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Reframing leadership and reimagining our politics

Canute Thompson, PhD

Sunday, December 31, 2017

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Judging by the number of people who voted in the last five general elections, it is reasonable to conclude that a large portion to a majority of the population is not interested in politics. Data on the website of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica show a clear pattern in declining voting percentages over the last three elections. Jamaica shows a clear pattern in declining voting percentages over the last three elections. This assertion could be made about the last five years except for a one-year upward tick. The voting percentages from the last five general elections, 1997 to 2016 are (See Table 1 below).

If the results indeed suggest that many to most Jamaicans are not interested in politics the obvious next question is why?

Pundits have suggested that among the explanations for the lack of interest by many are:

(i) the divisive nature of our politics;

(ii) the tendency of some politicians to engage in reckless promising and not delivering;

(iii) a basic mistrust of politicians;

(iv) the alleged connection of some politicians with criminals; and

(v) the presumption that politicians' actions are driven by what advances the interests of their friends and supporters.

I believe that each of those explanations holds a measure of truth, and during the course of the last several months I have advanced suggestions to address some elements of some of these. Among the suggestions I have made were:

(1) Given the divisive nature of our politics, I have suggested the establishment of parameters for declaring some posts in the public service to be for political appointees, thus removing others from undue political influence and control. In that regard, the removal of non-political appointees from office, except on grounds of misconduct or underperformance (which would be determined by due process), would be unlawful. The threat of being targeted because one is suspected to be a non-supporter is a real threat at present, and for this reason some people remain non-voters.

(2) In relation to the issue of the reckless making of promises, I have suggested the establishment of an independent body that would be charged with the responsibility of assessing the financial viability and budgetary and inflationary impact of promises made by political parties that are vying for office. The findings of such a body would be made public. In addition, I have suggested that impeachment proceedings be possible in certain cases of solemn promises not kept and reckless promises, which were pointed out to be such, being kept and which have had dire consequences for the economy.

(3) With respect to the alleged relationships between criminal gangs and some politicians, I have proposed that one way of undermining the likelihood of these politicians winning office is to make voting mandatory as well as allow members of the diaspora to vote. Further elements of this third suggestion form the substance of this submission.

Ending the two-party culture

Part of the problem with our political arrangements is the apparent binding hold of a two-party system on our democracy. While there is no law forbidding the creation of other political parties, the reality is that third parties have not thrived in Jamaica. One consequence of this is a shallow democracy in which the two major political parties — the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) — take turns at leading, and in the process seek to further their own interests.

One of the debates that is now emerging is which of the two parties, while in government, is more corrupt. That this issue can be the subject of debate is a sign of how sick our politics remains.

A related debate concerns which of the two parties is the less popular in terms of the percentage of the voting population that voted for it in the last few elections. The score seems evenly split (using the last four elections), with the current Administration getting the brunt of the overall pattern of decline in voting. Thus, in 2002 (when the PNP won), 59.04 per cent of the electorate participated. Despite a comeback from a four-seat loss in 2007, to a 2:1 seat win in 2011, there was a lower turnout of 53.17 per cent. In the case of the JLP, which won in 2007 when there was a 61.46 per cent voter turnout, it was able to come back from the 2:1 wipe-out in 2011 to win almost all the marginal seats, thus securing a one-seat majority but with only 48.37 per cent of the electorate. Thus, while the fortunes of the political parties rise and fall, but largely fall, the majority of Jamaicans are losing faith in the political system.

In light of the foregoing, one of the questions that face us is this: What steps can we take to ensure that we enliven our democracy?

Enlivening our democracy means, among other things, that:

(a) more people participate in the democratic process through voting, attending town hall meetings, as well as following and commenting on public issues, etc;

(b) an increase in the number of people who vie for public office;

(c) those who hold office are held to high standards of accountability;

(d) public funds are used in ways that advance the public good; and

(e) the conditions of the country are demonstrably improved under the stewardship of each generation of leaders.

Reframing leadership

Happily the laws have now been amended to require the official registration of political parties. A party that has 500 members may well become eligible for State funding, which will not exceed 40 per cent of the party's income for the previous financial year's operations. That is a good first step. But there are other important steps that need to be taken. Among these important next steps are proportional parliamentary representation and impeachment of public officials.

By instituting these mechanisms into the fabric of our laws and constitution we are likely to breathe new life into our democracy and ultimately create the conditions for improving the quality of life for our people.

Given the fact that we have been talking about these matters for generations, and given our recent display of capacity to enact laws at breakneck pace, I urge the Government and the Opposition to finally step up to the plate and show leadership in these areas.

Perhaps these reforms could be the shining legacy of Andrew Holness, who wears with pride the label of being the first prime minister who was born after Independence. One way in which this relatively meaningless fact could mean something substantive is if Holness were to become the first prime minister to undertake the most far-reaching reforms to our laws and constitution. Such reforms should be transformational and thus position Jamaica at a place that is self-evidently different from where it currently is.

These reforms could also be the PNP's most important legacy. As the party that has led the country for most of the years since universal adult suffrage, the PNP's institutional knowledge of the contours of governance is deeper than the JLP's. Taking the lead in advancing proposals to transform our politics would be a tribute to the people of Jamaica by a party which has had to contend with the limits and challenges of the system.

If either of the current leaders of the JLP and PNP desire to be immortalised in the memory of the Jamaican people, they must ask themselves, as Norman Manley did: What is the mission of my generation?

Norman Manley interpreted his mission to be that of political independence. I submit that the mission of this generation of leaders must include elevating the tone and tenor of political discourse, creating the framework for greater inclusivity and accountability, and establishing the foundations for sustained economic independence.

Reimagining our politics

In seeking to promote their legacies,, and at the same time advancing Jamaica's interests, I urge the Government and the Opposition to go further than we have gone in amendments to the Representation of the People Act. Among the other reforms that may be considered are that:

(i) voting in parliamentary and local government elections be made mandatory;

(ii) the number of seats in the House of Representatives be roughly doubled to be at least 121;

(iii) one seat be allocated for every 10,000 votes earned by a political party (based on a national count) on a basis such as 10,000 - 19,999, one seat; 20,000 - 29,999, two seats; 30,000 - 39,999, three seats, and so on;

(iv) the members of the diaspora be allowed to vote, within strict parameters;

(v) the party invited to form a Government be the one which obtains a majority (62) of the 121 seats;

(vi) seats in the Senate be also doubled and parties that have earned in excess of an agreed number of votes be allowed to name members to the Senate for blocks of tens of thousands of votes (perhaps one seat for every 30,000 on the same principle as (iii) above);

(vii) donations in excess of a total of $100,000 per year to any political party must be declared to the Electoral Commission, and failure to make such declaration should constitute a punishable offence under the corruption prevention law; and

(viii) performance standards for all members of the Parliament and Cabinet be established legally.

Postscript

Garfield Higgins seems quite adept at hurling insults. I have, and desire, no competence in that arena. I called out Higgins on three occasions on what was manifestly jaundiced reasoning. Higgins claimed that he saw no evidence that crime was a major concern to Jamaicans. He also took Lisa Hanna and the PNP to task over an Office of the Contractor General (OCG) report, but remains silent on a report of the said OCG in relation to the Andrew Holness Administration. Higgins also claims that the JLP Government has created 3,000 new jobs in the Jamaica Constabulary Force. This is simply not true. Those posts were created in 2014. There are other half-truths which Higgins advances, but I ignore them. If he wishes to engage in a debate we can have that, but I have no interest in hurling insults.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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