Trevor Munroe | Combating parliamentary decline, strengthening democratic recovery
Three weeks ago, I like so many others read The Gleaner’s (March 6) report of the Don Anderson poll, “An Overwhelming Number of Jamaicans believe that both the Government and Opposition are Underperforming in their Respective Capacities”. The Blue Dot poll presented similar findings, including the significant fall in public ratings of both our political leaders. Equally, the surveys confirm continuing decline in confidence in our democratic processes, particularly elections. I thought to myself, recovery in the economy to pre-COVID levels is not yet reaching the people. At the same time, recovery in democratic governance is not at all evident. Indeed, further decline may actually be taking place.
As if to confirm my worst fears were the developments in parliament last week. I was among the dwindling minority who watched part of the PBCJ’s telecast of the closing of the Budget Debate (on March 21) and Minister Warmington’s submission to the Integrity Commission Oversight Committee. Each provided evidence of backward steps: first there was Nigel Clarke’s uncharacteristic racial slur against the leader of the Opposition, then there was Angela Brown Burke’s “shut up yuh mouth”, followed by Speaker Dalrymple-Philibert apparently hearing unparliamentary remarks only out of her left hear. Then, most of all, Everald Warmington’s proposal, in effect, to strip the powers of Jamaica’s Integrity Commission. All of us who have an interest in the recovery of Jamaica’s democratic governance need to reject these regressive steps. On the contrary, those who may desire to weaken Jamaica’s democracy and make greater way for authoritarian and corrupt tendencies will no doubt ignore or even welcome this return to the negatives of the past.
As we take a stand against backwardness, I reflected that each of us have a role to play – MPs of integrity, civil society groups including NIA, the Church, the private sector, professional associations. We have to highlight the positives in our parliamentary heritage and strengthen forward thinking as well as improve current parliamentary conduct. We need to highlight the fact, for example, that our parliament was born out of a historic achievement following decades of struggle by our people and by our leaders, in particular, Marcus Garvey. That historic achievement was to gain Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944. We need to recall that we arrived at this milestone as the first predominantly black country in the entire world; we did so while so many countries were still striving to attain Jamaica’s achievement. We were ahead of the United States, France, Italy, India, Ghana, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, to name but a few.
UNIVERSAL ADULT SUFFRAGE
In the decades following Universal Adult Suffrage, both before and after independence, despite many deficiencies, the MPs we elected, did much in the legislature to roll back the oppressive consequences of centuries of colonialism.
• Secondary education was expanded beyond a privileged few to the vast majority and tertiary institutions facilitated university education for tens of thousands who had no access prior to Universal Adult Suffrage.
• Health services were established and expanded, with the resulting reduction in infant mortality and increase in longevity.
• Minimum wages were established where there was none before.
• Maternity leave with pay for our women became a reality in the late ‘70s with the extent unknown in many developed countries.
• Laws were passed to ensure compulsory recognition of trade unions.
• The Education Act was amended to require that democratically elected students should have a seat and a say in the governance of educational institutions at every level.
Our people were not passive bystanders but active advocates of these changes and the vast majority expressed confidence through their votes in general elections up until the early 1990s.
Even now, with the decline in satisfaction with democracy in Jamaica, there are nevertheless periodic signs of life in our Parliament which need to be strengthened:
• The alertness of opposition MPs have placed questions to government on the Parliamentary Agenda, the answers to which have held the government to account and facilitated popular change of administrations. I think of the questions posed on Trafigura by Leader of the Opposition Bruce Golding in 2006 and by Leader of the Opposition Peter Philips on the Manatt/Phelps/Dudus affair.
• Private members’ motions are being placed on the Agenda, most notably, by former MP Ronald Thwaites on issues such as Early Childhood Education which have raised public awareness if, regrettably, not so much impacted public policy.
• Very important, the parliament has invariably invited public participation through joint select committees in the development and the revision of important legislation. Professional associations, the private sector, civil society organisations, and even public bodies have responded and made important inputs – a real positive in our parliamentary life.
But far more needs to be done and I am happy that in meetings with parliamentary leaders on both sides of the aisle, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, there has been a positive response to an NIA project aimed at strengthening our parliament. I suggest that part and parcel of the parliamentary recovery is the following:
• The need for MPs to make more use of the research facility available from graduate student interns provided by the Department of Government, UWI Mona. This facility has the potential of providing data to support questions probing public policy, resolutions on critical issues and even private members’ bills.
• The government and the authorities in the House and the Senate need to facilitate more timely debate for private members’ motions and questions posed on public issues. Constraining this facility is equivalent to shooting the parliament in its foot and helping to disable it from building confidence in its relevance.
• Most of all, the parliament needs to pass, and we need to demand a Code of Conduct for our MPs. This was a solemn commitment promised 14 years ago in vision 2030, Jamaica’s National Development Plan.
• The Impeachment Bill, drafted 10 years ago, under the guidance of then Prime Minister Golding, now amended and reintroduced as a private members’ bill, by Leader of the Opposition Golding, needs to be urgently debated and with appropriate amendments adopted. This would provide an additional mechanism for imposing sanctions on MPs and public officers, broadly for misbehaviour.
Perhaps, the most potentially damaging blow to governance recovery would be accepting Minister Warmington’s proposals to curtail the powers of the Integrity Commission. These proposals come at a time when there is a significant consensus among the Jamaican people and within the international community, (See the March 2023 US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report and Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perception Index) that measures to prosecute and where guilty, jail the high-level corrupt, need to be urgently strengthened. Warmington is proposing the opposite – in whose interest and on whose behalf?
• Who would benefit from removing the Auditor General from the Integrity Commission following 50 years, under successive administrations since 1973 of the Auditor General’s membership on and contribution to anti-corruption commissions?
• How come and why is it being proposed to reduce the authority of the Governor General and increase the role of MPs in the appointment, termination and removal of the anti-corruption Commissioners and the Executive Director of the Integrity Commission?
• How come and why at this time is the proposal being made to abolish the office of a special prosecutor of corruption in the Integrity Commission, when after much consideration, the bill proposing such was actually drafted over 10 years ago under the Bruce Golding administration?
• How come and why is Warmington proposing a law to impeach members of the Integrity Commission but with no equivalent recommendations for impeachment of MPs, senators and other public officials?
Whoever benefits from these recommendations, it is clearly not the reputation of the parliament, nor the Jamaican people’s priority to catch corrupt big fish nor the recovery of democratic governance.