Tue | Jul 7, 2020

Gordon Robinson | Time to review and reform Westmonster

Published:Sunday | December 15, 2019 | 12:00 AM

People ask why I keep saying that Jamaica’s elections are anti-democratic.

Mainly because they are! We must remember that they’re based on the Westminster model of governance. But, you reply indignantly: isn’t Westminster the most democratic system in the world? Isn’t it practised by all our CARICOM brethren and sistren?

Yep. It’s practised by them. Politically, they’re as brainwashed and brainless as we. Or maybe not. Maybe all CARICOM politicians are brainless like foxes. The painful political truth is Westminster isn’t democracy and was never intended to be. Westminster was a ruse by the English monarchy to fool rebel barons that they’d been granted democracy while, in reality, preserving the monarchy’s privileges. The Magna Carta was modified and reissued until it birthed a Parliament and “government” whose prime minister must still report weekly to the Queen.

Jamaicans who mock the USA’s presidential election system as anti-democratic miss the irony in the similarity between America’s and Westminster’s electoral colleges. The difference is that the USA deliberately created its Electoral College in order to improve on Westminster while Jamaica slavishly imported Westminster’s Electoral College without thought or purpose. Jamaican ‘voters’ have no say in who is PM or government ministers.

Worse, Jamaicans, who are at least permitted to elect constituency representatives (MPs), are blindly voting in a system that ensures that they are unlikely to get any real representation.

If they ‘win’, their MP represents his/her party in Parliament (not constituents) out of lust for a Cabinet position, which ensures that he/she won’t be able to properly represent constituents.

If they ‘lose’, their MPs (who should be parliamentary representatives ALONE, voting on bills and monitoring government) are reduced to begging for scraps or using an unconstitutional Constituency Development Fund to buy job security (a.k.a. votes) through patrimony.

Meanwhile, parish councils (should be where we find local government) have been manipulated into conduits of corruption and MPs’ bagmen regarding government contracts. To make bad worse, their operations and funding are hamstrung by Central Government’s constant interference through an oxymoron called Local Government Ministry.

This is how Westminster becomes Westmonster!

‘WE THE PEOPLE’

The USA fought a bloody, bitter war for independence so took a conscious decision to be independent. Jamaica, having been taught by the British to celebrate ceremony over substance, preferred ‘Independence’. So America discarded British systems and created their own to ensure USA would never be ruled by a Monarch.

USA began with 13 diverse colonies (doubled by the Louisiana Purchase). Populations and cultures varied, so it was critical to a stable union that every State had as inclusive a say in electing a Federal President as practicable. The Electoral College was conceived to avoid Westmonster’s totalitarian rule by ensuring congressmen (American equivalent of England’s MPs) had no say in a President’s election. Everything was to be done for and by “We the People”.

So, the Electoral College was a process to find compromise between Westmonster’s Monarchical system and ‘popular’ vote. Popular vote in a federation of diverse States could prove as anti-democratic as Westmonster. Today, a USA Presidential election by popular vote would ensure California and New York (15 per cent of the population but four per cent of States) could always ‘elect’ the President.

Each State is assigned ‘electors’ equal to the sum of its congressional and senatorial representation. Electors are generally chosen by the political parties (State laws differ) depending on the number of popular votes recorded. Most States provide for a ‘winner-take-all’ electoral vote whereby electors, regardless of political origin, must vote for the candidate winning that State’s popular vote. Maine and Nebraska operate a version of proportional representation.

THE JAMAICAN SYSTEM

In Jamaica, the majority MPs form an Electoral College to select a PM for all Jamaica. Then the PM appoints a majority of senators at his/her sole discretion. Jamaicans can’t vote for their senators, who perform crucial legislative oversight roles. Today’s Jamaican Senate is rigged to form a second layer of Cabinet rubber stamps.

In the 2016 general elections, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) polled 14,872 votes in Kingston to the People’s National Party’s (PNP) 14,599. The PNP won two seats; the JLP one. The JLP earned one Electoral College (EC) vote instead of three. In St. Andrew, the JLP polled 70,870 votes; the PNP 84,502. In the EC, the PNP were allowed zero votes; the JLP seven (MPs).

In a USA-style election, the JLP would’ve earned three EC votes in Kingston; the PNP 12 in St Andrew.

