Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Peter Espeut | Decentralise local government power

Published:Friday | November 18, 2016 | 11:00 AM

Because power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (so said Lord Acton), it is of the utmost importance to ensure that our politicians never have absolute power. This is why the principle of subsidiarity is of such great value.

Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a lower level. If a central authority reserves to itself the responsibility to take decisions which could competently be taken at a more local level, power becomes concentrated at the top, and we head towards tyranny and totalitarianism.

Subsidiarity is the management principle that governs power-sharing in any federal system of government, and is integral to the operations of the European Union. It is also an important component in the logic of the separation of powers, essential to avoiding profound conflicts of interest.

For me, this is the most powerful reason Jamaica needs strong local government, for without parish councillors, all power will reside in the hands of members of parliament (MP). When it comes to governance, we need all the checks and balances we can get.

 

UNNECESSARY LAYER

 

In three months, I will celebrate 25 years writing this column, and one of my persistent themes over the years has been the importance of local government. And just as persistently, the editor of The Gleaner continues to argue for the abolition of parish councils as an unnecessary layer of governance. For example, two Saturdays ago, The Gleaner editor wrote, inter alia:

"This newspaper has not, for a long time, been in support of the maintenance of the parish councils. They have, whichever party is in control of them, largely been incompetently managed and used as a conduit through which small-scale patronage is funnelled to the political hard core, the 30 per cent of the electorate who generally vote." (5 November 2016).

I submit that mismanagement and political patronage are not restricted to local government alone; in fact, over the years, central government has been better at mismanagement and corruption. Would The Gleaner editor wish to abolish central government also?

One of the problems with so-called 'local government reform' over the years is that it treats parish councils in isolation from central government. It is impossible to reform local government without, at the same time, reforming central government.

Here is the central problem: the Cabinet, the executive arm of government, has usurped the role of the legislative arm by taking control of the law-making process. When last has a parliamentarian introduced an act or any piece of legislation in the House that has gone the distance? They mostly seem to fall off the Order Paper, pushed out by legislation originating from Cabinet. Our so-called legislators are reduced to being bench-thumpers.

 

SUBVERTING POWER

 

With very little legislating to do, our MPs have turned around and usurped the role of parish councillors, getting involved in all sorts of local issues which are not their constitutional remit. And that is why local government looks so useless: because MPs who are part of central government daily trespass in their territory, subverting the powers of the parish councillor, making them look redundant.

It's a power grab: the Cabinet grabbing at the power of Parliamentarians, and the MPs grabbing at the power of parish councillors.

This is why I have called for clear and unambiguous job descriptions for MPs and councillors to prevent overlap. Reforming local government will not take place until the power of MPs is curtailed, which calls for the simultaneous reform of central government as well. One will not take place without the other.

Some local decisions just cannot be taken efficiently by central government.

The overall result will be a devolution of real power to the parishes, and, therefore, to rural areas, on local matters, which can lead to genuine rural development. Genuine local government means that stakeholders at the community level can participate in a meaningful way in the governance of their local affairs.

The way things are now, local development planning is not done well, because neither MPs nor councillors feel they are the ones empowered to drive it. Where are the local development plans - district by district - which will lead to rural development? Is it really the Urban Development Corporation that has the responsibility for rural development? Does rural development mean making an area more urban?

Jamaica needs a paradigm shift in governance that will lead to more effective local development planning and prosperity. Let this be last local government election that will simply perpetuate the concentration of power at the top.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.