Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Martin Henry | Local government elections and after

Published:Sunday | November 27, 2016 | 11:00 AM
Martin Henry
Flanked by fellow PNP debaters Scean Barnswell (left) and Eugene Kelly, Venesha Phillips makes a point during the local government debate on November 23.
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Tomorrow, the Jamaica Labour Party takes charge of the majority of the parish councils, now rebaptised as municipal corporations.

This will be accomplished with only a third or so of eligible voters turning out and through the hard core of the party's supporters turning out in somewhat higher numbers than those of the PNP. Plus, a little push from conscientious swing voters who take this civic responsibility very seriously and who will continue in a slight majority to support the party forming the central government.

Bearing in mind what everybody knows that local government is the water boy of central government and that councillors are the gofers and 'handouters' of the MPs when they are on the same side, it is already a difficult challenge for the opposition party to gain or retain control of the municipal corporations. The PNP hasn't helped its cause by making the same mistake twice and will suffer greater loss tomorrow than would naturally have taken place from the politics of clientelism and the struggle over scarce benefits.

There is very little doubt that the JLP's offer of the $1.5-million tax relief, which stood to benefit the working poor more, and the PNP's virulent and sustained attack upon it hurt PNP chances in the February general election and helped the Labour Party to sneak home from the back of the race.

 

'Run-wid-it' politics

 

The PNP's attack on the $600-million bush-clearing and drain-cleaning programme that was conveniently launched by the Government just before the local government elections is bound to have similar results. The party has vast experience with 'run-wid-it' politics, and, indeed, invented the phrase through a minister of finance speaking 'off camera' at a campaign meeting. Everywhere in the world of democratic politics, parties in government spend on quite legitimate activities to try to influence voting outcomes. Sometimes they win; sometimes they lose.

The alleged irregularities and skewed distribution of the bush-clearing fund is, naturally, a cause for concern. But the frontal attack upon it by the usually politically astute PNP is bound to be read where votes count most as 'boxing food outa poor people mouth', and by the very ones who love the poor most.

Portia Simpson Miller's 'threat' to rebellious Comrades out in South East (SE) St Ann and the very solemn media analyses of it will not be affecting results tomorrow. Our illustrious pollster Don Anderson (if one can now still trust pollsters!) confirmed my suspicion in remarks he made at a CARIMAC forum that, based on hard empirical evidence, scandals don't affect how people vote.

 

Freak victory

 

The rebel PNP 'independent' councillor-candidates are going to get wiped out (metaphorically and politically) in SE St Ann tomorrow. Not only because the independent candidate is dead, never mind ex-JLP Paul Patmore's freak victory in Trelawny last time, but SE St Ann is the strongest, longest-existent, non-garrison PNP safe seat in the country, having never been lost since its creation in 1959.

The overrated debates will not have affected outcomes tomorrow in any significant way. They provided political entertainment late at night and exposed both the silliness of political contenders and their parties and the sorry state of local government. They paraded aspirants who were very much like the rest of the population and neither oratorical geniuses and magicians nor bumbling fools. The debates were long on promises. If 90 per cent of those promises could be done, why have they not been done? And what will make them doable, come Tuesday morning?

I voted for Kenisha Allen as the brightest spark in the first debate and overall in both debates. Her lickle mosquito 'jook' against her opponents, par for the course in both politics and debate, was blown up to elephantine proportions in a week of national chat, lifting the speaker with every puff. Kenisha seems to have what it takes to rise in national politics.

We have now gone from humble parish councils to exalted municipal corporations. But what, apart from name, has changed, or will change? The councils (or corporations) are responsible for very little, have very little power, and even less money and institutional capacity.

Take markets. Richard Creary, former mayor of Port Maria, was in the second debate boasting about the new market for the town now to be built after years of neglect. To be built by the Ministry of Local Government! The St Mary Municipal Corporation does not have a dime for one new market stall!

 

Two camps

 

When it comes to local government, the country is divided between the kill-it and the build-it camps. I am with the build-it camp for very clear reasons. Local Government is about a lot more than the economics of providing services to the population.

Local government is critical to democratic governance and the control of the concentration of power in a central authority. It should not be under the thumb of the central authority to be done with as the central authority capriciously devises. The local government reform process has been allowed to drag on forever with talk, talk and more talk. It would have been nice to hear the debaters from both hostile tribes proposing an agenda for advancing local government and freeing themselves from the crippling dominance of central government.

The state of the municipal corporations is not on account of the councillors being incapable dunces as we are sometimes led to believe. Where there are such, it is the other way round. The system, as it now is, attracts that kind.

What the municipal corporations lack - and need to have - are autonomy, responsibility and resources. A mix of realistic service fees, retention of some of the public revenue from local economic activity, and the equitable operation of the Equalisation Fund (which we heard in the debates was being abused) would address the resource needs of the corporations and, therefore, their capacity to perform. But all of this would transfer portions of power from central government to local government.

 

Scientific evidence

 

The minister of science, energy and technology and a former mayor in local government, Dr Andrew Wheatley, says the Government intends to drive policy with scientific evidence. Central government should do a comparative study of local government and local government, should do its own. But while we wait, the national university has done a range of work relevant to local government performance.

Among other things, UTech, Jamaica, has studied citizens' attitude towards land taxation, has developed solar-powered LED street lighting, engineered an off-grid, solar-powered pumping system for minor water supplies, which was first installed in Carron Hall, St Mary, as Richard Creary boasted in the debate and which has been also applied in Clarendon, as mayor of May Pen, Scean Barnswell, told us. The university has underutilised policy guidance capacity in urban and regional planning, land management and environment, building, road maintenance, energy and care of the elderly - the sorts of things that local government is about and from which central government could richly benefit.

Did it strike no one else as strange that their media interrogators were asking local government debaters, and these parish reps happily obliged to provide answers, about a range of national development issues which are the purview of central government? Perhaps a series of debates should have been held in the parish capitals! Or, are national debates just a bad fit for local government elections?

- Martin Henry is an administrator at UTech. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhenry@gmail.com.