Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Martin Henry: Governing in the public interest

Published:Sunday | March 6, 2016 | 3:00 AM
Martin Henry
Parents of Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Carol Harvey and Morris Holness, observe proceedings at the swearing-in ceremony for the prime minister last Thursday.
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Bang on time, 5 p.m., the ceremony of taking office by Prime Minister Andrew Holness was interrupted on television by scheduled gaming draws.

The prime minister had just spoken about the necessity of a culture shift from dependence and connection to step up in life to building a reward system based on hard work and playing by the rules, and a cultural item was being performed. Only 15 minutes after 5 o'clock, the short ceremony was over. But the business of gaming and the business of media were not about to tolerate a short delay.

Perhaps we should celebrate this as a sign of the vigour with which business will be pursued under the promised increased partnership between the new government and the private sector to achieve the political priority of growing the economy and creating jobs - 250,000 of them over the next five years.

A sick old man brought out to vote on election day, Mr Holness recounted in his inaugural address, advised him, "Andrew, do the right thing." But what is the right thing?

The prime minister says he is setting out to fix government. But what is the business of government?

After 53 years of Independence, it is time for a review of government, the first post-Independence-born prime minister declares. But what core principles will guide the review? And what needs fixing at the heart of government?

The prime minister has promised "good governance". But what is the universal measure of good governance? How do we set about achieving good governance? And how much of it might we already have without even realising it?

Actually, the Constitution, resting upon some 800 years of parliamentary democracy, has some pretty good ideas about good governance and how best to proceed trying to achieve it.

Mr Holness made many promises on the campaign trail, promises anchored in his 10-Point Plan and greater manifesto. He gave some commitments in his second inaugural address last Thursday, including commitments to partnership, growing the economy, free tuition and free health care, and a referendum on unspecified constitutional and social issues.

But he made only one pledge in law. Andrew Michael Holness has pledged, as prime minister, to uphold and defend the Constitution and the laws of Jamaica.

That's it.

There has been some excitement about writing an impeachment clause into the Constitution as a step towards better governance. But a prime minister cannot be impeached for failing to grow the economy, or failing to fulfil campaign or inauguration promises, or even failing to deliver on policy commitments voted in Parliament. Perhaps a no-confidence motion could be made on those grounds. But the head of government could only be impeached on grounds of breaking the law (the Constitution from which all subsidiary laws flow) which he had pledged to uphold and defend.

Leading a list of 19 itemised rights and freedoms is "the right to life, liberty and security of the person". Since the prime minister was born in 1972, some 43,000 Jamaicans have been murdered in steadily increasing numbers year on year - the majority of these as a result of our dirty politics and occurring in 'zones of political exclusion'.

The prime minister has extended again an invitation to his political opponents to walk with him through zones of political exclusion. As useful as walking together might be as political symbolism, what is more urgently needed is special support for law and order and public safety, fixing the tragic failure of government in this core function.

 

TIME FOR ACTION

The prime minister has correctly made the link between the rule of law, safety and security and the prospects of economic growth through private-sector investment. He 'dreams' of Jamaicans feeling safe in their environment. "Time for action!"

In the proposition for partnership and cooperation, one can hardly see the parliamentary Opposition opposing action for the preferential resourcing of the law and order, and safety and security functions of the state and government.

The rest of the Constitution is really about the organisation and operations of Government through the office of governor general, Parliament, executive powers, the judicature, and the public service, with a chapter on finance.

The constitutional provision that has made Andrew Holness prime minister can just as easily unmake him, with a one seat majority in the House of Representatives.

The governor general appoints as prime minister the member of the House who commands the support of the majority of members, in practice but not in law, generally determined along political party lines. The loss of support of even one member would remove the prime minister's mandate and bring down the current Government.

There are other interesting possibilities, almost unthinkable because of our fixation on political parties, which the Constitution does not even recognise. Any other member of the House can make a bid to secure majority support to become prime minister without reference to party. Should, or perhaps I should say when, rocky days hit this Government, this possibility will become even more possible.

Mr Holness, from his power base as prime minister, should seek to shore up his situation by incentivising support from among those in Parliament who do not now support him but could be appropriately induced to do so.

Traditionally timid, party-bound MPs, but elected to represent their constituents, will also now find that they now have greater power and latitude in a one-seat majority situation for negotiating constituency interests with their own leaders.

The potential for cross-party caucuses to emerge to pressure the Government for particular areas of broad-based concern has never been better in the Jamaican Parliament. This is something I have long been advocating and can be part of the good governance which the prime minister has committed to.

PM Holness says it is time for a review of Government and has tantalised us with promise of a constitutional referendum without saying what was to be referendumed. We know from the campaign trail of his interest in term limits and in parliamentary approval for major public service appointments.

Others are gunning for removing the innocuous monarchy from the top of our constitutional arrangement and creating a republic. And, of course, the final court of appeal remains an issue.

I, citizen, want to focus on the Senate, which has already caused so much grief to Mr Holness in his other life as leader of the Opposition.

A number of Caribbean states, Trinidad & Tobago and St Vincent & The Grenadines come to mind, have broken with the template provided by the British Colonial Office for independence constitutions and have refashioned their senate. Mr Holness' commitment to partnership, cooperation and better governance cries out for a redesigned Senate.

I am proposing an expanded Senate of 27, the current 13 to be nominated by the prime minister for appointment, the same eight by the leader of the Opposition, and an additional six public citizens without any known or visible political attachments to be appointed by the governor general after consultations with the PM and opposition leader. The Government could then never secure a Senate majority vote without the support of at least one senator other than its 13. If none of the six 'independents' will support a Government bill, we can be reasonably certain that something is wrong with it and inimical to the public interest.

Good governance, such as Prime Minister Holness is promising us, is not so much patching together a whole slew of clamouring sectoral interests, as is the trend in modern 'democracies'. Some of the more powerful sectors had already met with the prime minister-designate before swearing in to advance their sectoral interests, which are always presented as consonant with the public interest and the national interest, and others will quickly follow.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.