Thu | Jan 23, 2020

Gordon Robinson | Don’t disrespect your vote

Published:Sunday | January 5, 2020 | 12:24 AM

It’s likely that politics in general and general elections in particular will dominate early 2020 public discussion.

I hope discussions are more visionary than tribal; more constructive than destructive; and oriented more towards solutions than finger-pointing. The objective should be to return voting to its former glory as Jamaica’s preferred choice. That objective won’t be accomplished by vilifying non-voters, but by accepting the problem is voting (as currently structured) then redesigning that process to make it more meaningful than the sporadic, clannish reflex it has become.

It’s too late for any political party to waste time trying to win my vote because once again, I’ve refused to enumerate. Decades ago, I vowed, that until Jamaica’s system of governance becomes inclusive, democratic, and accountable, or unless some lunatic fringe government bans dominoes and horse racing, I won’t vote.

For those ignorant or dull sheep who insist that I haven’t earned an input into anything; who declare I’ve no right to criticise because I don’t vote, I say y’all will be disappointed. I’m here. I’m loud. And I won’t shut up for any reason, least of all your blinkered abuse.

My main concern isn’t so much that the obviously flawed, corruption-infested, monarchical system some citizens unquestioningly support every five years hasn’t changed. The biggest cause of my non-participation (beyond smh) is that there’s not even an acknowledgment that change is necessary nor has one step (not even a minor step) towards reform been taken.

Decades ago, a politician friend told me that political advancement was only possible incrementally. Not even that has been contemplated.

Last time around, we were promised term limits by an Opposition that succeeded thereby, and via other empty election promises, in tricking voters into handing responsibility for government to it. NOTHING has been done in that regard.

Last time around, we were promised job descriptions for ministers. NOTHING has been done. We haven’t even been told what qualifies an MP to be named minister of a particular portfolio; there’s still no education minister; and too many ministers are given the oxymoronic title ‘minister without portfolio’. We’ve NO idea what their jobs are.

Cabinet ministers are still appointed at a PM’s whim and ministries created or eliminated willy-nilly. WHEN will Jamaicans insist on transparency in government?

Auditors general reports are disdainfully ignored without consequence. Ministers appointed in secret make annual reports of assets to a silent Integrity Commission with the teeth of an anteater and no real investigative or prosecutorial powers. Those same ministers undergo ZERO public scrutiny BEFORE appointment.

So, this time around, don’t blindly vote for “your party” and call yourself a patriot. Don’t sell your vote for cash, curry goat, rum, or a good bashment (aka mass meeting). The reality of the limited vote you’ve been granted is that it is arrogantly contemptuous of you, BUT until there’s radical change, it remains the only respect you’re going to get.

Don’t YOU disrespect your vote by impulsively gifting it. Insist on a national quid pro quo. THIS time around, I implore all Jamaicans, voters AND non-voters, to demand a real campaign, where candidates address citizens’ concerns.

I demand that both parties move towards a meaningful vote for Jamaicans by making promises that can be kept. There are some easy yet crucial issues that can be tackled immediately, with realistic commitments. All Jamaicans must be resolute about this.

OBJECTIVES TO MEET

Voters should only consider a candidate seeking to represent them if that candidate specifically commits to one or more of the following objectives (all can be achieved within existing ‘Westmonster’):

1. The Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) must get more involved in election campaigning. The political ombudsman’s office is an expensive joke as likely to ensure effective, informative campaigns as voters are to locate a virgin prostitute.

Ask candidates if they’re willing to make the ECJ more politically independent (one nominee for JLP/PNP) and empower the ECJ to:

(a) Strictly monitor and control campaign financing;

(b) Promote at least one townhall and candidate debate per constituency, plus two national townhalls and debates (one with party leaders; one with proposed senior Cabinet members).

2. Party leaders must promise to appoint a deputy PM (after consultation with winning MPs) who’ll automatically take over if anything untoward happens to the PM. Let’s at least pretend that the person named to lead Jamaica in the PM’s absence is known in advance; can claim an indirect link to voters; and relieves Jamaica of the prospect of arbitrary, unelected PMs selected by elite party delegates.

