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Holness wants Diaspora in Parliament

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, May 08, 2013    

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OPPOSITION Leader Andrew Holness says that the country should find a way to formally include the voice of the Jamaican Diaspora in Parliament as part of the broadening of its democracy and increasing citizen participation.

Holness says that after 50 years of Independence, there are a number of institutions, systems and practices which need rethinking, including the participation of the Jamaican Diaspora in the country's political process.

"It is time to reconsider the section of our constitution that allows only British Commonwealth citizens the opportunity to possibly sit in our Parliament," he said in an interview with Jamaica Observer's editors and senior reporters last week Monday at the newspaper's Beechwood Avenue head office in Kingston.

He pointed out that when the Jamaican constitution was written in 1962, it considered historical links with the British Commonwealth, but that consideration only allowed for Commonwealth citizens to be elected or appointed to Parliament. However, he pointed out that, after 50 years of independence, Jamaica now has a Diaspora roughly the same size of its local population.

Of significance, Holness said, was that the largest subset of the population lives in United States, and the non-British Commonwealth population was significantly larger, and growing faster, than the British Commonwealth Jamaican Diaspora population

"I believe Jamaica now has a 'commonwealth' of its own in the form of the Jamaican Diaspora. It represents a significant asset to Jamaica, not only for the remittances, but more so for the tremendous human resources and international access that it secures for Jamaica. When we started with our constitution in 1962, we didn't have this large Diaspora, sending money back to Jamaica, which is part of our gross national product, and are very much interested in our progress," he said.

Holness also noted that a special select committee of Parliament was established under the previous Jamaica Labour Party Administration, in response to the dual citizenship issue to explore possible constitution amendments in this regard.

He pointed out that other countries such as Israel and India have found ways other than remittances to seriously leverage their Diaspora. However, Jamaica has been unable to find a way to formally include and more extensively leverage the Diaspora in national development.

"So, there is this large society of persons who are very vocal and many of whom are well resourced, but they are not in any political party; is there a way to bring them into the parlay of parliament, or into the decision-making of government?" He indicated that this was an issue that he is now actively examining.

Asked whether he felt the Diaspora should have the right to vote, Holness said: "If a reasonable mechanism could be found to create a constituency for them, and that reasonable mechanism could be something like a hybrid proportional representation system, where they would be a limited number of seats reserved for nationally defined constituencies or an agreed expansion of the Senate to allow independent appointments by the governor general, I am saying that there are many possibilities and we must be prepared to think out of the box and sometimes break with tradition.

"They are an integral part of our economy, sending billions of dollars back home in remittances. They clearly have an interest in how Jamaica operates, but are still trying to figure out how they can help. It is clear that the Diaspora conferences are not sufficient in moving this thing along and they get frustrated sometimes, so they try to help with things like partnering with schools, old boys' associations and things like that. But many of them would want to have a voice, and that is Parliament — a voice in how things are done," he said.

In the past, the relationship between Jamaica and its Diaspora revolved basically around issues like investment opportunities and remittances, but more recently there has been a clamour from overseas Jamaicans for a friendlier bureaucracy, to enable easier access to things like passports, land titles and birth and death certificates, as well as smoother customs and postal operations.

The most important link with the country and its Diaspora has been the remittances sent home by these Jamaicans abroad. This has hovered in the region of US$1.7 billion with a slight 0.6 per cent increase last year over 2011 to US$1.76 billion. Although there have been some efforts to lure the Diaspora into some serious investments at home, this has been hampered by bureaucracy and crime figures.

Over the years, the government has undertaken a number of initiatives to mobilise the Diaspora, strengthen its linkages with home and enhance its contribution to national development. This is spearheaded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, with community relations officers at missions in main destination countries to assist the diaspora in various ways, including settling or resettling migrants, promoting rights, and helping the sick and those imprisoned abroad.

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