Equip Members of Parliament to Succeed
Last week, the country witnessed the swearing in of 63 members of parliament (MPs) in a ceremony which left family members, friends and supporters beaming with pride.
Getting into Gordon House is their reward for campaigning and convincing voters that they would do a good job of representing their interests.
Jamaicans have already made it clear that they are prepared to hold their parliamentary representatives accountable, and the number of former MPs discarded by the electorate in the December 29, 2011 general election underlines the fact that voters will mark hard.
But is it fair to send these political representatives to Gordon House without the tools they need to perform, and can we really hold them accountable when we know some of them are ill-equipped?
The Gleaner Council has already declared its support for proper job descriptions for MPs and now the Council is urging Jamaicans to start the debate on how we are going to equip the parliamentary representatives in the light of the financial challenges the country faces.
If any Jamaican had any doubt about the tight fiscal space the country is operating in, those should have been erased last week when new Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips announced that the soon-to-be-tabled supplementary estimates for this fiscal year will reflect further cuts in government spending.
Against that background any suggestion for increased spending on political representatives is usually met with a 'NO', even before reasoned debate takes place.
But the Gleaner Council is concerned that 63 MPs, and in particular the 20 first-timers, are being asked to provide effective representation and some of them do not have the tools they need.
The Constitution empowers MPs primarily to "make laws for the peace, order and good government of Jamaica".
Importantly, the Constitution requires the Cabinet to be collectively responsible to Parliament, and this requires MPs to play an oversight role in holding Cabinet ministers collectively responsible for the "general direction and control of the Government of Jamaica".
The Gleaner Council has already argued that the job of the MP should be:
1) Making legislation based on consultation with constituents
2) Oversight of the Cabinet - regardless of political persuasion the MP must hold the executive accountable.
3) Representation - championing the interests of the people in Parliament and facilitating the people's voices to be directly heard through participatory governance arrangements.
No more should Jamaicans accept that MPs take over the roles of government ministries and agencies by providing for constituents' need for food, clothing, shelter, work, burial benefits, treats, everything from birth to death.
To keep the MPs honest, Jamaica must be prepared to provide them with the tools that will enable them to function in a transparent, non-partisan manner.
These tools will allow for improvement, not only in the party-aligned constituencies and communities, but across the highways and byways of our island.
Jamaica must first provide guidance for the MPs, particularly the newcomers, and established entities, including academia and the media, must get involved.
The Gleaner Council believes that while it is important for the MPs to ensure that they familiarise themselves with the Constitution and the legislative guidelines for good governance, they should not be left solely to read, digest and to 'pick up' as they go along the experience curve. Instead, the training programme must by systemic and planned.
OUR CHALLENGE TO THE UNIVERSITIES:
The Council challenges universities operating in Jamaica to come together to prepare a programme of instruction that would assist in the training of MPs. Such a programme will assist the MPs to know where to look as they seek information to support their advocacy.
The programme should also encourage deeper analysis and appraisal of matters of national importance. We are aware that the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of Technology have started discussions on such a programme and we urge others to join these talks.
The universities also need to look at how they can restructure their courses so that graduate and postgraduate students can earn credits by working as research assistants or interns for MPs.
Professor Trevor Munroe, through the Department of Government at the UWI, had started a similar programme, but this needs to be expanded to all other universities.
This would provide valuable on-the-job training for the students while providing a well-needed service to nation building that the State will struggle to pay for.
OUR CHALLENGE TO THE MEDIA:
The media must understand that it can no longer be satisfied with just reporting who said what, when and where. The explosion in the media locally has provided Jamaica with a powerful tool that can help or hurt the development of the country.
The Council challenges the media to keep Jamaicans abreast of all 'the happenings' in our Parliament. The media have to keep a roll call on the MPs attendance at the sittings of the House and all the committees. Media reports need to go further than the 'tracing' matches which so often grab the headlines.
Jamaicans must be kept informed of the Government's legislative agenda, the questions to ministers which are not answered for months and, most important, the media have to focus more on the private members' motions which come from the MPs who are not part of the executive.
Jamaicans must be told that their MPs are taking issues to Parliament and the nation must be told when these motions are allowed to fall off the order paper because any debate on them might be uncomfortable for the executive.
OUR CHALLENGE TO THE STATE:
Even with the buy-in from the media and academia there is no getting around the fact that the State will have to free up some resources.
The situation cannot continue where MPs operate out of a cubby-hole above 'Mr John Grocery Store', a green-painted office in the middle of a Jamaica Labour Party stronghold or an orange-painted building in the heart of the People's National Party bastion.
The Gleaner Council believes that proper appointed accommodation must be acquired for every one of the 63 MPs where persons of whatever political stripe or no stripe at all must feel comfortable to attend.
These constituency offices should be able to house a small library, a conference/meeting room, consulting rooms, comfortable bathrooms and be set up like a civic centre-type facility, such as what currently obtains in St Mary.
The MPs must be held accountable, so let us make the decisions to give them the tools to perform, and then those who don't will face us in five years and every Jamaican will know what to do to the non-performers.
Every Jamaican must also get involved to ensure that they monitor and keep in touch with the political representatives to ensure that their needs are met.
New members of Parliament
Dr Linvale Bloomfield
Dr Winston Green
Dr Dayton Campbell
Lloyd B. Smith