Jamaica is in a unique situation, roughly analogous to a dynasty, given that two members of one household, head two co-equal and separate branches of Government. These are the Prime Minister and his wife as Speaker of the House. While this development is neither unlawful nor unconstitutional, it is not, in my view, a development to be treated as ordinary, acceptable, or a model, given that Jamaica is not a dynasty.
Gender is not the issue
There have been some who have sought to make this a gender issue by suggesting that the expression of concern is being advanced to deny Mrs. Holness this elevation. The falsehood in that claim is exposed by remembering that Mrs. Holness’s predecessor is a woman, Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, and no one (at the time of her elevation) ever questioned her readiness for that post, because of her gender. (Many later questioned Dalrymple-Philibert’s fitness, based on her performance). But whether the Prime Minister were man or woman, the appointment of his/her spouse to head a co-equal branch of government would be a concern.
Not being unconstitutional does not mean it is not questionable
There is no debate that the appointment of Mrs. Holness to the speakership is constitutional. She is a member of parliament and was not at the time of her appointment a member of the Cabinet. Based on that she would be eligible to be named speaker – as would be all other members of parliament in her position – of which there would be over twenty. It is this fact which adds to the question of “why Mrs. Holness” but not the only, or primary consideration.
Moral philosophy (Ethics) advances the view that one important test of the wisdom of an action in whether the action can become a model and guide for future action. Applied to the case at hand, the question is whether Jamaica could present this model of governance to the world and promote the argument that it is an ideal that may be adopted. So, although on the face of it, and in practice, Mrs. Holness may prove to be fair and even-handed in her rulings, the question is whether the fact of being the spouse of the Prime Minister raises questions about the potential for the perception of conflict of interest or may result in actual conflicts of interest.
No difficult hand was dealt
In life, as in politics, we must work with the realities which face us, no matter how tough those realities are. The fact is that the Prime Minister (who would ultimately make the choice as to who became Speaker) was not limited to choosing his wife, and the fact that she was deputy speaker did not make her the automatic choice. In my view, while she was not chosen because she is his wife, the fact that she is, cannot be ignored, and so the question is: Is this model which Jamaica has created (which does not, perhaps has never existed, in any other democracy) something other countries could adopt?
While Mrs. Holness was previously deputy speaker and therefore could have had occasions to exercise the powers of Head of the Legislative Branch, her position as the formal head creates a new level of complication by virtue of the authority being fully vested in her. She now has the unique position of being head of a co-equal branch of government, with another headed by her husband. This situation is simply not a good look and could not be a model we could promote to others.
I have had the opportunity to look at comments made on social media by people who are not Jamaicans, and the most dominant view is that this development is a prescription for feeding corruption.
The learning opportunity
This situation presents Jamaica with a well-needed learning opportunity. There have been previous instances of family members being members of parliament at the same time. Michael Manley and his brother Douglas were Members of Parliament at the same time, while Michael was Prime Minister. We have the current case of the Charles siblings, as well as the case of father and son in Peter and Mikael Phillips.
No one should be denied the opportunity to serve his or her country because of the person or persons to whom he or she is related, but equally there is need to place caveats and parameters to prevent conflicts of interest.
I submit that the Constitutional Reform Committee should consider making recommendations concerning how blood or marital relationships among members of parliament should be managed in situations of appointment to certain offices. Should a Permanent Secretary or Minister be free to appoint his or her spouse or child to senior office in the ministry he or she leads, or should there be rules preventing some such appointments? I think not. The current situation with the wife of the Prime Minister being Head of Parliament, is eerie and uncomfortable, and creates the conditions for conflict of interest. This is not a model of which Jamaica can be proud and not one we could hold up to other countries as something to emulate.
Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership and the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, a social activist, and author of eight books and eighteen journal articles. His academic achievements include:
- Two Principal’s Awards in 2023 for research activity generating the most funds, and research activity with the most development impacts, serving as Project Director for a project executed by the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning.
- A 2022 Bronze place winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards for his book, Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean.
- A 2021 finalist in The Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence for all-round excellent performance in Outstanding Teaching, Outstanding Research Accomplishments, Outstanding Service to the University Community, Outstanding Public Service.
- A 2021 Principal’s Award for Most Outstanding Researcher.
- Two Principal’s Awards in 2020 for Most Outstanding Researcher and Best Publication for his book, Reimagining Educational Leadership in the Caribbean.