Jamaicans love a good debate. They revel in the tit for tat, the riposte, the rebuttal, the banter, the jibes, the quips.
So the Twitter brigade settled down for the first political debate, organized by the Jamaica Debates Commission, with the proverbial popcorn in hand. Their reactions were hilarious and witty, although often politically biased. People had their favorites.
There were two last-minute substitutions: first-time Opposition candidate and youth leader Krystal Tomlinson and the ambitious Opposition spokesman on – well, various topics, Peter Bunting, had both gone into quarantine. Since they apparently could not participate remotely (I am not sure why not), they were replaced by Ms. Lisa Hanna, M.P., and Raymond Pryce, who is seeking to make a comeback to representational politics as candidate in a marginal seat.
The event took place in a studio at the Creative Production & Training Centre, with a “limited audience.” Perhaps they wanted to make it as close to the regular debates as possible, despite the pandemic. I couldn’t help feeling they all looked a bit lost in the studio, which had a cold feeling – stone-colored walls, and a slight echo as Television Jamaica’s Janella Precius got the ball rolling. There was the occasional suppressed sound from somewhere (I guess the invisible limited audience). A virtual debate would have been better, perhaps.
The two questioners from the media asked very good questions: the experienced Natalie Campbell from Irie FM, and Vashan Brown of Television Jamaica. Nationwide News Network’s Marjorie Gordon posed questions from social media. You can watch a recording of the debate on YouTube here.
And the speakers themselves? Well, the incumbent Jamaica Labour Party (to the left? should they have been on the right?) were just a touch stuffy. The Opposition debaters were just a touch over-excited.
Member of Parliament Lisa Hanna put on an excellent performance throughout. In the opening statement, she spoke in her warmest tones. Mellifluous, even. Her occasional breakaway comments in patois were jarring. Generally, she stuck to the PNP message: Social investment, not social control. Her body language was confident and natural, leaning in relaxed style with one elbow on the podium and using her hands expressively; as usual, the eyelid flutters came in for emphasis!
Later on, she got a little “nasty” (as the U.S. President would say) with digs at the woman in the middle on the other side, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, who is Foreign Affairs Minister. “She has been on a plane for far too long,” said Ms. Hanna, suggesting the Senator is out of touch and not seeing things on the ground (no pun intended). And I noticed the occasional whisper or muffled exclamation on the mic – a woman’s voice. My AirPods pick up the tiniest sounds! Who was that?
Ms. Hanna’s colleagues, on either side of her, were a little more volatile. Mr. Pryce is an eloquent and witty man; he took a swipe at the “cyaapet” (newly built road) in the constituency he is vying for, and introduced the idea of the JLP’s “55 months” in office. He spoke very well on crime, education and the urban/rural divide. In the end though, he was a little verbose, a little too edgy and not as engaging as I know he could have been. When he made a reference to the Minister’s highly-publicized difficulties with a certain marketing company, he drew guffaws of delight from the Twitterverse. A moment later, the camera caught the Minister giving him a cold stare. I believe this incident has sparked some memes…
I can only describe Dr. Dayton Campbell’s performance as clumsy. Two badly misjudged comments were firstly, linking the tragic and controversial death of a pregnant woman with a by-election campaign (although they happened at different times); and secondly, a strange joke about mental health that sounded remarkably insensitive. Dr. Tufton reprimanded him on both counts.
Apart from that, Dr. Campbell casually reeled off a list of things that should be done to sort out COVID-19 – more of this, buy that – as if it was a simple matter that he, as a medical doctor, knew more about than Minister Tufton, a non-medical doctor.
It was not the doctor’s best night.
And what about the incumbent JLP debaters on the other side? The slim and dainty Senator Johnson was flanked by two sturdy male speakers: Minister of Health and Wellness Christopher Tufton and State Minister in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Floyd Green. All acquitted themselves reasonably well, but it often seemed to me they were “going through the motions.” Perhaps they were a little put off by the Opposition’s two late substitutes – as in the game of football, substitutes can sometimes throw a spanner in the works.
Senator Johnson was her usual bright, upbeat self. She presented all the arguments well, and so she should as her party’s campaign manager. She was a little tense, though – perhaps over-prepared, she stumbled occasionally, as if her words were too carefully rehearsed. Nevertheless, she had her moments: The PNP builds a good story, she said, but that’s about it. Action, implementation…not so much.
Floyd Green also liked the term “Pipeline National Party” translation for the PNP acronym. Indeed, there was a particular government minister in a previous administration who frequently talked about projects in the pipeline, and was regularly portrayed with a piece of pipe slung around his neck in newspaper cartoons. Mr. Green did a creditable job in the debate, describing government policies in his usual earnest manner, a slight frown on his face. He had done his homework.
He forgot to look into the camera, however. Only Senator Johnson Smith and Lisa Hanna did a good job at this, by the way, and Mr. Pryce gave an occasional glance at it. These things are important!
Minister Tufton just managed to get through the debate. Leaning heavily on his podium, he looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but in the studio. This is hardly surprising; the soaring COVID-19 numbers must have been very much on his mind. He defended the Government’s record on the pandemic well – this was not difficult for him. As soon as there was a break, he walked to the back and took a phone call. Apart from that, there was nothing much to do except to slap Dr. Campbell on the wrist.
Yes, debates are performances. The speakers that impressed were those most accustomed to television, and to putting on a performance. The others all did their best. When they did get a little dig in at an opponent, they looked so pleased with themselves. Gotcha! It was largely a humorless affair, though. The only attempt at humor employed was dry sarcasm.
Jamaica’s televised debates have been well organized and well received in the past, and this was actually one of the best I have seen. It ran smoothly and seemed to have thrown off that stiffness that was so prevalent in preceding debates, and this debate had an interesting combination of personalities that made for enjoyable viewing. We reached for another carton of popcorn.
Whether any of us learned what each party’s core policies were about – apart from slogans and glib sound-bytes – I don’t know. Whether it helped anyone decide whom to vote for next week, again I am not sure. There was a slew of promises on both sides, to the extent that one tweeter asked if they would be giving out free KFC on Friday nights for us all?
Who “won”? Well, both sides did a reasonable job, despite the occasional gaffes and fluffing of lines. Debates are an excellent tool of the democratic process, and the Jamaica Debates Commission has remained focused and organized; all credit to them.
In the end, it is all water (and a lot of words) under the bridge.
P.S. Any questions about the environment, climate change, disaster preparedness? Did any of the politicians mention these things? That is a big resounding “NO.” Even though Laura had just passed us by, and more storms are on the way as I write. Ah well, what did we expect!
By the way, one of the sponsors of the National Debates is the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, which describes itself as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that has supported democratic institutions and practices in every region of the world for more than three decades. Since its founding in 1983, NDI and its local partners have worked to establish and strengthen political and civic organizations, safeguard elections, and promote citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.”