Bunting's epiphany

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

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Peter Bunting, Member of Parliament for Manchester Central, is clearly one of the most articulate, vocal, and cerebral members of the People's National Party (PNP) hierarchy. He is not afraid to say what is on his mind. I do not believe that his seeming feistiness is a result of his wealth — which would suggest to some people that he has the independence to say anything he wants since he is not beholden to anyone. I would give him the benefit of the doubt that his views on public issues result from deeply held beliefs that he is not afraid to espouse, whether people agree with him or not.

He has more than suggested that he has the ambition of becoming leader of the PNP and, by extension, a future prime minister of Jamaica. The opinions he holds, and publicly expresses, and how he votes on national policies in Parliament will have a direct bearing on how he is perceived in the halls of the PNP and in the bar of public opinion. His wealth notwithstanding, these can have deleterious or complementary effects on his political ambitions, which to his credit he has not hidden under a bushel.

With these considerations in the background, Bunting has voted against the extension of the state of public emergency measure now in operation in St James, Hanover and Westmoreland. In doing so he went against the stated wishes of his party, which, in both the House and now the Senate, voted to support the Government in this measure. Why did he do this knowing that he is going against his party and against a measure that most Jamaicans seem to be in agreement with?

Some would argue that this is a politically fatal decision on his part. The accepted norm is that those who defy the party in matters of grave importance can expect to pay a political price. This is often seen in the distancing of members from that member, both in the upper and lower ranks of the party.

Bunting was bold in taking the stance he did. Of even greater importance is the reason or reasons for the position he took. His fundamental argument, as I understand it, is that the present use of emergency powers to contain crime is unconstitutional; if the Government wants to use emergency powers as a tool in fighting crime it should do the decent thing and amend the constitution to this end. He is protesting what seems to be an emerging trend that whenever there is a flare-up of violence anywhere in the society we resort to suppressive measures under a state of emergency to contain it. He is pointing to the danger of such behaviour by the State becoming normative and, hence, the danger it poses to our democratic way of life.

There is a compelling weight to this argument. I too am concerned that if states of emergency are seen as the norm then they will lose their efficacy when they are really needed for the purposes they are intended to fulfil. In a murderous society it is easy to resort to short-term suppressive measures to fight crime, but this cannot be to the suspension of the fundamental rights of citizens on an ongoing basis. This is the case even if these measures enjoy massive public support.

It is foolhardy and dangerous for anyone to believe that this is the way forward anytime the country comes under this kind of pressure. What if they fail to contain the violence-producers? How seriously will people take them when they are really needed if the State should come under a severe existential threat?

Emphasis has to be placed on the long-term containment of crime. I support the present measures only for the fact that it should give Government the breathing space it needs to come up with more long-term measures to fight the murderous rampage in our midst. This may be in the form of legislation that can strengthen law enforcement and the apprehension of the violence-producers among us; policies that help in the speedy recruitment and training of new personnel; the strident and proactive reform of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and a greater integration of the army in the fight against crime; and the solidification and protection of the fundamental rights of citizens within this broader framework of crime prevention and containment.

Bunting is right in firing a warning shot to the nation that it must be wary of not blunting the efficacy of the state of emergency as a tool of last resort in bringing law and order to the society. The Government must move with haste to introduce measures which will lessen the State's dependency on this as a crime-fighting tool. It is not and should not be used as a tool in fighting crime. It has 90 days in which to come to the nation with a strategic and executable policy of how it intends to cauterise murders and lessen the fear under which people live. Assorted states of emergency in different parts of the country, or indeed over the whole country, might be palliatives to the fearful, but in the end they do not bring the desired long-term results.

Kudos to Bunting for having the temerity or the boldness — whichever way you look at it — in jolting the nation to this reality.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.


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