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Stabroek News

Reinventing the Governor-General
published: Sunday | February 12, 2006

Robert Buddan

MR. P. J. PATTERSON would naturally prefer for a president in republican Jamaica to be sworn in next week rather than a Governor-General in a constitutional monarchy, on the eve of his own departure from office. It might be, however, that Mr. Patterson has done the next best thing to recommend someone who can prepare the way for a reinvention of the office of the Head of State, one who can inaugurate a transition towards a republican Head of State by setting out the ways by which to convert the office of the Governor-General into a presidency. At least, I hope this is the case.

In fact, it might be a bit uncomfortable for such a modern Caribbean man as Professor Kenneth Hall ­ the Governor- General-designate ­ to wear the symbols of Her Majesty's colonial presence forty years after independence and in this most Caribbean era of regional governance. Professor Hall would be more relevant if he were allowed to transform his new office from British symbolism to Caribbean realism. We can ill-afford spending our resources on British sentimentalism, anyway.

Professor Hall is as equipped to play this role as any. He is still of active age, highly educated, possesses strong administrative skills, and carries national prestige and a regional reputation to the task. As a historian, Professor Hall will well know the opportunity at his disposal to help in shaping a modern Caribbean civilisation by turning this symbol of the past into a more dynamic office of the future.

Professor Hall can begin to play the role of President-in Embryo as he reinvents the responsibilities of a (titular) Head of State relevant to governance in our age. The demand for final decolonisation requires a Head of State that symbolises home grown democracy and what the Jamaican nation stands for. If Jamaica is to stand for anything it must first stand for itself. That responsibility begins with the Head of State.


It is my hope that Professor Hall will reinvent the office he is to occupy, and he might begin with a conference of Caribbean titular Heads of State.

In the spirit of both regionalism and governance the new Governor-General might convene a conference of his Caribbean counterparts, inviting both titular Heads of States from Republics like Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica and from constitutional monarchies. There are nine Governors-General and two non-executive presidents in the region. The purpose would be to review and refine the roles of non-executive Heads of States in CARICOM, based on shared experience and on initiatives and proposals for future constitutional reform. For instance, Barbados intends to become a republic soon. What considerations are being given for the role of the president of Barbados in those circumstances, and what might others learn from this?


Such a conference can inform a national debate to consider matters such as whether our future Head of State should have the right to nominate a certain amount of senators, an unresolved issue in the Report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reform in Jamaica; whether he should have command of the armed forces as he does in some countries; and what experiences other countries have had in maintaining impartiality while giving the Head of State power of appointment to certain offices of state. Such a conference and debate might even consider whether we should have a collective presidency as they have in Switzerland. Surely, this kind of consultation would provide more than democratic flavour to this rather aristocratic office.


Questions like these bring us to consider the democratic standards that should apply to the Office of the Governor- General/President and what role in governance that office should have in a modern political system.

Excellent Governors-General have served Jamaica, and it is a tribute to the judgement of our prime ministers that they have made such fine selections. But the price for that method of selection is that the Head of State has had nothing but a symbolic role, because it would not be democratic to give substantive powers to officers of the state who do not derive their authority from the people or from the people's Parliament. A referendum of the people that establishes an office of president would thus be more democratic than one established by Order-in-Council of a foreign parliament. A Head of State elected by a national parliament would be more democratic than one appointed by a prime minister. A Head of state directly elected by the people would be the most democratic of all.

A president elected by a national parliament has a more democratic standing than in the present case. The Head of State could then, with greater justification, exercise more powers. Indeed, Jamaica's Joint Parliamentary Report on Constitutional and Electoral Reform has already agreed that the future President should be elected to office by Parliament and should have a more independent role in appointing the Contractor-General, Independent Members of the Electoral Commission, Members of service commissions, the Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal. Professor Hall has the authority of this document to feel justified that he should be able to transform his Office into one with such powers.


A reinvented Office of the Head of State should Jamaicans that office according to the country's own heritage as a matter of national integrity. Other countries have done so. Australia, for example, began the practice in 1929 by which the Prime Minister recommended a national to be Governor- General rather than accepting a British nominee of the King or Queen. In some other countries the traditional British uniform (Canada) and flags (Fiji) of the Governor General have been changed to reflect national customs and symbols. Jamaica decided in the 1970's to discontinue the practice of accepting knighthoods from the British Monarch and created the title 'Most Honourable' for the Governor General (although that practice never materialised). The Governor Generals of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are selected by parliamentary vote.

Our new Governor General would be in his right to infuse his office with nationalistic symbols and break out of the traditional mould to create both the psychological and political basis for abolishing the office altogether.


In this age of innovation with governance our Governor-General should have a more meaningful role to play in monitoring state governance instead of being a mere glorification of the state, warts and all.

We could consider a governance commission for each ministry with each commission chaired by a governor and made up of outstanding citizens drawn from different sectors of society. The Governor-General would be the governor in general of these commissions and their governors. The commissions would act as oversight bodies to ensure that the administration of each ministry meets the highest standards of administrative governance. The commissions on governance would see to propriety in areas such as financial and ethical administration but would have no role in policy, which remains a matter for cabinet.

This way the prestige of the office of the Head of State would be of great value for monitoring governance standards in the central departments of government. More citizens would be brought into the process of governance as commission governors, acting as members of boards of ministries. Better oversight of ministries would be achieved through corporate responsibility for these departments by building confidence in the state and removing perceptions of corruption and partisanship. The Head of State must have a role in building a state of the highest quality.

The new Governor-General will have a special opportunity to make this happen. Of course he needs the support of the political establishment since it is not up to him to assume this task by himself. Let us hope Jamaica's new prime minister and his administration will provide this.

* Email the Department of Government at:

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