Thu | Dec 13, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Leadership, democracy and NIDS

Published:Sunday | December 17, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (at podium) addresses guests attending the November 29 mini town hall meeting at Jamaica College in St Andrew. The National Identification System was the focus of discussion.

Stephen Francis, OJ, who coached the likes of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson with tremendous success, has a famous quote: "In Jamaica, experts grow on trees." This came to mind as I listened to the debate on the National Identification System (NIDS) and heard scores of civil-society experts pontificate on the matter. They insisted on their right to be heard, and, more important, have their ideas adopted.

What was amazing was that everyone who had a mouth to speak, or a pen to write, assumed that Jamaica couldn't be a democracy if it had a cut-off date for the debate, and the governing party must be autocratic if it did not defer to the popular will of the people by incorporating their ideas into the legislation.

NIDS is not new. Decades ago, Michael Manley broached the subject. Nothing happened. The idea was revived when former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller expressed hope that NIDS would become a reality in 2012, the 50th anniversary of our Independence.

Since then, work has been quite advanced, as discussions occurred in Parliament on such issues as a reliable and secure way of verifying an individual's identity, including the use of biometric (fingerprint or retina) scans; what personal information should be requested from citizens; whether NIDS should be mandatory for all citizens; and if it is, what fines or jail time should be imposed to ensure compliance. Some tough choices to throw at citizens!

It was, therefore, not surprising that the previous PNP government, mired in an austere structural adjustment programme, had little appetite for finalising NIDS once the country's 50th anniversary came and went.

In a country where secrecy for many is survival, even cultural; where home addresses are indistinguishable and not fixed; where aliases assure mobility and freedom; where religion evokes unknown biblical truths; and where trust in government is an obscene declaration; a National Identification System is a lightning-rod issue, a hard sell. This means Government has to have clarity and conviction because it has to own it, knowing that it will be a no-win situation with all the barbs thrown at it.

Government can't equivocate, as responsibility has to be decisive, with paternity linked to the awesome power of the State and legitimacy determined by absolution, not faith or trust.

 

SACRIFICES TO MAKE

 

With NIDS, there are sacrifices that the population must make, and these must be identified, and the benefits accruing to the individual, the community, the country, must be tallied, allowing the Government to insist that the legislation is necessary, irrespective of the pushback from citizens, most of whom regard themselves as experts since they will be sharing information pertinent to themselves.

A likely absence of consensus is not new, especially when citizens are asked to forgo personal rights and privileges that they have been accustomed to, as was the case when President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney passed the Patriot Act after 9/11 and, years later, President Barack Obama extended it.

In such instances, leaders had to be firm, forthright, and autocratic, as they demanded sacrifice from everyone to ensure the overall safety of the nation. In a democracy with its presumption of popular sovereignty and consent, that is hard and requires courage, vision, trust, and conviction.

NIDS is very personal and private, not like a vote on the Cockpit Country where every Jamaican would be in support, given the purity and pristine nature of the Cockpit. Even if Jamaica's economic challenges warranted pursuing mining options, no one would dare buck the system and appear crude, vulgar, and a rapacious capitalist with no heart for Mother Nature. In this instance, silence was golden and Jamaica was commended for its maturity.

Nature, at its best, in its most pristine state, trumps economic benefits arising from environmental degradation most of the times, even when countries are heavily indebted and need investment inflows. The Cockpit was an easy sell for the PM; not so for NIDS.

Having benefited from prior debates, as well as loan financing from the Inter-American Development Bank - which would have allowed the pulling together of a first-rate team of technical and professional experts - one would have thought the Holness government would have designed an appropriate strategy for NIDS. It would acknowledge costs and sacrifices while emphasising the necessity for implementation given its importance to the individual and the country.

 

WAFFLING

 

But the prime minister, instead of standing strong and taking responsibility for a bill crafted by his side of the House, and amended 137 times as it made its way through committees and subcommittees, Lower House and Upper House, briefs and oral presentations, waffled and talked about more input from town-hall meetings.

The PM is bright, has a very good grasp of issues, and talks a good game of what needs to be done but where he is weak is in implementing those measures which demand discipline and sacrifice from the population. While some argue he is arrogant, that, to me, extends only in the area of bias to party loyalists and not in the tough decisions required at the nation-state level.

In these decisions, he tries to be all things to all people, which can be good in some instances, but not with NIDS. It has been amended beyond recognition and he is still being gratuitous in minimising cost and sacrifice to the consumer and in allowing for more time extensions.

His Government's downfall was to posit the idea that there was no cost, or sacrifice, or giving up of anything on the part of people getting NIDS. The ads promoted by Kamina Johnson Smith are wrong.

There is a lot that people are giving up in terms of their privacy and in terms of personal data they must provide. There is a lot they are giving up in terms of transferring such information to a centralised data system run by a government which, in a country full of car dealers, can't even get right a critically important car contract for the police who are short of cars at a time crime and violence are out of control. In addition, with our high crime rate, replacement for NIDS, lost or stolen, is still a vexing issue.

Government should have come prepared with a well-thought-through NIDS, that it was committed to, that was a non-negotiable imperative because of its benefits in enhancing the delivery of government services, strengthening immigration and national security, and minimising the capacity of individuals to assume multiple identities.

Not everyone would buy into it. There would still be a lot of pushback by experts, but in an age of globalisation, advanced technology, increased travel, terrorism, cybercrimes, and high crimes and violence locally, there are a lot of things we have to get used to, whether we like it or not.

However, governments like ours will have to do better at earning our trust, by being better prepared, and being decisive.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.