Let the people decide

Monday, August 25, 2014    

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LONG gone are the days when democracy involved direct consultation with the people. We have all heard of the romanticised ideal of the Greek city states where the citizens could gather in a public square and express their views and preferences on actual and, more importantly, proposed policies.

The day is fast approaching — in those countries that are wealthy enough to afford it — when governments will ascertain the views of the people in real time by electronic voting systems. Until then, governments that are genuinely democratic have to consult the people in one of two ways, first, by putting the issues to a vote or second, by sampling public opinion through polling or listening to opinions in the print media and on talk shows.

The latter approach is problematic because it is fraught with bias and prone to sampling errors.

By far the more preferable form of consulting the people is by allowing them to vote either via a referendum in which there is one question to be settled or by placing issues on the ballot at the time of national elections.

The difficulties with direct consultation are many, but we are convinced that it is the right thing to do to give legitimacy to decisions through the expressed will of the people.

It is, of course, costly in finance, time and administration, especially if it involves polling the entire country on a single issue. Also, putting issues on the ballot in national elections means having to wait for such elections which, depending on the constitution, may be every four or five years and sometimes up to seven years.

In addition to the operational aspects of direct consultation there is the need to decide what issues should be referred to the people and when such referral should take place. In most countries the constitution stipulates what type of issues should be put to a referendum, but this gives the government the power to omit issues including changing or revising the constitution itself.

In Jamaica, we have had two types of referrals to the people, the mandate to govern and policy issues. Getting or renewing a mandate to form the government and to govern must happen at least every five years as stipulated in the Constitution. An example of consulting the people on a policy issue was when Norman Manley called a referendum on whether Jamaica should remain in or leave the West Indies Federation.

Elections called to get a new mandate was Norman Manley's calling a general election to see which political party should form the first government of an independent Jamaica, similarly the 1980 general election was a choice between democratic socialism and a non-IMF path and free market capitalism with an IMF agreement.

Shortly after the death of Michael Manley, Prime Minister PJ Patterson sought and gained his own mandate to govern.

Portia Simpson-Miller waited too long to get her own mandate after being elected leader of the PNP and had to wait through a JLP Government.

The Jamaican example should be a valuable and instructive lesson for other Caricom countries. The Government of Kamla Persad-Bissessar is well advanced in a process being conducted with indecent haste and devoid of direct consultation of the people.

If the proposed major changes to the political system in Trinidad and Tobago are to enjoy the legitimacy which will be necessary for them to be put into operation there must be a genuine process of consultation.

Such consultation must involve full disclosure and explanations to the public through a public education campaign. Adequate time must be allowed for public discourse and response.

The issue should be put to a referendum and given that the very contentious national debate has settled along political party lines, with the UNC Government in favour and the PNM Opposition against, it may require the Government getting a new mandate, in which case the Government can either proceed by holding a general election immediately, or putting the issue on the ballot at the next general election, which is due by the middle of 2015.





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