A tale of two Jamaica's — Part 1

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

— from A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859

The opening of Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities is considered one of English literature's most famous and moving. The book, first published in 1859, takes place in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.

The story follows the lives of Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who renounces his title and wealth, and Sydney Carton, a dissipated lawyer who bears a striking resemblance to Darnay. The two men become entangled in a love triangle with Lucie Manette, a young Frenchwoman raised in England and the daughter of Dr Manette, a physician imprisoned in the Bastille for many years.

Throughout the book, Dickens suggests the dual nature of the time in which the novel is set through detailed themes of love, sacrifice, social justice, and resurrection, as well as the chaos and violence of the French Revolution and how it affected people on both sides of the English Channel, including the intense effects of political upheaval on individuals in society.

Although published over 150 years ago, many of the novel's themes and motifs remain relevant. One of the most enduring themes in the novel is the struggle of oppressed people against tyranny and oppression currently reflected in the battles of marginalised communities around the world who are fighting for their rights and freedoms.

The novel also explores the idea of sacrifice for the greater good and the power of love to overcome even the most difficult circumstances, which continue to resonate today. Moreover, the novel's historical perspective of political and social upheaval highlights the dangers of violent revolution and the need for balance and moderation in political change.

The enduring themes of the novel rattled my senses as a teenager and continue to provoke my thoughts, especially today, especially in Jamaica.

With over 60 per cent of our adult population refusing to participate in a general election, either by not registering to vote or not voting, clearly something isn't right.

It never used to be this way. A careful look at the data identifies a time when Jamaicans were interested in participating in the political outcomes of their lives. For example, between the general election of 1967 and 1980, the voter turnout was from a low of 77.88 per cent to a high of 86.91 per cent, while between 2011 to 2020 it fell from 51.1 per cent to 37.85 per cent. Since 1980 we have lost 50 per cent of our voter turnout.

What are we to do in the face of these statistics? Should we continue with business-as-usual content to watch this number grow exponentially yearly?

When such a majority couldn't care less about who makes the decisions regarding the laws governing their everyday lives we need to stop, as leaders, press the reset button, and choose a different path.

In this tale of two Jamaicas, the majority don't believe the system works. They think politicians are in it for their own self-interest, or they've grown accustomed to seeing people take irrational or indefensible party lines disregarding the national interest. They don't believe it works because they don't know the value of their livelihood improving. Roads are not fixed over generations, even though they pay their taxes. Many in rural areas don't have running water; they feel unsafe, and their children go to university and can't get a job. All this promotes the belief that all politicians are liars and can't be trusted.

Yet there is no shortage of political rhetoric from both parties, which impedes our ability to get past tribal dogma and practices. Something has clearly got to give. We need to change some fundamentals. It will take big Ideas, bold leadership, and visionary decision taking to provoke the curiosity of this generation to be optimistic about Jamaica's future direction.

However, before we can, we must address the disconnect between the public's perceived role of a Member of Parliament and their actual daily responsibilities.

I have often remarked to people that the role of a Member of Parliament (MP) spans so much more than Sections 36 and 48 of our constitution:

36) The House of Representatives shall consist of persons who, being qualified for election as members in accordance with the provisions of this constitution, have been so elected in the manner provided by or under any law for the time being in force in Jamaica and who shall be known as "Members of Parliament

48) (1) Subject to the provisions of this constitution, Parliament may make laws for the peace, order, and good government of Jamaica.

MPs are expected to formally attend Parliament once per week and multiple times during sectoral or committee meetings. But this is primarily what the public sees. The real work of an MP is on the ground in their constituencies.

Today, MPs are the human resource directors for an average of 30,000 people. They must make themselves available at all hours of the day and night for people who are frustrated and angry at the system’s failure, which keeps them marginalised on the periphery of society.

MPs are the buffer that absorbs their anger and, most times, are compelled to personally and financially assist them in buying food and medication, sending their children to school, burying their loved ones, and listening to their pleas. In addition, as an MP, we must secure funding for the constituency infrastructure of good roads, consistent water supply, and the provision of electricity, which can no doubt run into billions of dollars.

We are held accountable for ensuring that the state apparatus operates efficiently and that taxpayers get value for money. We are directly responsible for directing the Constituency Development Fund’s $20 million, which addresses our constituencies’ developmental prototypes. All constituencies receive the exact amounts through this fund even though rural constituencies are 20 times larger in physical size than urban constituencies. So, most times, if we don’t fight aggressively for more money through our advocacy, we are held at the mercy of state agencies and ministries for additional assistance.

Our constituency office operates as an ‘employment agency’. It is required to assist with resources to help our farmers, small entrepreneurs, and other self-employed Jamaicans with fertiliser and other small grants for their businesses.

Being an MP is more than a full-time job, with some days running up to 16 hours. In addition, MPs play a critical role in Jamaica’s educational, social, and sporting fabric, as we appoint school boards and must make ourselves available to attend school functions and other community events.

In corporate Jamaica, individuals are paid commensurate with the budget they influence and the employees for whom they are responsible. The closest role within the private sector that could come close to the part of an MP would be for an HR director for a company of over 5,000 employees or, in the public sector, that of a significant high school principal.

The recent announcement of salary increases to 63 MPs and ministers of government, et al, was handled poorly. How it was announced conveyed that we were aristocrats taking advantage of the general and civil service population, equivalent to Marie Antoinette saying, “Let them eat cake!”

To be continued…

Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People’s National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.

Lisa Hanna

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