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The Gavel: Amend the laws now regarding candidates’ eligibility; Ferguson gets lifeline

Published:Monday | November 9, 2015 | 11:00 AM

It is an open secret that Parliament may be dissolved sooner than later, and Jamaicans will then be called upon to elect 63 Members of Parliament to Gordon House.

Yet, for nearly two months, two reports for the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) have been sitting on the table of the House of Representatives gathering dust. One of those reports - a proposal to amend the Representation of the People Act to allow candidates to declare their eligibility under the constitution - is of utmost importance.

The background against which this report has been prepared is well documented.

Between 2008 and 2010, four government Members of Parliament (MPs) - Daryl Vaz (West Portland), Desmond Gregory Mair (North East St Catherine), Michael Stern (North West Clarendon) and Shahine Robinson (North East St Ann) - were forced out of Parliament because their status conflicted with the provisions of the constitution.

Under the constitution, a person is not eligible to be elected to Parliament if that person, by his/her own act, is under an allegiance or acknowledgement to a foreign power.

All four were subsequently reinstated as MPs after emerging the victors in court-ordered by-elections.

But as Ronald Thwaites argued in 2010 when he brought a motion to Parliament calling for an amendment to the law to require candidates to declare they are eligible, having strangers in Parliament put a strain on the people's business.

"Tens of millions of dollars have been expended on legal cost, on election campaign, and by-elections. There have been many distractions to the business of this country, which ought to have been dealing with public affairs rather than this dispute," Thwaites argued.

The cost to the taxpayers for holding these by-elections was $20-$30 million for each poll.

The fact that we have had a general election subsequent to the dual citizenship flood in 2007 does not mean we should not be moving post-haste to insert the declaration clause.

The ECJ is proposing that the Representation of the People Act be amended to require "declaration stating that the person is qualified under the Constitution and laws of Jamaica to be elected to the House of Representatives".

A further amendment is being proposed to the section to give teeth to the declaration clause.

The proposal is for a penalty of $20,000 or up to three years imprisonment for making a false declaration.

The penalty provision makes a mockery of a serious attempt to ensure we never have a repeat of 2007. That may very well be why the ECJ has taken so long to send this report to the Parliament.

But notwithstanding the perceived shortcomings, it should be debated forthwith and every attempt made to ensure the law is amended before new elections are held.

 

A LIFELINE FOR FERGUSON

 

In the meantime, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller appeared to have killed a censure motion brought by West Portland MP Vaz against Dr Fenton Ferguson.

A week after Ferguson told Vaz that "you are not the brightest man in town", the West Portland MP tabled the motion calling for Ferguson to be sacked as health minister as his tenure has been an "abysmal failure".

The call for Ferguson to be fired comes amid a deadly bacterial outbreak in at least three public hospitals which led to the death of 19 newborn babies.

Ferguson's cause was not helped by "...so I don't want anyone to give the impression that these were babies in the real sense" faux paus. Although the minister quickly corrected himself to say the neonates were babies and he meant to say they were not fully developed, the damage was already done.

So despite being able to legitimately lay claim to overseeing the expansion of primary health care through the development of centres of excellence, and despite the move to improve cancer care and reduce deaths through non-communicable diseases through moves like the smoking ban, the die had been cast.

Many Jamaicans wanted to see his back since the time of the chikungunya (chik-V) outbreak a year ago. His failure to clearly communicate the extent to which it was running rampage throughout the population and deploy the necessary resources to stop its spread caused many to lose confidence in him.

 

NO CONFIDENCE

 

That confidence was never restored and the death of the babies and his decision to hide a comprehensive health audit never did him any favours.

Despite his insistence that he acted promptly in dealing with the bacterial outbreak, many are still uncertain what Ferguson knew about the bacterial outbreak and when he knew. Vaz and company were champing at the bit, ready to expose the minister but Simpson Miller has intervened.

Ferguson, no doubt, was getting ready to go to Parliament to defend his stewardship but with the dead babies being an emotive issue and many Jamaicans still feeling chik-V pains, Simpson Miller had no option but to shield him.

Today, the East St Thomas MP takes up the job of labour and social security minister.

The fact that he has not been fired and instead was sent to a ministry from which special assistance such as funeral grants, PATH and farm work tickets are dispensed, could be the lifeline Ferguson needed to return to Parliament for a sixth term.

Send feedback to daraine.luton@gleanerjm.com