Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Diaspora vote: pros and cons

Published:Friday | April 1, 2016 | 4:00 AM
Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, on her first day in office.

Even as I congratulate Senator Kamina Johnson Smith on her recent appointment as minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, to say I am disappointed with the Government on the non-selection of a minister specifically for diaspora affairs is an understatement. To this day, in spite of the lofty rhetoric at the prime minister's swearing-in about the value of the diaspora, one would think we were on the top of the list to be accorded the usual junior minister that has been practised since 2002.

I am very concerned with the recent speech of Johnson Smith regarding diaspora voting as her first statement about the diaspora and engagement by the Government. I would think such a policy intention would have been best addressed to a diaspora audience.

Senator Johnson Smith mentioned in her speech consultation about the matter, and I would refer her to the very first joint session of the House in January 2010 regarding diaspora voting (Hansard should have). I was fortunate to make a submission that was received well by both sides of the political divide. My recollection is that the overwhelming presentations from diaspora board members rejected the notion of diaspora voting.

Minister Johnson Smith referenced Israel, India, Ireland, France and Mexico as countries with diaspora voting. One of the considerations I cited in my submission back then was the possibility of the diaspora imposing its will on the Jamaican people who have to live with the consequences of our vote. Why do I say this? Simply, our diaspora has equal or more voting-age people.

Here are some statistics on the countries she selected as part of our model:

India population - approximately 1 billion, diaspora 10 million; Mexico approximately 130 million, diaspora 12 million; Israel five million, diaspora 600,000; Ireland five million, diaspora 1 million; and France 65 million, two million diaspora. Clearly, these are not perfect models, even if such an overwhelming desire for diaspora voting exists.

The loud noise of those in the diaspora clamouring to vote borders on some of these theories:

(1) Those at home always vote along diehard party lines (yet in the USA, where we live, most only vote for one party.).

(2) We contribute so much money by way of remittances. Guess what? The Government is not forcing us to; we do so because we have relatives to support. (Of note, it is projected in 10-15 years, the amount will be significantly decreased because of age, death and reduced income.) Do we take away that right then?

(3) Other countries are doing this, and we are very patriotic? (Note the comparisons.)

Minister, here are some questions on the matter.

Who determines the constituency in which one votes? (Place of birth, last known Jamaican residence, in the case of the Jamaicans born overseas?)

Are we going to disqualify some Jamaicans? Have you considered the massive impact on the strained Budget? Do we do door-to-door enumeration? What about the Jamaicans who live in states that do not have a consulate? How is diaspora non-voting such a priority at this stage? Will this constitutional undertaking not require, like the CCJ, a referendum?

 

CONFLICTING BELIEFS

 

Here is a very practical scenario that I know will be a huge conflict. Currently, the appetite for LGBT rights in Jamaica is a politically charged matter. With the diaspora more liberal than our very conservative voters on this issue in Jamaica, we risk the possibility of us imposing our will.

Madam minister, my children, born American, now have the right to vote by way of their parents being Jamaican. They have no interest in Jamaica, yet could, by their vote, dictate who governs their relatives?

Minister, here is some important diaspora engagement we should consider:

Appointment of a minister and of members of the diaspora with requisite expertise on boards (governance). The current Advisory Board should be made more effective than just a ceremonial entity in which our ideas and suggestions are not given serious consideration. We should also hire diaspora engagement officers for each consulate overseas to do daily tasks for the movement.

Finally, a serious policy regarding investment and employment opportunities and targeting the diaspora could be implemented. A certain percentage of investments must be earmarked for the diaspora, and where expertise or consultants are needed and unavailable in Jamaica, members of the Jamaican diaspora must be given first preference to fill them. We are simply tired of being treated like 'the carpenter Joseph's son'.

- Patrick A. Beckford is former Advisory Board member from the US Northeast. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and patrick.beckford@rwjuh.edu.