Thursday, March 3, 2016. Andrew Holness takes the Oath of Allegiance and the Oath of Office of Prime Minister of Jamaica for the second time at King’s House.
The then 44-year-old politician opens his inauguration address with the usual salutations, but with one noticeable difference. Instead of referring to Portia Simpson Miller — whose People’s National Party (PNP) had lost the 2016 General Election to his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) — as Opposition Leader, Holness greets her as “former Prime Minister”.
It was probably one of the first gestures in Holness’s quest to steer a transformation of how politics is practised in Jamaica, something he had observed when he entered representational politics in 1997 and which he examined even more closely when, in October 2011, he became the country’s youngest chief executive, ever, at age 39.
That first tenure in office was brief, ending in January 2012 after the JLP lost the December 2011 General Election.
People close to Holness admitted to the Jamaica Observer that the defeat was painful for him, given that it was the first political thumping he had received as leader of the party. However, it gave him time to reflect on electoral strategy as the campaign leading into that election was bitter.
Slowly, he started making changes inside the JLP, and when the 2016 vote was called the then Opposition party hit the ground running with a campaign formed on issues.
“It’s a deliberate strategy on our part,” he told the Observer in a recent interview. “The way in which I practise politics — I’m not singing my own praises, but I don’t engage in the platform attacks. It would be difficult for you to find anything of me engaging in that. I’m very guarded in my words.”
Challenged on the veracity of that claim, Holness countered, “No, I attack issues; I don’t attack people. I’ve been the source of personal attacks. I don’t do personal.”
He acknowledged that as the country’s chief executive he will always be the focal point of attacks, not only from his political rivals but the public in general, whenever there is dissatisfaction.
“I accept that, you know… If the sun is too hot, it’s your fault. If there’s rain, it’s your fault. I understand that somebody has to be blamed. But the kind of vitriol, when you’re using that as a political tool, calling people names, using all kinds of derogatory terminologies, I try not to do that. That’s not my character. That’s not my style,” Holness insisted.
He sought to bolster that point by pointing to a former prime minister labelling him an “enemy of the State”, as well as being referred to as a “loader man” by a political adversary at the time he took over the leadership of the JLP.
Describing both comments as “very disrespectful”, Holness noted “I didn’t respond in like” manner.
He’s convinced that generally that type of non-combative approach to criticism has permeated the JLP.
“Yes, we have dramatically changed how the party operates — dramatically. I mean, you will always have outliers, but if you look at how the Jamaica Labour Party advertises, even how we use social media, we don’t promote negative in social media. We don’t go out and attack people. We don’t. We point out the issues. We point out where things go wrong, but we don’t go and personally attack. So that’s an elevation of the politics and the legacy… it is institutionalised. Everyone in the party understands this is how we do our business. If you observe the last campaign, our ads focused solely on our achievements, our plans, and our vision for the future,” he said.
“There’s always room for a little fun poking in good spirit and good taste, but we don’t go to the point of getting into people’s personal lives,” he said, adding that when campaigning plunges to that level it is an indication of desperation.
“When you do that, you’re desperate and you really have nothing else to offer other than gutter politics, and one thing that I would want to see institutionalised is this high level, politics at the high level, but still being able to reach everyone,” Holness said.
“I think it’s something that we have achieved. I’ve been leader of the party for more than 10 years and I think you can really see that there has been a transformation in the message of the party. We are about prosperity, we are about order, we are about building, we are about development. That is what the Jamaica Labour Party is about. We are also about social justice and equity and giving people access to the amenities and services and income that will help them to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.”