It has been said that most journalists are would-be politicians. But most do not enter the fray because they do not have the guts for it. Perhaps that is why there has always been a love/hate relationship between politicians and journalists - a curious tension that never goes away and which in a real way is good for a healthy democracy.
Then again, it is much easier to sit in the stands and criticise the players on the field. Having been a journalist, publisher, talk-show host, public affairs commentator and newspaper columnist now turned politician, I have become sufficiently convinced that Jamaican politicians are the most maligned, misunderstood and under-rated public officials in this country. And perhaps they deserve to be so treated because in a real way they have not sought to change the status quo.
After having enjoyed (or is it endured?) 50 years of political Independence, there is yet to be a meaningful re-examination of what is the role of a member of parliament (MP). Instead, MPs continue to take selected battering from the media, civil society and their constituents without truly fighting back. Today, politicians are not trusted, they are for the most part seen as corrupt, evil, self-serving egomaniacs who spend most of their time distributing scarce benefits and spoils primarily to their supporters, families and friends. Now, don't get me wrong, not all politicians are squeaky clean, honest and patriotic; some are unquestionable villains - but the tendency to use a huge, broad brush to paint negatively every single MP that enters Gordon House is grossly unfair and unreasonable.
The sad truth is that MPs for the most part are given basket to carry water while there is the perception out there that he or she can move mountains and turn water into wine. In the early years, MPs (or MHRs - Members of the House of Representatives) were primarily seen and deemed to be legislators/lawmakers and lobbyists. Nowadays, a political representative has to be all things to all men and for all intents and purposes is a Mr Boops: "See Boops deh, come mek we nyam him out."
During my pre-election campaign, I declared that I was not into the business of just giving handouts. In other words, I wanted to teach my constituents to fish rather than provide them with "fish heads". This is more easily said than done! It was Michael Manley who declared that if left to themselves political parties become merely the distributors of the spoils of office. It is in this context that MPs find themselves having to play Santa Claus every month of the year.
One of the accusations levelled against our politicians is that they have deliberately held back a large portion of the populace through a low standard of education and abject poverty to ensure that they can be easily manipulated at the polls. The only way to change that perception is for each MP to ensure that he or she places a great deal of emphasis on education and economic empowerment rather than the usual "bollo work" and unsustainable projects.
The average citizen is of the view that MPs are awash in state money. This is not so. I have never received any cash or cheque in my name from government, apart from my salary. Indeed, there is so much red tape, to-ing and fro-ing with respect to accessing government funds to get anything done, one wonders how there is so much alleged corruption in the system that remains undetected. Then there is the issue of government contracts which many believe is the trough which provides MPs with numerous kickbacks. But is this as widespread as is being touted? In any event, a vigilant Contractor General and a no-nonsense Integrity Commission should do their job effectively without fear or favour.
A few months after I became an MP, a middle-aged man approached me about fully financing his wedding because he had voted for me. Almost daily, MPs are asked to fill prescriptions, pay tuition fees, rent, and mortgage, repair motor vehicles, buy out the bar, bury the dead, and I could go on. Should this really be the main role and function of a member of parliament? There are those who argue that the salary of MPs should be decreased. It is no secret that many MPs end up spending most of their salaries in providing goods and services for their constituencies. MPs have been known to end up stone broke at the end of their tenure in office. In my book, given the level of responsibility and commitment that MPs have to bear, they deserve to be better paid. This may well be one way to prevent some MPs from resorting to corruption in order to stay afloat financially. Otherwise, only well-heeled individuals or those with connection to ill-gotten gains will be eligible for office. Can this be good for our democratic way of life?
The role of MP needs to be redefined and what better time than now.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.