Devon Dick: We want Real Debates
Recently, the Jamaica Debates Commission facilitated the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two major political parties - the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The agreement is to stage three debates during the period between nomination day and election day. The first two will focus on social and economic issues, and the final one will be between the aspirants for the office of prime minister.
Thankfully, the parties will negotiate on a number of areas, including structure, format, and duration. Unfortunately, the format resembles, too much, the presidential debates of the United States. I watched one Republican debate and it was awful. The format pitted one debater against the other by repeating what the other one said and asking for comment. Furthermore, the format was more like a press conference. It was not surprising that the Republican candidates demanded that the format be changed for other debates.
From 2007, in an article, 'Political debates or press conferences' (August 14), I advocated for a change of format for the Jamaican political debates to reflect the characteristics of debates, including a moot point and rebuttals, as we have learnt in school.
imbalance in former structure
The weakness of the former structure arranged by the Jamaica Debates Commission is its similarity to that of a press conference, wherein members of the media ask the political parties' representatives questions, and too often the same question is not asked of both parties so as to ascertain differences and to get suitable rebuttals. This format was given to more sound bites rather than substantial presentations on complex issues. Finally, most times, there was no need for a rebuttal, but the participants used the 45 seconds to make statements unrelated to a rebuttal.
A better debating format would be to follow the National Schools' Debating Competition structure. The party leader would speak for 12-15 minutes and outline a vision for Jamaica and a mission statement. This would include how the leader sees Jamaica in five years' time; how the leader intends to motivate and unite Jamaicans at home and abroad to get the best out of us and greater outcomes; what values they adhere to in their lives and what values they would encourage for the nation. Additionally, the leader should give an outline of the manifesto, including issues of foreign policy.
For the debate on the economic issues, it should not be between the present minister of finance and opposition spokesman on finance only, because it is not guaranteed that if either the PNP or the JLP wins, that either of those two persons must be the minister of finance. In our system, it is the prerogative of the prime minister to select every minister. Therefore, the debate on economy could have two or three persons. The participants should state the economic philosophy as well as what would be their emphasis in the budget. Is it a trickle-down policy or a bottom-up? Is it going to be driven by the private sector or the state? What strategies would be employed to grow the economy? In addition, since about 30,000 people enter the job market each year, we need to know, how will we get our young people gainfully employed and what of those who cannot create or find a job? What sort of welfare system will be proposed? A similar format should be used to discuss social issues such as crime, heath, education, land reform, and housing.
Each team would have six minutes for rebuttal. This format would give more in-depth policy statements and strategies, better rebuttals and, ultimately, better debate. Finally, there needs to be a moot with the ruling party, the PNP, proposing and the JLP opposing.
We want a real debate this time.
- Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com.