Tue | Apr 7, 2020

Peter Espeut | Our democracy is shallow

Published:Friday | November 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The word 'democracy' means 'rule by the people'. Abraham Lincoln defined it as rule "of the people, by the people, and for the people". What we practise in Jamaica is 'rule by politicians', otherwise called 'representative democracy'. We elect politicians every five or so years, and entrust them to govern in our best interests, and when they are in doubt, they can call a referendum and ask us directly what we want.

But successive Jamaican governments have been allergic to referendums. The Government called one before Independence and lost. Since then, parties in opposition have often called for a referendum on this issue or that, but no party in power has been brave enough to do so.

Switzerland practises direct democracy with frequent national referendums. In 2018 alone, they will have had 10 (the final one this year will take place on November 25). They had seven last year and 13 in 2016.

The United States of America is a representative democracy that usually includes a number of statewide propositions (each counts as a referendum) as part of scheduled presidential or congressional elections. This week, we focused only on the Senate and House races, but 38 states included a total of 167 propositions on topics like the legalisation of ganja, to restricting the state's ability to levy taxes on the population.


People power


And on Tuesday, the Caribbean island nations of Grenada and Antigua & Barbuda each held a referendum on whether they should replace the UK-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). In both polls, the answer was no, much to the discomfort to both governments, but the process was victory for people power.

I was in Antigua last week, and am not surprised at the result of their referendum. All over the Caribbean, citizens are suspicious of the motives of their governments for pushing a switch away from the JCPC (over which they have no influence) to the CCJ, over which they exert some influence.

It is true that justices who serve on the CCJ are appointed by a Regional Judicial and Legal Services Com-mission made up of representatives of Bar associations and other persons from civil society, so there is some distance from the political directorate; but its chair is the president of the CCJ, who is a political appointee - approved by a super-majority vote (three-quarters) of the governments (i.e., the political directorate) who are members of the CCJ.

Prime Minister Holness provides the best argument against switching to the CCJ by his mishandling of the appointment of the chief justice earlier this year. One of the flaws in our Constitution (passed on to the CCJ) is that the naming of the chief justice is the sole prerogative of one politician - the prime minister, who, in an unprecedented move named Justice Bryan Sykes as "acting chief justice". Confirmation in the post would depend on his performance as judged by the political directorate.

This breached the principle of the independence of the judiciary from political interference, and the separation of powers between the executive and the judicial branches of government. After widespread protests, Sykes' appointment was quickly confirmed, but the episode reveals the penchant of politicians to wish to control the judiciary.

And this is why most Caribbean people prefer to remain with the JCPC as their final court of appeal. Yes, we want to complete the delinking from our former colonial masters, but the last half-century has shown that it would not be a good thing to concentrate more power in the hands of our politicians, who have not made the best use of our Independence thus far.

In Switzerland, any citizen can challenge any law approved by the Parliament, or at any time can propose a modification of the federal constitution, by calling a nationwide referendum (after getting enough signatures on a petition). I don't think our monarchical politicians are ready for that kind of deep democracy here.

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