3. Political parties should commit to a Cabinet of no more than 12; no ‘ministers without portfolio’; no temporary or ‘acting’ ministers. Jamaica’s population is less than three million. The USA’s federal Cabinet of 15 operates (with a local government network of state legislators) to govern 330 million people.

4. It’s not enough for campaigning political parties to convince you that they’re not as corrupt as others. They must propose concrete steps to deal with corruption, including the establishment of a Corruption Court to fast-track trials of corruption charges. The Integrity Commission should be independent of Parliament, merged with MOCA/FID, and possess investigatory and prosecutorial powers and capabilities.

No director of public prosecutions (DPP) should have monarchical powers over all prosecutions. The DPP and the Integrity Commission should be directly accountable by being subject to judicial review (available as of right to test allegations of unfairness and unconstitutionality).

5. Justice should be controlled by the Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ). Abolish the justice ministry, leaving the OCJ to liaise with infrastructural and finance ministries as needed. Judges’ appointments should be removed from political influence, which is something the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has long advocated with reference to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), so it should take its own advice when dealing with Jamaican courts.

NEVER AGAIN should an acting CJ be contrived (except in exceptional circumstances), nor should any politician be purporting to assess any CJ’s performance. For example, we can begin NOW a transparent process to select a successor to the current Appeal Court president, who is scheduled to retire in a year.

6. The Constituency Development Fund should be abolished. MPs should be removed from influence on all government contract awards. MPs represent constituents as lawmakers only and to oversee government. They should never encroach on or assist with Executive Government powers or responsibilities. That would be a breach of the constitutional imperative of separation of powers and a blatant conflict of interest.

7. Voters should demand a commitment to reducing the number of statutory agencies. Candidates for board chairman should be publicly vetted by parliamentary committees chaired by an opposition MP before appointment. Public-sector reform is now a standing joke and as likely to really happen as Chris Tufton is to refuse a photo op.

8. The Budget exercise should be more transparent and subject to more rigorous scrutiny than is currently permitted by a hurried, unfocused process. At 2019 Standing Finance Committee ‘hearings’, Nigel Clarke appeared flummoxed when Opposition MP Lisa Hanna queried why the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Commission (BGLC), government’s regulatory agency, was still sponsoring one horse race for US$100,000+ despite the government’s divestment of the track to private enterprise in 2016 when the new promoter asked for one more year.

Nigel promised to look into it and report back. The Budget was passed without another whisper about it but BGLC chairman Clovis Metcalfe announced in February that 2019 would be the last year of sponsorship. By November, he was announcing that BGLC, having spent over $220 million of taxpayers’ money in four years sponsoring the race, would do it again in 2020. Why? C’Mon, man! At least TRY to be transparent!

KEEP YOUR VOTE

If candidates won’t commit to at least some of these easy, but fundamental, ways of respecting voters, keep your vote. Let them keep their smoke-and-mirrors campaigns.

Voting in Jamaica has been an exercise in futility for 50 years. Show me the progress your vote has achieved apart from allowing “your party” to bury its nose in the public trough and toss a few dribblings for you to lap up.

Government, rumoured to be by the people for the people, is intended for politicians to give the people collectively what they need. Instead, Jamaican politicians trick the people into giving politicians what they WANT, namely unsupervised, unrestricted control of taxpayers’ money from the Consolidated Fund but especially from a variety of slush funds hidden in a maze of statutory bodies.

If we’re satisfied to line up twice per decade and mark ‘X’ against a cultish symbol, caring more about that day’s winning Cash Pot number than the candidate’s name or qualifications, then we can forget nation building.

So don’t be satisfied. Force candidates to account. Agitate for townhalls. Attend them. Ask searching questions. Demand change. Because Einstein says even Ray Charles can see the same 50-year-old lunatic fringe politicking ain’t working.

Peace and love!

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