Mon | Oct 26, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | Why are fewer people voting?

Published:Monday | September 21, 2020 | 12:08 AM
Voters wait at Riversdale polling division to exercise their franchise on September 3.
Voters wait at Riversdale polling division to exercise their franchise on September 3.

More than 60 per cent of the electorate didn’t bother to vote in the latest election because they don’t see their interests connected to the outcome. No, the numbers were not frightened away by the coronavirus or fear of violence. It was just that they never saw the point of making the effort.

As The Gleaner’s editorial last Friday reminded, the majority of us either take our democratic choice for granted, or would just as easily substituted some other method of governance, especially if it made it easier to get a visa.

For others, notably many younger voters, their vote seems to be one of the only tradeable commodities they possess. So it is reportedly for sale. The price range this time around, it is alleged, was between $10 to 15 grand. A little lower than what you have to pay for professional mourners at a dull funeral and a little less, so I am told, than the tariff for a slightly ageing whore.

Both party leaders know the situation and spoke feelingly about it at the sitting of Parliament last week. Mr Andrew Holness thinks better representation and improved behaviour in the chamber will help. Necessary but insufficient, I say.

Most elected members do not neglect their constituents because they do not care, but stay away because they do not possess nor have access to the resources genuinely needed by their communities. Why do you think decent men like Leslie Campbell and others have left representation? When you are connecting with your constituents and someone tells you that they are hungry, do you say, “ Have a nice day” and move on? Or when the DrugServ has not got the medication and you see the pain and helplessness on the face of the person asking, can you reply, “God will provide” or “Check me next time”?

As for respect and manners across the aisle, the ergonomics of the chamber invites hostility. I left an undebated motion to reconfigure the seating so members would sit according to alphabet or parish, irrespective of who was ‘green’ or ‘orange’. A small gesture, but at least members might be seen to engage others across party lines and reduce the inbred tribal animosity of the Westminster model which we love to criticise but do little to change.

And with the economy in free-fall – a predicament the scope of which we refuse to confront – there won’t be much money to spend to reduce voter apathy after the expected dipping into the funds of National Housing Trust and a few other agencies which still have surpluses. There is strong suspicion that some, or much, of the election cash was the ‘teefing’ money from the many unresolved scandals of the past four years. Is $14 billion a real figure?

Whatever it is, hiding behind all the non-disclosure pay-off agreements, adjourned cases and matters still “under investigations”, where has the cash gone? As one caller put it to me recently, “ If any of that a gwan, why me mustn’t get pay for my vote”. Case closed.

As The Gleaner fears, increasing voter disinterest can be the environment for creeping authoritarianism. Diminution of people’s rights can come not only from official action or corruption, but from the distraction or ignorance of those themselves being taken advantage of. So who will be the watchmen, the agents of resistance?

Given a weak and disunited Opposition and a supine or clientelistic media, last week it was the court which struck a blow for every Jamaican’s freedom.

Just as happened with a bad NIDS law, absent data-protection complement, the striking down of the ‘executive detention scheme’ by Justice Bertram Morrison should be welcomed by every freedom-loving citizen. By my first reading, the entire practice of arbitrary detention with no recourse to a court has been adjudged unlawful. This is supported and defended by this Government and weakly acquiesced to by the majority of the Opposition over the past two years.Face the terrifying truth of those who you elected advancing the proposition that while one policeman could lock you up indefinitely during a state of emergency, it was not within the unlimited jurisdiction of a single Supreme Court judge to determine the liberty of a citizen under a democratic Constitution.

PERIL NOT OVER

Nor is the peril over yet. Watch out for the measures soon to come to a lop-sided Parliament, whereby the spectre of a fascist police state will be advanced by provisions for preventive detention outside of a state of emergency – done under the name of fighting crime. The Gleaner is correctly fearful that, given the apathy, the anaesthesia of popular culture and the increasing desperation of many, the day might come when “legislators and the executive are mere proxies for special interests...”. I assert that the day has come already. How else could the rejection of Fitz Jackson’s mild effort to protect the public from usurious bank charges be explained, other than that they pandered to the “special interests” of a sector to whom they are beholden?

In the context of a “ distrust among a citizenry that has grown distracted, disconnected from ... the process of democracy”, as The Gleaner puts it, Dr Peter Phillips’ suggestion of an institution devoted to education in civics is to be supported. In Japan, the early-childhood experience is devoted almost entirely to intensive citizen-appropriate socialisation. Their results recommend the method.

In our situation, the Christian churches influence or control the majority of early-childhood institutions. What a radical, inexpensive change to our culture, and an advancement of Jah Kingdom, it would be if they could put aside their differences and ‘other-worldlness’ so as to teach us what governments can’t: how to be good citizens, love who we are, respect all others, and develop spiritual and political muscle to resist those who abuse the power we same ones give them and tek liberty with our rights.

Then would rise up a generation of Jamaicans who both trusted and were trustworthy, acknowledged the supremacy of the common good as superior to ‘leggo-beast’ individualism, and so saw reason to participate by voting and holding the elected to account.

Anything less and our future will resemble Trumpish tyranny.

Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney at law. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.