Parliament Buildings, Power, and Empowerment

The “Out of Many, One People” Design for Jamaica’s new Parliament building (image source: JIS)

Two years ago, the Government of Jamaica, launched a competition for the design of a new Parliament building, to be located in National Heroes Park. The winning proposal, which was announced in April 2019, was the design titled “Out of Many, One People” by the Design Collaborative, led by the well-respected Jamaican architect, Evan Williams. The Government has now announced that construction will start in 2021, as had been planned, and the lead agency responsible for the development, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), hosted a virtual town hall on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on November 12, 2020.

The project was, already when it was first announced, surrounded by significant public unease, unresolved questions, and sometimes scathing criticisms on social media and the comments sections managed by our news media. A town hall meeting on October 25, 2018, was downright hostile in tone, although the public concerns expressed pertained to the general development plans for area and the impact on the surrounding, lower-income communities rather than to the new Parliament building per se.

Let us look at some of the issues:

One major question is whether such a building, and the significant public expenditure involved, is justified in light of other, more pressing priorities – a concern which inevitably surrounds any public works project in Jamaica that does not have obvious, broadly shared utility. Politicians are adamant that Gordon House is too small for them to do their jobs properly, and had in any case been meant as a temporary parliament building that was eventually to become the headquarters of the local government authority, the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation (KSAMC), which has more modest spatial needs.

But symbolic justifications appear to have been just as important, and perhaps even more so. Prime Minister Andrew Holness has argued, in remarkably stilted terms, that “[t]he look, role and function of the Parliament building will provide a beacon of leadership that we think is prudent to encourage nationalism and signal the sovereignty of our people and the empowering of our State to exercise the will of the people of Jamaica.” (JIS, April 15, 2019) On a previous occasion, he had argued that the new parliament would be the “physical manifestation of what we want our country to be” and “will project to the world the pathway on which we are engaged.” (Jamaica Observer, October 26, 2018) The theme of the chosen design is Jamaica’s National Motto, “Out of Many, One People” which premises unity in diversity, perhaps the most lofty national ideal of them all (and all shortlisted designs were inspired by similar ideas).

We must however question the general wisdom of implementing this project during a pandemic and an economic (and social) crisis of which the local and global implications are as yet unknown – the worst is probably yet to come, at least economically. And to do so at a time when public confidence in Jamaica’s political systems is at an all-time low, with the record-low turnout of only 37 % of the electorate at the snap September 3, 2020 general elections, is also remarkable.

The Prime Minister appears to be of the view that the new Parliament building – and his entire self-acclaimed status as The Builder – will somehow restore political confidence, but he is playing a potentially very dangerous gamble with the symbolism involved, as the building could just as easily become the de facto symbol of a disconnected, self-interested, and increasingly grandiose political system, that is oblivious to the mood and will of the people. It is almost redundant to point out that the national motto itself represents a deeply contested set of notions and is contradicted by the deep, and arguably deepening socio-economic divide that characterizes postcolonial Jamaica.

The 2018 reporting on the project cryptically stated that the Parliament building is part of a bigger project that “will also entail the construction of new offices for 14 government ministries and improved housing on some 300 acres of land in several communities around the Park.” (Jamaica Observer, October 26, 2018) This development plan, it had been announced in 2017, was based on an “unsolicited proposal from for a public-private partnership from China Construction Company, South America (CCASA) to develop a master plan that resulted in the signing of a memorandum of understanding with CCASA and the GOJ-Urban Development Corporation.” (DiGJamaica, August 7, 2018) This unsolicited proposal superseded several prior, locally generated development plans and raised major concerns at that time.

One was the appropriateness of the involvement of a Chinese government company in the construction of major Jamaican public and private buildings, against which there has been significant push-back from the local construction industry, at the level of the grassroots and big business alike. While there have obviously been changes to this development plan already, it is not clear whether this company, or the Chinese government, is still involved at the present time and will play any role in the construction or funding of the Parliament building, as a symbol of Jamaica’s national sovereignty.

The other was the implications for the residents of the surrounding communities, and the strong possibility of displacement and gentrification. This question, too, remains unresolved, as details about the planned development have not been disclosed (and may still be in development). It is deeply troubling that the November 12, 2020, EIA presentation pertained to the Parliament building and park only, without reference to the broader plans, although there were (inadequately answered) questions about public access and the availability of recreational spaces and facilities for the local community at the park. The Minister of Local Government, Desmond McKenzie, stated emphatically at the EIA meeting that no residents would be displaced by the construction of the Parliament building, but it appeared that this was just another instance of political “semantics, semantics” spin as it is not the Parliament building, as such, that would have such an effect, but the undisclosed plans for the surrounding areas.

