Fri | Jun 5, 2020

Kristen Gyles | More power to the people

Published:Tuesday | April 7, 2020 | 12:26 AM
What do we do when the collective opinion of the Government opposes that of the common man?
What do we do when the collective opinion of the Government opposes that of the common man?

FOR WHAT purpose do we elect our Government?

For some, the Government exists to carry out the bidding of the people. But it does seem as though there is an increasing sense that the Government is only truly successful in the performance of its duties when it does what is (by whatever standard) in the best interest of the people – even if the people don’t agree.

Our western democratic culture is vastly different from some other political cultures across the world, like that of North Korea and China. One of the main tenets of some other governance structures is the willingness and ability of the Government to step right over the heads of the little people and do whatever they want anyway. In a nutshell.

This is always very distasteful within a democratic setting and the Government is usually just voted out of power, once the people get the chance to shake their fists. When the Government is able to somehow circumvent future election processes, leading to a continuation of their reign, a dictatorship starts.

The truth is, sometimes we put a little too much reliance in government to think on our behalf. On an ideological level, it seems counter-intuitive to punish citizens for not wearing the seat belts that exist to protect their own selves in the case of an accident. If this is a prudent line of action to take, it would also make perfect sense to ban sugary drinks in schools to keep students healthy, and to mandate that the elderly stay home for their own safety from the deadly COVID-19.

How far can a government reasonably go in protecting its citizens from themselves, though? From their unhealthy lifestyles? From their participation in dangerous sporting activities? From their engagement in addictive activities, like gambling or smoking? Gone too far? I figured.

Unfortunately, not everyone will ‘figure’. After all, we all think and reason and ‘figure’ differently, and the Government consists of human beings who also have human brains like the rest of us. What do we do when the collective opinion of the Government opposes that of the common man? Or when the Government itself has split views? Who really knows what is best?

In the ‘hermit’ state of North Korea, where the Government regulates the styles in which citizens can wear their hair, the people must adhere to religion of the state (which is pretty much a belief in no God), and the state-owned media is all the people can access for ‘credible’ news and other information. This is all to ‘protect’ the people from harmful Western ideology and culture. Obviously, some murmur under their breath at how unfair life is under the Kim Jong-Un regime. Others have been hoodwinked into thinking their government simply wants the best for them.

This state of affairs is not only foreign, but frightening to us Western folk. In that vein, I was a little taken aback when reference was made to the National Identification System (NIDS) which was shot down by the Constitutional Court last year, with the suggestion that not only must it be fast-tracked into implementation, but that were it already in place, we would be better able to efficiently combat the spread of COVID-19. The Government certainly has an affinity for the NIDS.

Of supreme importance, in my view, shedloads of Jamaican people had made it sufficiently clear that they were not in favour of this system, and many others simply didn’t feel confident enough to pass judgement on the matter in light of the many unanswered questions. Not nearly enough space was given to public discussion on the matter. But even if we overlook the people which might not matter very much, Chief Justice Bryan Sykes and the other big wigs of the court panel put the matter to rest a long time ago when they ruled the bill null and void, stating that it would see the privacy rights of citizens trampled upon, given the mandatory nature of the system.

UNCLEAR MOTIVATION

Now, after the undue haste with which the Government sought to get the passing of the bill under way, and the objective clearly being thwarted by the court, they are back again. And this time, in the midst of a national crisis, in which people are more willing to see their freedoms and their autonomy taken from them in the name of national security.

The motivation for the passing of this bill is a little unclear. I’m not sure I understand how the NIDS would have been able to limit the spread of the COVID-19, since the unidentified travellers who are felt to be posing a risk to the general society, would still need to present themselves to the authorities, even under the NIDS. Or is it that the Government would have had them blocked from all business transactions until they present themselves? Very unclear.

I’m also not sure I understand how, according to many persons, the bill would have seen a reduction in crime. In fact, crime-fighting is not even mentioned in passing as one of the objectives of the bill, formally. But with the conundrum that attended the whole NIDS saga, one thing was clear – not very many persons understood very much as it pertained to the ID system. Since that time, not much has been clarified.

I honestly am not sure why the country should even move forward with the NIDS. If, according to the chief justice, the core issue which struck at the heart of the constitutionality of the bill was the disregard for citizens’ privacy rights, given that all citizens would be forced to surrender certain biometric data, how can the bill reasonably be remodelled to make it constitutional? It would seem as though however things are spun, no citizen can be forced into participating in this identification system. That is what seems to have been the biggest issue. And from what the prime minister has said, it seems as though the Government’s objectives of the bill will only be realised if it can be used to identify all citizens. This leaves us at a standstill.

When the Government goes ‘abacadabra’ this time, whatever NIDS bill appears will have to be substantially different from the first. Why then push the issue?

If the motivation is simply to improve logistics within business and administrative sectors, why do all persons need to participate? And why can’t the discussion wait until the COVID-19 storm passes? How would the system help in curtailing the spread of the virus? What are the conditions under which funding for the bill will be granted? Just a few more questions to add to the already-existing pool.

Kristen Gyles is a mathematics educator and an actuarial science graduate. Email feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com.