The unfinished business of governance
The Gleaner editorial titled 'New order for Jamaica', written the day after the new Jamaica Labour Party administration won the 2016 general election, is significant and on point. It focused on the "unfinished business to be attended to with regard to electoral reform and our general approach to governance".
Among other things, it correctly highlighted the need to end any residual garrison-type political arrangements; immediately implement the political party/campaign-finance legislation; launch a major assault on public corruption; and for political parties to put in place robust fit-and-proper tests for their candidates, officers, and other senior officials.
Other calls to improve governance include "a national consultation on how we might reform our current system towards a politics of participation", proposed by Paul Jennings in his letter to the editor on February 27 titled 'Saving democracy - the most urgent priority'. Also, Trinidadian political scientist Derek Ramsamooj has recommended that "the first order of business is to ensure all Jamaicans are included in the Partnership for Prosperity". These calls point to the imperative of improving democratic governance.
The need to strengthen our democracy was highlighted in the 2014 Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica & in the America, which suggested that our "democracy is at risk" in light of evidence of low system support and low levels of tolerance. During the years 2006-2012, the study point to a gradual increase in support for vigilante justice, illegal protest action, and attempts to overthrow government. Significantly, the evidence suggested that support for these activities doubled during the period, from nine per cent to 18 per cent, and that the support was mainly among those in the lower wealth quintiles and younger persons.
These findings are troubling in the context of declining support for the political system in the Americas since 2006, as evidenced in the decline in all five components of the system support index addressing: (1) respect for political institutions; (2) courts' guarantee of a fair trial; (3) respect for basic rights; (4) pride in political system; and (5) whether one should support the political system. The level of dissatisfaction with the political system in the US is now strikingly evident in the surprising level of support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
One reason for the growing discontent with the political system is that for far too long, it has not delivered what is expected by the majority population. For example, the growth of income inequality is troubling. In the US in 2015, the top 20 per cent of households own more than 84 per cent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 per cent own about 0.3 per cent, according to Scientific American.
In Jamaica, the available data suggest it is worse. In May 2013, the IMF's World Economic and Financial Surveys revealed that Jamaica has the second-highest level of income inequality in the Americas (after Suriname) - higher than the US and Haiti. This must change. Such excessive inequality is a significant barrier to growth and development. The voice of active citizens in seeking to change excessive inequality and other forms of social and economic injustices is now an imperative.
Today, modern democratic governance requires not just voters in an election, but is also active, participatory, non-dogmatic, and includes critical citizens continuously engaged in the process of governance and involved in discourse on public policy. It is these characteristics that distinguish citizens in a democracy from 'subjects' of an authoritarian regime. It's the people's direct voice and active engagement that matters in strengthening our democracy and is the real unfinished business of governance.
Citizens must not only actively engage their elected representatives, monitor their activities, and hold them accountable during their term of office, but must also directly make their voices heard on matters on central importance to them. In this regard, the election promise by Prime Minister Andrew Holness to enact the Constitution (Amendment) (Impeachment) Bill that was tabled in Parliament in 2011 is noteworthy.
If enacted in its current form, it would empower 1,000 electors supporting a petition lodged by three parliamentarians to start impeachment proceedings of a senator or member of the House of Representatives. This is an important accountability tool in the hands of the people to remove senators and MPs who are corrupt or commit other impeachable offences. But will Jamaicans actively monitor Prime Minister Holness to ensure that the bill is included on the 2016-2017 legislative agenda? Will Jamaicans create a '10-Point People's Plan' to hold our Government accountable to us and to encourage citizens to actively participate in improving governance?
- Rosalea Hamilton, PhD, is VP, community service and development, UTech, Jamaica, and Scotiabank Chair professor, entrepreneurship and development, UTech, Jamaica. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.