Another troubling issue arises from these broader plans, which is not unimportant in a context where the pursuit of increased political “territory” remains as a major problem. To put it plainly, part of the discomfort is that with planning new, high-rise condominiums for the area, that may be financially and otherwise out of reach for the current residents, there is some suspicion that government may be involved in an exercise in socio-political engineering that reminds us of what was done in Tivoli Gardens in the 1960s and furthermore, connects what may be a new (lower or middle income) political garrison directly to the seat of governmental power. It is certainly of note that Kingston Central was, for quite some time, a secure People’s National Party constituency, which was lost to the Jamaica Labour Party in the September 3, 2020, general elections. This may have stemmed from the retirement of the long-serving MP Ronny Thwaites, and his replacement with a PNP candidate who was (as yet) insufficiently grounded in the community, but it also appears that significant political work has been done on the ground by JLP. Perhaps this is just a conspiracy theory but if there is any truth to it, such things should not be allowed to happen again in 21st century Jamaica and this is yet another reason why urgent clarity is needed about what exactly is being planned for the entire area.

The Q&A session after the EIA presentation was inadequate, and did not allow for many of the pertinent and pressing questions to be answered, which was in itself unacceptable, although perhaps the online medium does not lend itself well to a wholesome public consultation. Part of the mere half hour allotted was needlessly gobbled up by a pedantic, long-winded intervention by the President of the Senate, Tom Tavares-Finson, who complained about the non-inclusion of his favourite Poinciana trees in the park, although this was in fact planned as had been explained in the presentation. He also went on to defend the necessity of having red colour seating in the Senate Chamber and green colour seating in the Lower House (which had been queried by another commentator). He argued that this had to be maintained as part of the Westminster political traditions, even though insisting on things such as maintaining the royal red is laughable at a time when Jamaica has announced that it intends to become a republic, and is part of superfluous, ego-stroking but meaningless colonialist traditions that should be dispensed with, along with the wigs and gowns. Perhaps our politicians ought to be more concerned with maintaining the substance of the Westminster System, especially the principles of the separation of powers and an independent, non-partisan civil service. And perhaps they should consider re-organizing the legislature to have an elected upper house, or even a unicameral system, if it is indeed the will of the people to which Government is committed, rather than partisan political self-interest and finding power positions for politicians who are not able or willing to subject themselves to the electoral system.

Personally, I have no issues with the chosen design, which was the most feasible of the finalists and which resonates interestingly with the building style that was adopted around Independence, for instance in the National Stadium. Some have quipped that it looks like a flying saucer, although this may have some benefits if it allows us to transport some of our politicians to Pluto, if they continue to disappoint. But, on a more serious note, I am concerned about the disconnect between the symbolic rhetoric and the socio-political realities of contemporary Jamaica. This is for instance also evident in the changes that have already been made to the design, such as the inclusion of a security fence around the building, which will certainly limit the promised public access and subliminally suggests that our politicians are above and afraid of the people – it sends a signal that reminds me of those police-escorted politicians’ vehicles that bypass us at high speed and with flashing lights and sirens while the rest of us are stuck in Kingston’s almost permanent gridlock traffic, which is an increasingly common occurrence.

I am also concerned about the public art plans for the site, which have received very little attention thus far. From the presentation, it appeared that an “Out of Many, One People” monument has already been planned for the North Entrance and possibly even commissioned. Given the pedestrian, unimaginative nature of Jamaica’s recent public monument commissions, I can only hope that this is not the case and that this commission will furthermore not again go to the “usual suspects.” If I understood well, another monument dedicated to the fourteen parishes  is also being planned (they better make up their minds about Portmore!). Perhaps now is the time to think about reviving Alvin Marriott’s 1963 National Monument, which was not completed at the time but would be suitable for the North Entrance, although the nudity involved may still be an obstacle to its public reception. And if that is not an option, please have a competition with an open and transparent call for submissions!

In conclusion, there is no doubt that a new or expanded Parliament building will eventually be needed, whether at Heroes Park or elsewhere, but I am of the view that now is not the time. Government should at least wait until the pandemic is under control and its socio-economic fall-out credibly managed, at the local level, before committing to a non-essential public project. Mr Holness and company should not appear to be fiddling while Rome is so obviously burning.

If the symbolism of the proposed building is to have any credibility, furthermore, some amount of public confidence first needs to be restored in our politicians, political systems and governance. Our politicians – on both sides of the partisan divide – should arguably earn, rather than claim the privilege of working from a new, state-of-the-art, prestige building, by providing tangible evidence of vast improvements in public governance and accountability. The current Bengal Development approval debacle does not suggest that any such improvements are forthcoming. From this perspective, also, it is crucially important that the Jamaican public should not allow the Parliament building to go ahead without full disclosure of the broader development plans for the area, as it appears that this is being obfuscated.

And, finally, the grandiose, propagandist nature of the project is also of concern, as history tells us that it never bides well for governments when propagandist public projects become a major preoccupation. It suggests that the empowerment, and sovereignty, of the people is declining, and that tone-deaf, unfettered political power is on the increase.

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