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Mr Warmington's dangerous political equation

Sunday, January 19, 2014    

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STRIPPED of fuzzy thinking about the preciousness of the right to vote, Everald Warmington's equation of voting with access to State resources is dangerous political maths and must be rejected by all who want to strengthen democratic institutions and improve governance in Jamaica.

In a speech characteristic of the bombast that has made him infamous, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) member of parliament for South West St Catherine espoused a view of politics that could have the unintended consequence of bringing an already wobbling process into further disrepute.

"If you don't vote, you don't count, and you can't ask for government benefits when you refuse to participate in the governance of your country. I don't know how others perform, how others work, but in South West St Catherine dem have to vote to talk to me, nuh care how yu sick and need it, nuh care how the old lady on the crutch; you didn't vote without an excuse, you don't talk to this member of parliament," he said.

That's an outrageous perspective for a liberal democracy of the type we have been fashioning for nearly a century and to which I believe most of our political leaders aspire.

The remarks, delivered at a constituency meeting in South Central St Catherine last Sunday with the JLP leader, Andrew Holness, on the platform, have drawn the usual responses associated with similar Warmington comments in the past: revulsion from civil society, fuzziness from his own party leadership, and a loud 'kiss teeth' from the unrepentant, unapologetic MP.

Mr Holness, taking refuge in the part of the speech about citizens having a duty to vote, says the other parts do not represent party policy. But he did not condemn the undemocratic equation of voting with benefits controlled by MPs nor did he demand an apology; he knows that would not happen and would only leave him embarrassed.

I have no difficulty with Mr Warmington's speaking style or his choice of indecorous words. On the contrary, I applaud his forthrightness and willingness to speak his mind, no matter the consequences. However, I disagree with what he said.

Linking benefits to voting is wrong on at least two counts: First, public assets and services, supported by the taxes of voters and non-voters alike, must be universally and equitably available; and second, the "elected representative" cannot be the arbiter of who gets what. That opens up the system to corruption and victimisation of 'outsiders'.

The essence of Mr Warmington's view of the MP as distributor of scarce benefits from the State is unacceptable because it seeks to legitimise personal control of patronage or the politics of clientelism.

Regrettably that view has, for too long, encouraged the creation and maintenance of garrisons and zones of political exclusion by the two parties that have alternated in government for the entire period of modern politics in Jamaica.

Mr Warmington will not be asked to pay a political price for his remarks. Others may very well share the sentiments but are too timid to be forthright; maybe they would rather disapprove quietly. What is unacceptable is to mainstream such values.

Compulsory Voting Not the Answer

Some commentators (including the opposition leader and a Gleaner editorial Thursday) would like to use the part of Mr Warmington's speech about everybody voting as a basis to start a debate about the merits of compulsory voting, especially in light of low turnout in recent elections.

The argument for compulsory voting is fundamentally flawed because it turns logic upside down. By its very nature a democratic right is not something that government can enforce by law. Government cannot insist that I use my right or risk my liberty; a right means that the government cannot arbitrarily deprive me of it.

You cannot simultaneously sustain an argument that something is a right and a duty. A right is exercised (or withheld) by free choice. A duty or an obligation can be enforced by law. To make the case we would have to make voting a legal obligation instead of it being a civil right.

We have the constitutional right to freedom of worship. Would we accept a law sending us to jail if we chose not to worship? I think not.

On the matter of turnout, the data show that national turnout has declined steadily since the 1990s: It was 65.2 per cent in 1997, falling to 59.04 per cent in 2002; and dropping further to 53 per cent in 2011, and there are no immediate signs of the trend reversing.

According to the 2012 study on Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and the Americas by Professor Anthony Harriott and his colleagues at the University of the West Indies, participation in elections in Jamaica was found to be "among the lowest" for the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, any discussion about reversing the trend should begin by asking why turnout has been declining. Are people losing faith in the capacity of politics to solve the major societal problems? Has politics descended into electoral machines rather than forums for the discussion and solution of these problems?

Compulsory voting is not worth debating. It would be just another distraction from the urgent need to confront the monster of violent crime and an underperforming economy that is not attracting sufficient new investment or creating good jobs. Further, another new law would just add more bureaucratic strings to a governance process already constricted by knots, and give us another set of laws to respect more in the breach than the observance.

Yes, we need to find a solution to the crisis of politics. Professor Rupert Lewis, delivering the 2013 Michael Manley Foundation lecture in memory of the former People's National Party (PNP) president and prime minister of Jamaica, compared the current period of social and economic uncertainty with the 1930s that gave birth to "social movements" that spawned modern politics.

He argued that the labour movement, arising out of the post-depression world of the 1930s, created the political parties. The PNP gave political expression to the various social movements and advocacy groups, while Bustamante created the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union to give organisational direction to the concerns of workers.

The current period, since the 2008 financial crisis, resembles the previous period but there is no apparent political response. Instead, we may be seeing another kind of broad-based social movement around criminality (the dons and gangs who control many urban centres). Professor Lewis suggests we may be seeing "new normalcies" emerging.

Question is, what institutions are we prepared to build and fight for in order to create different economic and social outcomes than where we seem to be heading?

I believe we, as Jamaicans, have the experience and good sense to find answers if we engage in the required conversations. We will not find them in what I have previously described as "the normalisation of dysfunction" to which Mr Warmington seems to beckon us.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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