Columns

Those who do not count

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, January 19, 2014    

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THERE is a book written by a female theologian by the name of Megan McKenna and published by Orbis Press, entitled Not Counting Women and Children. It takes its name from the story of the feeding of the 5,000 as recorded in St Matthew 14:21 in which the author, in making his summation of the incident, notes that "those fed were about five thousand men, not counting women and children".

McKenna argues that this is another manifestation of patriarchy which discounts the value of women. To that extent the religious community, even in the context of sacred Scripture, is not without its share of participation in reflecting time-bound religious and cultural prejudices which have devalued certain people.

Within recent days we have seen the devaluation of people taking on a new twist within Jamaica's political culture. We have heard pronouncements from member of parliament for South West St Catherine, Mr Everald Warmington, in which he makes the most strident statements as to who counts and who do not when it comes to the distribution of and participation in the benefits which the system of governance oversees.

And while there are many who are quick to request that Mr Warmington retract his utterance or apologise, I would not be so quick to join that platform.

Mr Warmington has been known to make controversial utterances from time to time and is easily written off by some. And yet, it is good that he speaks, because in so doing, he reveals his views and, I dare say, those of many within the leadership of our political parties and the political culture.

I commend him for the fact that even while speaking on a partisan political platform, he is able to say to his audience that in his role as a member of parliament, he represents the people of every political persuasion within his constituency. I have no basis on which to dispute the veracity of that assertion. He also makes it clear that his comments are not to be taken just as a partisan statement, but that his position should be reflective of the stance of both major political parties in this country.

I also commend him for an aspect of his presentation which can easily be lost in the package in which it was delivered, namely, that it is important that citizens participate in the political process for the sustainability of our democracy, noting also that the democracy which we enjoy today is the outcome of the struggles of our forebears, and a right for which people all over the world continue to fight even to this day. Many Jamaicans have become blasé concerning our heritage and the honouring of it.

That being said, there is much that is objectionable about what Mr Warmington has to say, and which betrays also a failure to do the introspection which those involved in representational politics must ask if they are to lead this nation forward.

Mr Warmington is right in pointing to the fact that 48 per cent of the eligible voters did not vote in the last General Elections, but he must pay attention to the growing percentage of non-voters over the years, and must ask, why is this so?

The fact is that there is an increasing number of persons who are turned off from political involvement because of what they see happening within the political parties and their functionaries and what happens when they become the government of the day. There is, for example, a partisan political culture that pays little attention to the selection of candidates who are from among the constituencies they are slated to represent, and who can reflect the views of the people in terms of their perception of what they see as the way forward for the development of their community.

Instead, citizens are presented with a system which is based on advancing candidates who will win a seat. To that end, whatever outburst there may be from civil society concerning Mr Warmington's utterance, he will be returned as the candidate for his party, as he knows how to win a seat. His party will have precious little to say regarding his comments, and the governing party will be just as silent, as the sentiments echo the reality of Jamaica's partisan political culture.

People refuse to vote because they see how citizens are used to win elections by appealing to and manipulating the most basic survival needs with some handouts and pre-election promises, oftentimes placed in a document called a manifesto, which has no mileage after victory at the polls.

They see also how they and their community are punished by politicians for failure to let them or their fellow candidate be successful at the polls -- the water supply, the road repairs, or the street lighting programme that stops short of the section of the community that voted for the 'wrong side'.

Whatever may be the public utterances from party spokespersons, there is a growing cynicism among our people who are aware of the dynamics of life in their local community as determined by political alliance and allegiance.

While politicians take the rap when it comes to corruption and negative perception, it is nonetheless true that people are turned off by the frequency with which there are violations of procurement and other guidelines related to contracts by those holding public office who are not subject to any sanctions, even as there seems to be reluctance within the machinery of the political parties to pass legislation which will make persons accountable and liable for prosecution for violations which are deemed to be of a corrupt nature.

Likewise, the society awaits legislation that will put all the various agencies dealing with issues of corruption under one administration.

There is also a growing trend of political inbreeding which is creating a situation in which some offices and political appointments are moving inter-generationally within some narrow circles. It does not go unnoticed that major public appointments to institutions and boards have a particular political colour reflecting the governing party of the day. People who aspire to serve their country and who are not prepared to play the partisan game are by-passed, regardless of competence.

It is not true that people are not interested in participation in the political life of the nation, but they want to see that there is a greater acknowledgement and affirmation of the individual's independence and integrity of thought and action, which does not make them suspect if they are aligned to a pparticular party or not.

It is for the same reason that many would like to see the nation move in a direction in which the Upper House is able to have more independent senators who can then reflect a broader perspective, informed by their competence, engagement of issues, and reflecting their conscience decision making process, rather than be muzzled by pre-appointment resignation letters for stepping out of line.

Listening to Mr Warmington's speech, one gets the impression that the service which elected officials and those in governance offer to the people of their constituency, and of the country as a whole, are merely expressions of the beneficence of those who deliver them and are to be shared solely with those who pass the litmus test.

It is reflective of a spirit that often comes across in the politics of this nation which implies that citizens are to be grateful for whatever resources and services are made available and projects undertaken. The fact is that every citizen of this country has a right to share in the resources of this country, as everyone pays into the public purse by way of taxes, whether or not they vote in General Elections.

People who are actively involved in the political life of this nation come in every shape or form economically and socially. It is true, however, that the partisan political machinery often uses the troops who are usually on the fringes and most malleable to be the gallery for making noise and shouting their support, whether at a demonstration on the roads or at the opening of Parliament.

Chances are that, with the diminishing number of voters and players in the political process, the affairs of this country may be left to those who can muster the loudest and most boisterous troops.

Rather than doing a disservice to the nation and being the insult some have made it out to be, Mr Warmington has probably done us a service by bringing into the open issues for which the Jamaican family has either been in denial or too afraid or uncomfortable to address.

We must determine whether this increasing trend of withdrawal from voting is some kind of evil design of the electorate aimed at frustrating our democracy, or whether people are fed up with those who lead within our democracy and how they deal with our franchise and the power entrusted to them.

Likewise, those who have been in the inner and active circle of party politics as voters or candidates must ask themselves if this is not a time for introspection and self-evaluation. The future of our nation and our democracy demands answers to these questions. Or shall we allow those who can shout the loudest to speak for us?

— Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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