Last week I carved out three days to take my family to the north coast for a well-needed respite. My son was recuperating from undergoing emergency surgery for appendicitis, and my husband needed to come off the grid. As the planner and fixer of everything for the family, I ensured it happened.
So, off we went to one of my favourite spots in Montego Bay. Those who know me understand that my brain never stops working. I am always thinking. At times, my personality may be deemed as if I am distant or aloof amid company. However, I am fully present, yet I have 360 degrees of appreciation for everything else taking place around me, especially the well-being of others and how to protect the circle I'm in from external danger. It's just how I am.
I am the person who walks into a room, surveils the place, and thinks, "If something hazardous should happen, where are the best exits?" Maybe it's all those years of karate training or how I was born — to always be resilient.
This is why I always find the time to speak to people to understand how they live, feel, and cope within their communities. Are they resilient or have the ability to be? If not, what is their exit strategy?
So, when I sit down at a restaurant, I spend a lot of time with the servers and customer service staff in deep conversation:
"Where in Jamaica are you from? How long have you been working in the hospitality industry? How long does it take you to get to work? Do you have children? What are your weekly transport costs? How much of your salary does your transport cost eat up? What do you need to change in Jamaica to make your life better? Who is your Member of Parliament? Are you voting in the next election?
By checkout time, the servers, the room attendants, the hotel porters, the gardeners, and the front office staff are a part of my family, and I feel like I am a part of theirs. I engaged over 20 members of staff.
Generally, on this trip, everyone was polite, well-trained, and responsive, but they were emotionally weary; they wore that fatigue in their eyes. Some had back-to-back shifts, while others spoke about societal and policy concerns.
There was a running theme throughout all the conversations:
(1) transportation and food costs took the majority of their salary;
(2) they felt fearful about the levels of crime and violence in the country;
(3) they thought the country could improve in several different ways;
(4) they didn't have a problem with the hotel taxing their salary and gratuity, but when a guest leaves a tip that should be untaxed;
(5) they will not vote in the next election as they don't see what they are voting for.
Only one staff member said he would vote in the next election. He was older, perhaps in his mid-50s. All the others I spoke with were in their early 30s to early 40s.
"Miss Lisa, what have politicians really done for us? I don't see it..."
Invariably, they end that sentence with "I am sorry to say it like that, but..." — feeling as if they have to apologise to me since I am a politician. I never interrupt. I let them talk.
The truth is that the indifference and apathy towards the country's running is thick. But this is not only among a particular working group. In my travels and interactions across the country, it seems to be rampant.
The people are demotivated, and I am worried about the future of our democracy. Several times I've expressed these sentiments against the background that only 38 per cent of eligible voters came out to vote in the 2020 General Election, which was a severe concern then. What if that percentage gets lower in the next general election?
Similarly, the evidence from the voter turnout in the past local government elections of Jamaicans eligible to vote in 2016 was 30 per cent, 34 per cent in 2011, and 37.92 per cent in 2007. Nearly 70 per cent of those who could vote did not. Yet both political parties are campaigning hard, hurtling towards what many surmise is a local government election early next year.
In the face of these stats, and how people feel, something has to change to enthuse our people about participating in Jamaican governance, similar to how our people get excited about our athletes in international competitions.
To me, our entire Westminster system needs to be overhauled. For example, the criteria for selecting the best representative for a constituency are not necessarily the same as those used to appoint the best minister to manage a ministry for example. In our system, ministers are typically selected and rewarded based on their political fortitude and alliance with the party's leader rather than on their specialised core competencies. Furthermore, it's a final decision without accountability or public transparency unless the prime minister feels otherwise inclined.
In the meantime, many people want a change and clamour about de-politicising things they feel are necessary for their long-term development.
Maybe as a start, to get them to participate, both political parties could come together and agree that: (1) Crime, violence, and personal safety; (2) education; and (3) roadwork and infrastructure should not be used as political footballs for each team to score a victory. If this were to happen, maybe the public would begin believing it's about 'country first' rather than winning.
In other words, what are the things most valuable to our people? What do they feel has not worked for them over successive governments?
Let's start there for them to see that their voices matter and strengthen our democracy. We cannot be proud that only the bare minimum are going to the polls.
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.