in partnership with private developers. This isn't simply about a new Parliament. It's also about building a new garrison with homes priced out of current Allman Town residents' reach, since "if the block and steel isn't built in a particular way, it could also create a culture of crime and violence". Some people just can't handle nice homes. They "don't relate well with their built environment or use their built environment to perpetrate crimes".

The homes won't be "exclusive for the rich", which means they'll be for the rich and whoever else can afford them. I'll bet dollars to donuts the "homes of all grades and classes" won't be for dislocated residents but for those who can pay substantial deposits and significant mortgages. We'll see.

But the most hilarious part was the sop tossed at us at the end. PM said:

"Let me sound a warning, well, warning is too strong a word. Let me make an alert, that we cannot carry Gordon House behaviour to the new Parliament.

You can be vigorous and robust and still maintain decorum and the dignity of the House. There's without doubt deterioration in parliamentary craft ... . There's no principal to guide [parliamentarians].

Parliamentarians need to reflect on this and improve their parliamentary craft."

Nice words. But, as usual, only lip service. What are you actually going to DO, PM, to stop this hideous parliamentary behaviour? It's been going on for more than 50 years without sanction or restriction. Don't believe me? This report from Parliament appeared in The Gleaner in 1957:

"Chief Minister Norman Manley and Opposition Leader Alexander Bustamante exchange abuse across the floor in [Gordon House] and are joined by their supporting members. Words like 'You're a bunch of skunks', 'hypocrites', 'blackguard' and 'runt' are hurled at each other. Bustamante refers to Manley as 'a dirty, stinking cad ... a disgrace to our family'. Manley calls him an 'offensive and insolent person', and Bustamante, who is interrupted by PNP's Ken Clarke, describes him as 'dirty and stink and smells like an owl. Look at you. Frowsy!

"A.G.S. Coombs threatens to 'thump' Bustamante in his mouth and Bustamante dares him to try, [saying], 'If Manley is God for you, he is no God for me. He and I come from the same tree, except I grew straighter.' He also says he remembers when Coombs used to sing, 'Gimme back me shilling wid de lion pon it!' The speaker, B.B. Coke, finally adjourns the House."

Contemptible parliamentary behaviour isn't a 21st-century creation. Over the years, we've had abuse hurled at the marshal, missiles thrown at MPs, name-calling on an infantile level, and vulgar finger-pointing as 'humour'. Now the best PM can do to induce change in more salubrious climes is "an alert"?

C'mon, man!

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.