Let’s do this parish by parish. Beside each parish results are actual EC votes (JaEC) for the PM as awarded under Westmonster and then the virtual reality that would’ve resulted had we used the USA’s EC system (AEC):

 

PARISH JLP VOTES (MPS)/PNP VOTES (MPS) JAEC AEC

St Thomas JLP 16,788 (1 MP)/PNP 18,035 (1 MP) JLP 1 PNP 2

Portland JLP 13,864 (1 MP)/PNP 14,542 (1 MP) JLP 1 PNP 2

St Mary JLP 25,190 (1 MP)/PNP 23,567 (2 MPs) JLP 1 JLP 3

St Ann JLP 30,935 (2 MPs)/PNP 31,241(2 MPs) JLP 2 PNP 4

Trelawny JLP 15,784 (1 MP)/PNP 14,169 (1 MP) JLP 1 JLP 2

St James JLP 34,316 (4 MPs)/PNP 25,683 (1 MP) JLP 4 JLP 5

Hanover JLP 11,744 (1 MP)/PNP 12,875 (1 MP) JLP 1 PNP 2

W/moreland JLP 17,835 (0 MPs)/PNP 23,332 (3 MPs) JLP 0 PNP 3

St Elizabeth JLP 31,480 (3 MPs)/PNP 29,797 (1 MP) JLP 3 JLP 4

Manchester JLP 30,093 (1 MP)/PNP 32,615 (3 MPs) JLP 1 PNP 4

Clarendon JLP 43,387 (3 MPs)/PNP 40,763 (3 MPs) JLP 3 JLP 6

St Catherine JLP 79,814 (6 MPs)/PNP 68,015 (5 MPs) JLP 6 JLP 11

 

Using tge USA EC method (extrapolating parish voting patterns to the Senate), Portia Simpson Miller would’ve won 38 Electoral votes (31 from ‘Parliament’ plus seven senators); Andrew Holness also 38 (32 MPs and six senators).

Constitutionally, the tie could’ve been broken by the JLP’s superior numbers in the Lower House (or however else we prefer, including the popular vote as Option B or C). Thirteen senators (down from 21; too many for less than 3,000,000 people) would’ve been voted in by Jamaican citizens’ popular vote to represent each parish (one for Kingston and St Andrew). The split would’ve been PNP seven; JLP six.

But neither system ideally suits a small country not constituted by a federal union. Simplicity (always best) would see a genuine one-man-one-vote system implemented, allowing us to directly elect Jamaica’s PM. A non-executive ‘President’ (governor general by another name) would have neither rationale nor raison d’être and should be discarded.

In 2016, assuming identical voting patterns, Portia would’ve polled 433,735 votes; Andrew 436,962. But we’ll never know how persons would’ve voted with the opportunity to mark two separate votes (PM/MP) or for senators. In Jamaica, we the people aren’t trusted to elect our political leaders.

In a truly democratic election, Andrew Holness might’ve earned a mandate to govern, but his government (to be chosen from a wider pool than MPs but vetted by MPs) would be scrutinised by a Parliament, likely with a slim JLP majority and a Senate probably with a similarly slim PNP majority.

JLP/PNP MPs/senators would be forced to act conscientiously because neither rubber-stamping nor frivolously opposing government would be countenanced by constituents to whom they’d be directly responsible, NOT to a party leader.

WARPED ELECTORAL COLLEGE

I’m confident that a Lower/Upper House looking like this would’ve prevented the massive waste of time, effort, and money that was the recent NIDS calamity.

Seaga used to highlight gridlock as a disadvantage of the USA’s system. Every system has advantages and disadvantages. Gridlock offers the choice of reduced tribalism or dysfunctional government. If twinned with staggered elections (varying terms of office), gridlock should be rare or temporary. Gridlock’s main advantage is as the antidote for dictatorship.

A constitutional democracy like the USA’s (with fixed election dates) takes into account many ‘unforeseen’ events by providing an entrenched path of presidential succession.

Voters casting a 2016 ballot for Donald Trump knew that if anything untoward happened, ‘Mother’ would become president (God help USA!).

Jamaica’s warped Electoral College tricks voters into believing that their MP vote is also a vote for a party leader as PM, but they could end up with a grab-bag PM (as happened in 1967; 1989; 2003; 2007). Jamaican voters have no voice in electing party leaders (‘candidates’ for PM) unless they were among 3,000 fortunate elites ‘selected’ as party delegates. In the USA, every party member has a vote for his/her party’s presidential candidate.

The lesson here is that Westmonster is suited to England’s history and traditions while the American Electoral College suits USA’s history and traditions.

Jamaica must find a governance system suited to Jamaica’s history and traditions. There’s no need to blindly import America’s system as we did Westmonster, but, after 57 years, it’s time to review and reform Westmonster.

Without radical change, but with apologies to Morgan Heritage, is jus’ talk dem a talk ’bout ‘5 in 4’, and all wi can do is laugh!

Peace and love!

 

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