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Current challenges to Jamaica's political system
published: Sunday | February 24, 2008

Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer
Police officers remove a refrigerator that was used to block the road after a shooting incident at 95 Mountain View Avenue in June last year. National security remains the number one concern for Jamaicans.

The following is an edited version of a speech given by Opposition spokesman on national security, Dr Peter D. Phillips, at a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Kingston.

Any organisation, and indeed any country, must from time to time take stock of itself to determine what it has accomplished and what remains to be accomplished, and how it measures against other similar organisations or countries. Indeed, this is particularly appropriate for Jamaica now as we approach the 45th anniversary of independence and as we approach the 63rd year of Universal Adult Suffrage.

There is, of course, a particular and added significance for the People's National Party (PNP), which launched the project to achieve Universal Adult Suffrage and independence, and which will this year commemorate 70 years of existence.

Looked at over the long sweep of historical time, there is much that we can feel positive about as far as Jamaica's history over the last 70 years is concerned. To begin with, Jamaica has successfully established itself as an independent member of the community of nations, and consolidated durable and effectively functioning democratic institutions and traditions.

Since 1944, for example, we have had six transfers of power by means of elections, and even in circumstances of extremely close parliamentary majorities, such as exists currently, the transfers of authority have been essentially non-violent. The essence of our democracy is not merely to be found in the smooth transfer of power, however.

Our electoral arrangements are widely recognised within the Caribbean and worldwide as being first-rate. Moreover, we have maintained an independent judiciary and civil service. Our press is free almost to the point of endemic contentiousness with established political authority, and we have sustained a network of representative trade unions, as part of a vibrant yet essentially orderly industrial relations scene.

Beyond that, the culture of the Jamaican people, as manifest in our music, our drama and literature, and our prowess on the sports fields has been indelibly established as a visible and highly esteemed part of world culture.

Record of accomplishments

Against the backdrop of this record of accomplishments, the proclamation of Norman Washington Manley of "Mission accomplished" by his generation still rings true some 40 years after he made the declaration at his final address as leader to the PNP's annual conference in 1969. And yet, despite these accomplishments which set us apart from so many other countries which achieved independence at around the same time, but which have not had the same salutary successes in establishing viable democratic traditions, there are signs that all is not well, and that substantial challenges remain in the task of constructing the viable and equitable Jamaican nation which was the dream of our forbears in the national movement.

Evidence of a mounting social and economic crisis abounds despite the many gains that have been made. The most visible manifestation of the growing social crisis is to be seen in the fact that we have among the highest rates of murder and of violent crimes in the world. This has not developed overnight, but rather the increase in the rates of violence, murder and general public disorder and violent confrontation with the state has been a constant during the entire post-independence period.

During every decade of this period (with the exception of 1980) we saw the doubling of the murder rate. Moreover, from the late 1970s onwards, Jamaica emerged as a major platform of organised criminal activity centred on the illegal trade in narcotics.

Other measures of our social crisis are to be seen in the steady deterioration of family life, high-rates of teenage pregnancy, and the growing alienation of our young people trapped in an underperforming educational system and unable to find a place of worth in the economic and social life of the country.

The statistical record tells a stark tale. Twenty per cent, that is, one in five of all children born in Jamaica, is born to a teenager hardly able or prepared to meet the weighty responsibility of parenthood. Some 70 per cent of all the children leaving the secondary school system leave without any certification whatever. Only slightly more than 30 per cent of the nation's children grow up in households with both biological parents.

No wonder then that our young people are being disturbingly and disproportionately drawn into networks of criminal and antisocial activity, constituting more than 70 per cent of the victims of violent crime, and are in equal proportion the main perpetrators.

Participation in elections

It is not surprising, in the face of this reality, that opinion polls regularly show that a majority of Jamaicans feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Similarly, it is not surprising that we are witnessing a long-term decline of popular participation in elections.

The heart of the dilemma faced by the political system is two-fold, however. On the one hand the very excesses of politics, evident in excessive political tribalism; political violence; the harbouring of corrupt officials and the like, serve to deter citizens' confidence in the political system and limit their desire to actively participate.

Second, and connected with the first point: the greatest negative resulting from the deficiencies of our political system is our inability to achieve a consensus on any fundamental national issues. Nothing demonstrates this more than the fact that after 30 years of discussion of constitutional reform, we still have not been able to achieve sufficient consensus to more us forward to a new Constitutional Order.

All of this leads to one simple conclusion: we need a fundamental change in the approach to politics in Jamaica if we are going to confront the developmental problems with confront us as a nation. This veritable rebirth of the political order, which is so urgently needed, will once again have to put national interest before narrow partisan interest, and it will have to put consensus building before petty political point-scoring.


Most of all, it will have to be rooted in integrity not only in its care of public funds, but manifest also in the candor and honesty that it brings to public debate.

The issues that immediately demand common purpose and the united effort of the Jamaican people and their political representatives are virtually self-evident, and the urgency of the needed solutions is universally recognised and accepted.

The number one issue of national concern for all Jamaicans is the issue of national security. Here, the path to be taken is relatively clear-cut. On the legislative side action is urgently needed to establish an Independent Investigative Authority to focus on corruption and its links with organised crime. Draft legislation had been prepared prior to the elections. We trust that an appropriate bill will be brought to Parliament soon.

A Port Security Act was also already drafted and needs to be enacted. Vital police reforms need to be implemented, including a further roll-out of the anti-corruption plan within the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).


There is, moreover, the need more widely to tackle corruption in the public sector as a whole. In this regard the review and strengthening of the Corruption Prevention Act which has been mandated by law needs to be urgently undertaken. It is difficult to understand the government's failure even to appoint a select committee to undertake this review.

With respect to education, the critical challenge for a long time will be the mobilising the necessary financial and human resources necessary to bring about the transformation of the educational system which is required. The needs are enormous, amounting to $22 billion per annum over 10 years.

Equally, if we are to get greater value for the society's efforts new systems of accountability will have to be developed for those who work in the educational sector. Performers must be given extra reward. Equally, non-performers must face sanctions.

All this, as well as the issues of constitutional reform and the difficult fiscal choices which are needed if we are to manage the deficit and reduce our national debt, could benefit from some basic national consensus, including the two parties. Unhappily, however, if we are to go by the current indications, we are getting mixed signals.

While the Vale Royal talks represent a potential basis for building a real consensus, we still see too many signs of a government intent on petty political points scoring, and mired in the settling of past scores rather than building for future possibilities.


The mooted Commission of enquiry into finsac and the financial sector collapse of the 1990s is a case in point. Definitive academic studies have been done on this issue. We need to move on to deal with the difficult decisions of the present; like containing the deficit and a runaway inflation so that we can return interest rates to their downward trend, and prospects of economic growth renewed.

Rather than spending energy and pointing fingers we need once and for all to settle an agenda for constitutional reform which takes advantage of agreements already reached about a new constitution, and which would strengthen parliamentary control and weaken excessive concentration of prime ministerial and executive authority.

Jamaica has huge potential. The fact that this potential has not been fully realised is mainly a consequence of the failure of our political system. The last time we seriously reached a national consensus was some 45 years ago, when there was bipartisan agreement with regard to the Independence Constitution. Now, leaders of a new generation face new challenges in an increasingly competitive and difficult world economic and political environment.

If we are to be equal to these challenges, we will need political leadership that is able to put nation-building priorities before narrow partisan interest and leadership that is adept at consensus-building and committed to it. Without this calibre of leadership, we will miss out on the exciting possibilities of the new world of the 21st century.

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