Tue | Nov 21, 2017

Carolyn Cooper | Planning to honour Miss Lou

Published:Sunday | September 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Louise Bennett-Coverley, better known as Miss Lou.

On Miss Lou's birthday last Thursday, I'd intended to launch a petition to declare her a national heroine. It would have been posted on the website of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM): http://opm.gov.jm/participate/jamaica-house-petition.

I started to draft the petition. Then it struck me that it would probably fail. I hadn't worked out a comprehensive plan to advertise the petition and mobilise support. I did talk about it last Wednesday night on IRIE FM's popular 'Entertainment Buzz' programme. I also mentioned it on TVJ's 'Smile Jamaica' show last Thursday morning. And I was going to write about it this week. But was that enough?

Petitions need to secure 15,000 signatures within 40 days of being launched. That's the only way they are going to be taken seriously. I wonder if the OPM is setting us up for failure. How likely is it that any petition could attract so many signatures in such a short time? How did the OPM arrive at that seemingly arbitrary number? And why 40 days?

The first thing that came to mind was the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness while the devil tempted him. I certainly hope the OPM does not think that fasting and praying are the ideal ways to solve the urgent social problems about which citizens launch petitions. It's a tempting delusion.

 

SAVE COCKPIT COUNTRY

 

There are 25 petitions waiting for signatures on the OPM website. I signed the one to Save Cockpit Country. When I checked on Friday afternoon, 5,668 people had signed. That's after 18 days. The deadline is September 30, so if the rate of signing keeps up, that petition might just make it.

Jamaica's prime natural forest is at risk of being mined for bauxite. I'm not even going to speculate about who wants to do the mining. I might be accused of xenophobia. One of the persistent issues is the failure of successive governments, both JLP and PNP, to define the boundary of Cockpit Country.

Under pressure from so-called 'developers', it seems as if the official Cockpit Country will keep getting smaller and smaller. But we must preserve the whole of this natural forest for posterity. It's the source of 40 per cent of the water for western Jamaica. And there are plants and animals in Cockpit Country that are unique to Jamaica.

Another petition I signed is to "abolish the law that was set to pay past prime ministers the last salary they earned as prime minister". The petition declares, "We now have four resigned prime ministers that the country is still paying." To be honest, I haven't checked the accuracy of the claims made by this petition.

 

'MOST DISTINGUISHED SERVICE'

 

But I've always wondered what happens if you lose the prime minister work. Do you automatically get a pension even if you're not at retirement age? And if you get back the prime minister work, are you allowed to keep both your pension and your current salary? So far, that petition only has 136 signatures and the deadline is September 30. The Office of the Prime minister will, obviously, not be taking this one seriously. But concerned citizens should. There's still time to sign.

I emailed the OPM's director of communications and public affairs, Robert Morgan, to ask about the high number of required signatures, the short time frame, and lack of access if you're not online. He responded to say that the initial number of signatures was 30,000. This was cut based on feedback.

Mr Morgan also stated, "The current international standard of petitions of this type is 30 days." Again, based on feedback, the period was extended. But is this adequate? Mr Morgan noted, "Approximately 50 per cent of Jamaicans currently use the Internet (UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development 2014)."

Mr Morgan also states, "There is nothing preventing citizens from petitioning the Government through traditional means. The Office of the Prime Minister receives hundreds of letters every year from persons expressing concerns regarding various issues. Additionally, the Office of the Prime Minister maintains a robust regime of public engagement through town halls and other on-the-ground initiatives."

Instead of hustling to get 15,000 signatures in 40 days, I decided to explore one of the 'traditional' means of petitioning the Government. I considered using the nomination form for national civil honours and awards. But the honour of national hero is not included in that list. Unlike the other honours for which any citizen can make recommendations with a single signature, the Order of National Hero is regulated by an Advisory Committee.

The National Honours and Awards Act does not make it clear whether or not recommendations can be made to the committee. It does state that the honour of national hero can be given to any citizen who "rendered to Jamaica service of the most distinguished nature". The Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley, OM, OJ, MBE, certainly did that. She was an exceptional woman who fought a long war of respect for Jamaican culture, especially our language.

Like Nanny of the Maroons, Miss Lou heroically battled against British imperialism. Like Marcus Garvey, she knew we had to liberate ourselves from racist ideologies designed to diminish us. She deserves to be declared a national heroine. Hopefully, the Advisory Committee will agree. And we won't need 15,000 signatures.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.