Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Gordon Robinson: Jamaica must sober up

Published:Sunday | December 13, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Government senators participate in a sitting of the Upper House. Clockwise from front, left are Mark Golding, Imani Duncan Price, Lambert Brown, Angela Brown Burke, A.J. Nicholson and K.D. Knight. Columnist Gordon Robinson has argued that senators should be elected, not appointed.
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It's time to get serious about constitutional reform. Voters in the next electoral farce we call a general election must vote for something, NOT somebody. It should be obvious to even the babe and suckling that elections have done nothing for us in more than 50 years. Differing ideologies and policies have all come to nought (sometimes less).

Despite a huge, creative treasure chest of election promises, we've been in continuous decline for decades. Every Opposition knows EXACTLY what government is doing wrong and proclaims itself 'growth' experts or 'jobs' experts.

Every government tells us to ignore the past five years of hardship and underachievement because, as soon as the election is over, thousands of jobs will materialise and billions of investment dollars will pour in. Every Opposition promises us goodies as soon as we vote them into power. Yet, the J$, stronger than the US$ when we changed from the pound sterling in the late 1960s, is now worthless, as more than J$120 is required to buy US$1.

This is the single most important Jamaican economic indicator. Since we invented the J$, we've voted in TEN general elections and changed governments FIVE times. Still, the J$, the dollar that WE earn and spend, has been in a perennial tailspin. Our foreign Masters (and our national governments, parroting foreign Masters like ventriloquists' dummies) tell us repeatedly this is good for us because it'll increase our export earnings. That, of course, like most of our unquestioned, unchallenged foreign Masters' dogma, is bull.

Destroying Jamaicans

The only thing we truly manufacture here is hot air, with Gordon House being production headquarters. In reality, our exports are illusory. We have no 'exports' properly so called because the overwhelming majority of inputs are imported. What we call 'exporting' is really higgling imports.

Devaluation only succeeds in destroying Jamaicans' local purchasing power. Then incompetent, uncaring governments add insult to injury with tax regimes that would break a Rockefeller's back for the sole purpose of passing IMF tests that are held up as proof of effective economic strategy.

Barf! I've no doubt foreign-exchange bondholders agree and are celebrating each successful IMF test, but ordinary Jamaicans, sacrificed on the altar of slavish adherence to IMF dictates, beg to differ.

At the end of 1971, the exchange rate was J$5 to US$1. Total exports were US$339,230 and imports US$533,050,000, producing a trade deficit of US$213,820,000.00, or about 10% of GDP.

At the end of 2013, the exchange rate was J$107 (a decline in value since 1971 of 95% and a corresponding increase in value of the US$ of 2,040%). In 2013, Jamaica exported US$1.54 billion (up 350% from 1971); imported US$6.18 billion (up 1,060% over 1971); and the trade deficit was a whopping US$4.64 billion (up 2,068% since 1971), or 32.3% of GDP.

To sum up for those who had to be defibrillated, an increase in value of the US$ vis-·-vis the J$ of 2,040% has resulted in an increased trade deficit of 2,068per cent. As a per centage of GDP, our trade deficit increased 220% from 10% to 32%. Anybody see a trend? Who does devaluation benefit?

Go ahead. Listen to as many election promises as you like. THIS IS NOT GOING TO CHANGE unless we fundamentally alter the way we govern ourselves. It's as obvious as Donald Trump's tonsils that we have a flawed system of national decision-making. If we don't radically revamp that system, we can vote orange, green or blue until thy kingdom come, the dollar will continue to slide; prosperity will continue to elude all but a chosen few; and unqualified sluggards, incapable of producing anything but natural gas, will continue to flood our politics and make comfortable livings doing nothing.

In my December 1 column ('Elections not enough'), I called for five immediate fundamental changes in our governance structure (more are required), some of which I'll expand here:

Abolishing the governor general

This is easy-peasy. The GG is the Queen's representative in Jamaica. If we're abolishing the monarchy, there's no need for a locally based representative of the monarch.

