Performance over age?
There has been quite a bit of debate in recent times about the age of our politicians and the dire need for political parties to make room for younger persons - a kind of changing of the old guard. I believe what happened in Westmoreland subsequent to the untimely passing of Roger Clarke and Andrew Holness' appointment as opposition leader demonstrate a change in the mindset in our people.
Truthfully, age shouldn't be a criterion for becoming a parliamentarian. Hello, 'dinosaurs' are people, too! It's their performance that should concern us most, but we have been belabouring with the issue of their age as if it has a causal relationship with ability.
We can't keep skirting around the issue of performance; that should be the basis of our argument. I highly doubt anyone would have a problem with a 90-year-old being their member of parliament (MP) if they do a good job. Note, I am not in any way suggesting that the performance of older MPs has been abysmal. I am actually quite disappointed in some of the young MPs. I am more interested in their accomplishments/contributions while in office and some glaring omissions in the arguments being advanced.
Our current prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, born in 1945, has been an MP since 1976. The PNP chairman, Robert Pickersgill, who was born in 1943, has been (an MP) since 1989. Pearnel Charles has been an MP since 1972. Edmund Bartlett became an MP two years later and Mike Henry has been MP since 1980. They have arguably all done very well to serve this country as MPs and ministers.
Former heads of government have spent an equally long time in office as well. Michael Manley, born in 1924, spent 30 years from 1962 to 1992. Edward Seaga, born in 1920, served for 32 years from 1974 to 2006. P.J. Patterson, born in 1935, spent 37 years from 1969 until 2006. Manley served as prime minister from 1972 to 1980 and from 1989 to 1992, Seaga from 1980 to 1989 and P.J. from 1992 when Manley retired to 2006 when he retired. They have all made significant contributions to the development of our country.
State of Constituencies
I would like now to draw your attention to the state of some of our constituencies. Isn't it concerning that ministries and the Parliament reside in some of the worst constituencies in the country? Constituencies that have for several years been plagued with high levels of crime and violence, high levels of unemployment - with a significant number of their constituents being unemployable, poor housing and sanitation, continuous environmental degradation, and low levels of literacy and numeracy and educational achievement.
It puzzles me why we haven't been talking about this more, especially in light of conversations time and again about changing the old guard and rebuttals that 'dinosaurs' are people, too. There ought to be more scrutiny and more robust monitoring and evaluation of the performance of our elected representatives beyond polls and elections. We have to demand more than political jabs, handouts, their attendance at community events such as funerals, and patching of potholes. We have to demand transformational leadership and effective representation of all our parliamentarians.
As a people, we have to find a way to take the power from political parties. We cannot continue to allow our democracy to be characterised by parliamentarians who are assessed on their prowess at the polls. Yeah, we can do without biographies at non-party related events that boast of the number of times they win an election.
Jamaica Needs a Change Now
More than five decades have passed since we gained independence from Britain in 1962 but we don't seem very willing to question the value and function of the parliamentary democracy we inherited - despite the clear and urgent need for reform. Consequently, our culture of democracy, as gender and development specialist Taitu Heron argues, has become "distorted, ageist, sexist and dysfunctional; and does not encourage turnover of participants in the governance process".
We need to hold our elected representatives more accountable. We need to capitalise on the many opportunities that have been created over the years to participate in the governance of this country. And in cases where it is particularly tokenistic, let's work to make it better. We have as much responsibility as our parliamentarians. Let's do more than banter about their age; let's assess their performance instead. That's what's important.