Jamaicans deserve a strong system of governance and national leaders who are inspired to work together to reshape our democracy as we look to a future strongly impacted by COVID-19 in much the same way the world was once changed by the 1918 pandemic.
It is evident that the concept of a democratic system of Government in which power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or through freely elected representatives is under attack, being allowed to languish, or being worn down in many places when what is needed worldwide is all hands on deck. Jamaica has struggled for decades to define and build a modern democracy, stumbling at times, but not stopping.
To be empowered, citizens require adequate civic knowledge to understand the processes and principles that are part of the national governance architectural fabric. Institutions such as the Office of the Political Ombudsman and other commissions of Parliament need to be strengthened to better address the issues that have confronted us as an evolving, independent country.
Every decade has brought new issues and changes. We must be bold in protecting gains and addressing the issues of the day. The media, the Church, civic organisations and State agencies can also hold those who are tasked to represent us to account, thereby strengthening democracy through good governance.
In respect to this, ethical leadership is vital where timely action on key issues is needed. This includes:
- strengthening of the Political Ombudsman (Interim) Act
- action on the Constitution (Amendment) (Impeachment) Bill
- quick, effective action when officials of political parties and their appointees to boards and committees breach laws and policies
- clarity on the period of loss of privileges where a decision is made to suspend or terminate a minister's appointment or where an official has resigned. This should also be made public.
Jamaica needs a strengthened framework. One only needs to look at the fact that the Office of the Political Ombudsman is required to be ethical, fair, and neutral, yet political leaders may ignore the recommendations of the office with impunity, and the office can only independently enforce accountability for findings with mediation and moral suasion.
The Office of the Political Ombudsman is also concerned, like many Jamaicans, about the declining level of voter participation. This decline has been attributed by stakeholders and researchers to various causes, including:
- perceived corruption and disunity in the political sphere and governance
- political messages not being relevant to electors' needs or interests
- failure of successive administrations to deliver on promises
- distrust of political parties
- politicians' lack of accountability
- fear of being infected with the novel coronavirus
To counteract this trend we must hold those we love, support, or admire to standards worthy of a strong democracy in which citizens elect leaders to protect their rights and liberties, develop plans and implement SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) policies for the welfare of all. Goals and objectives that are SMART, as proposed since 1981 by late American Professor George T Doran, should be a critical requirement for every elected official and administration to earn citizens' loyalty and support. We must remember, as we celebrate our heroes during this month, that they all fought, in their own way, to create a system of government that embodies these SMART policies.
Recently, youth from across the country were invited to participate in a video competition where they were asked to respond to the question: What does democracy mean to me? The competition was conducted by the Office of the Political Ombudsman and its youth outreach arm, Political Awareness and Respect Initiative (PARI).
The participants, in their entries, mentioned issues for which our national heroes fought:
- Inclusivity and accountability
- Rule of Law – basic principles of legality
- A voice for us all
How did we get here? Have we faltered on the path carved out by our national heroes? Have we discounted the work of our national leaders at home and abroad as they gave of themselves for Jamaica?
Civil society, which is one way in which the people collaborate to create agreed outcomes, has many lessons for parliamentarians and councillors as they demonstrate that people from different groups and ideologies can bring their strengths together for the greater good. Respect for the other team and the game means playing by the rules, thus avoiding red and yellow cards and providing a good experience for investors, spectators, young people, and stakeholders in general. This is within our capacity.
Ambivalence and retreat to the digital space to create messages and communities, especially in this novel coronavirus pandemic, is a feature of the digital age, which tends to create and facilitate factions, conflict, and defamation. This can harm the body politic, public health, and marginalise some citizens.
As Jamaicans, in this season of great uncertainty and constant change, now more than ever we must encourage integrity, service, respect, and inclusivity, which means less impunity and hostility, less breaches of the Joint Agreement and Declaration on Political Conduct, the Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA), and other laws and policies. In so doing, we will calm the voices of conflict and hostility which challenge our democracy and threaten our survival, leading to more safety, prosperity, and progress for the nation.
Corruption and the perception of corruption weaken our democracy as citizens move from sadness to disengagement and disgust. Jamaica is the biggest little country on Earth. Let us make, obey, and enforce laws to advance the 'tallawah' as we honour the legacy of our national heroes.
Donna Parchment Brown is the political ombudsman of Jamaica.