Establishing an executive, directly elected president

This is essential. What's the point of abolishing the post of governor general only to replace it with an identical post with a different name? A ceremonial president with 'duties' similar to the GG's would be a waste of scarce national funds. The GG is like a corporation with staff, facilities (including Limousines), King's House and lands to maintain. He has no executive authority and is mainly government's rubber stamp. A ceremonial president is an unnecessary, unaffordable luxury.

Mandating the president to nominate an executive (Cabinet) of maximum 12 members from an islandwide talent pool of managers, regardless of political affiliation, and subject only to vetting and approval from MPs.

Directly electing an executive president insulates the legislature from the executive, thus ensuring real government oversight by the people's parliamentary representatives. Yes, MPs will still be primarily affiliated to political parties, but not under a prime minister's thumb. The lackey-filled Parliament we now endure is born of MPs' ambitions to be ministers. Remove those ambitions; remove the carrot-stick power of the PM over MPs by way of Cabinet appointments (carrot) or snap elections (stick), and you'll find MPs often voting based solely on constituents' needs.

Westminster works in Britain because very few of 400 government MPs have realistic hopes of ministerial appointment. Recently, David Cameron suffered an embarrassing defeat in Parliament after Eurosceptic members of his governing Conservative Party joined with opposition lawmakers to reject proposed rules for a European Union membership referendum.

Furthermore, a directly elected president has freedom to select Cabinet from the entire society instead of limiting national management choices to 32-plus elected politicians. By this route, suitably qualified persons of both or neither political affiliation would be eligible for Cabinet appointment (subject to parliamentary vetting by non-conflicted MPs), ensuring a more professional and transparent decision-making process.

Implicit in this new separation of executive and legislature would be candidate run-offs in which all registered party members (not just concocted 'groups' or 'delegates') would vote. Constitutionally, only a finding of fraud by an independent Elections Oversight Committee could overturn a run-off's result.

Allowing for a direct vote for 14 or 15 senators (one from each parish) or for the Senate to be elected by proportional representation.

Under our totalitarian governance system, senators are appointed at the whim of a prime minister/opposition leader and aren't directly accountable to the people.

Why all of 21 senators? Our system, at every turn, prioritises jobs for the boys (and girls) over efficiency. Why shouldn't citizens elect 14 senators, one from each parish? This would resolve many issues, including the JLP's insincere call for a referendum on the CCJ. The JLP, whose prime minister, Edward Seaga, first proposed (1988) replacing the Privy Council with the CCJ, lost the 1989 election and immediately turned the CCJ into a political football.

The JLP doesn't want any referendum and knows the referendum-shy PNP will never hold one. If the JLP wins the election, I'll bet dollars to donuts it'll never hold a CCJ referendum. The JLP can play these silly games with impunity because all eight opposition senators owe their status to the JLP, not to the people.

Elected senators don't need referenda. Elected senators conduct referenda by returning to their parishes; holding town hall meetings; and then voting in the Senate as directed by parish electors. That's how you get a referendum on simple issues like how to replace the Privy Council.

When faced with fundamental issues like GCT on electricity after an express pre-election promise NOT to continue such an iniquitous tax, the JLP didn't call for any referendum. Why? It wants the ability to do exactly the same when next in power. Has the JLP ever called for a referendum when plans to introduce iniquitous, back-breaking new taxes with the stroke of a ministerial pen materialise?

Bah, humbug. It's up to us. We must insist on voting only for a party that commits to changing Jamaica's 50-year modus operandi without a scintilla of success. Voters must focus on voting only for a party committed to a fundamental constitutional reform process to begin immediately after an election and ignore offers of cash or curry goat for your vote.

If you give in to dancing and rum-induced chimeras of merriment, that's when you should thereafter shut up and swallow whatever bitter medicine is fed to you for the next five years.

Our choices are simple. Stand up for Jamaica. Or fall for pretty promises. Jamaica's future is in our hands.

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanejm.com.