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Election Watch

‘Political week from hell’ - Holness admin ‘overwhelmed’ navigating choppy waters as polls loom

Published:Sunday | July 19, 2020 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Dr Christopher Tufton
Prime Minister Andrew Holness

With another Cabinet minister in the Andrew Holness administration stripped of portfolio responsibilities over a controversial land arrangement and another thrust under the microscope over contracts awarded to a public-relations firm, one political analyst has described last week as one from hell.

The week began with a messy Holland Estate affair that came to light after a Sunday Gleaner report raised questions over the selection of Holland Producers Limited to manage 2,400 acres of state-owned lands located in Holland, St Elizabeth. The report also revealed that Lola Marshall-Williams, a director and shareholder, is the partner of J.C. Hutchinson, a minister in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries. The couple share a child.

Last Friday, Hutchinson was forced to apologise for “errors of judgement in relation to land transactions involving the Holland Estate” as Holness reassigned him to the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).

Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton was also dragged into the spotlight with what he termed as “filthy and scandalous” claims in social media posts over which he has threatened legal action.

Questions were also raised as to whether there were conflicts of interest in Market Me Consulting Limited, a public-relations agency, benefitting from coronavirus-related contracts through an unsolicited proposal.

A senior source close to the Holness administration said it was a rough week for the prime minister, who was reassigning a minister to his office for the fifth time since 2016.

‘What Next?’

“The prime minister is overwhelmed by the heaviness of this week, and it looks like it will carry over into next week with the Ministry of Health,” the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) official told The Sunday Gleaner late last week. “At the rate things are going, everyone has been asking, ‘What next?’ Jesus, man! It is too much, man!”

Despite the messy affairs, environmentalist and Gleaner columnist Peter Espeut said Holness would not be upsetting the apple cart with a general election on the horizon.

“If it wasn’t general election preparation time, he might have risked firing them, but nobody is getting fired,” Espeut told The Sunday Gleaner. “They are all members of parliament who have to run in their constituencies to secure wins for the JLP so nothing will happen.”

He continued: “And the PNP (opposition People’s National Party) has no moral high ground, low ground, no ground at all to say anything. So Ruel Reid and others will come back. They going to get off. Nobody is held accountable for anything. Things are going to remain just the same.”

Reid, a former education minister, was booted from the Cabinet last year March as a corruption probe engulfed a number of agencies under the ministry. He has since been slapped with a number of charges.

With thick sarcasm, Espeut added: “Everything has been efficient and running well, including the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. It’s so efficient that you can’t get a policeman or a soldier charged for anything. There is no such thing as nepotism or cronyism in law and nobody is going to pass legislation to criminalise it. So we are all doing fine.

“All it was was a busy news week and much ado about nothing. Holness has shown nothing more than that he is a post-Independence-born leader, but who is cut from the same cloth as those in the pre-Independence era, many of whom are still in the forefront of politics today.”

The usual hard-hitting political commentator Dr Paul Ashley was cryptic and brief in comments.

“A political week from hell,” was how he summed it up.

‘Political Virus’

“All I would say is that a political virus, much like the coronavirus, has hit the ruling party and it can only get worse,” he warned ominously, but declined to go further.

JLP sources told The Sunday Gleaner that “some people are expecting another resignation because of a long-standing issue”, adding that the best thing Holness can do is “call the election because this can only get worse”.

“His popularity will fall quicker than it rose. These rapidly giddy heights of popularity cannot be maintained. If the popularity numbers are unprecedented, then this week has also been unprecedented,” said a JLP operative.

A Mello TV-Bill Johnson poll last week revealed a favourability rating of 76 per cent for Holness, compared to Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips’ 34 per cent. Phillips also had an unfavourability rating of 40 per cent, compared to Holness’ 14 per cent.

The next local government and general elections are due in less than a year, and last week, a bill was tabled in Parliament which could pave the way for both polls to be held on the same day.

Trade unionist Helene Davis-Whyte said if the poll numbers are to be believed, Holness can do as he pleases.

“Despite what has happened, it can be balanced with the poll numbers and how far ahead he is of Peter Phillips. So he can go for elections early or go late. The pollsters say people are not moved by corruption, nepotism, or cronyism. So the prime minister is under no pressure to call the elections – early or late,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

“Since persons are not influenced by scandals, and the poll numbers suggest there is not risk from the PNP, he could go now, next month or any time they choose, unless something change dramatically,” she suggested.

She said based on the poll numbers, the PNP was making no impact, and the ruling party was on a free ride.

Former Member of Parliament Heather Robinson said she had no advice to offer to the prime minister but urged him to get a grip on the administration.

“This is a big man’s job. You sold yourself to the people of Jamaica as the person to make it better. You got the job, so do the job. It’s your responsibility to sort out his problems. But I have to ask about the strategy of putting all these people into OPM. Is this the solution to scandals?”

Less than a month ago, another Cabinet minister, Daryl Vaz, was stripped of the environment portfolio after the Jamaica Observer brought to light a controversial land leasing bid for a property bordering the Holywell National Park in the Blue Mountains.

A year into the administration, then Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Karl Samuda was shifted from his ministry to the OPM even as he denied using his ministerial influence to get the Jamaica Dairy Development Board to plant acres of mombassa grass on his property in Knollis, St Catherine.

He was recently appointed education minister to plug the hole left by Reid more than a year ago.

Former Science, Energy and Technology Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley had to make his exit from the executive last year after allegations of nepotism, cronyism and corruption swamped several agencies under his ministry.