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Let diaspora vote...but Jamaicans reject idea of overseas residents sitting in Parliament

Published:Tuesday | July 24, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Sharon Ffolkes-Abrahams

Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer

The United Kingdom and even the Dominican Republic, nearer home, are among a host of nations that, in recent times, have demonstrated it is possible to have persons in the diaspora represented in Parliament.

It is an idea that has been mooted locally and in the Jamaican diaspora in the past but, so far, nothing has come of it.

With an increasing number of countries widening their democratic horizons, the issue has resurfaced: should Jamaicans living overseas sit in Parliament with the creation of three constituencies representing the diaspora - the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada?

There was no ambiguity in the forthcoming responses. Voting rights? A resounding "yes". Parliamentary representation in the House of Representatives? A deafening "no".

Sharon Ffolkes-Abrahams returned to Jamaica in June 2010 after living overseas for 29 years. Now as a parliamentary representative, junior minister in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, and designated to work with the diaspora, Ffolkes-Abrahams is in favour of a diaspora representative in the Senate rather than the House of Representatives.

"This would present a good opportunity for input and communication on both levels," said Ffolkes-Abrahams. She said the issue came up during her six-year tenure on the Diaspora Advisory Board.

"The question surfaced as to whether representation should be formalised within the parliamentary setting," she told The Gleaner. "We were asked to comment on what we thought about that idea … the outcome in our discussions was that a formal representation in terms of voting in a constituency would be impractical and expensive."

However, Ffolkes-Abrahams said the possibility of having a diaspora senator was introduced. She noted that special legislation would have to be enacted as senators are required to attend sittings on a weekly basis.

"Nevertheless, we were still of the view that the concept was desirable to be represented at the Senate level," she said.

Ffolkes-Abrahams suggested that a methodology could be devised with the use of video conferencing.

"We are in the age of technology … there are diaspora representatives on some boards and they have to be available about four times a year … . We should be creative and I support at that level, but it's not a priority in relation to a representative in the House of Representatives as this would be expensive and impractical."

Averse to idea

Former parliamentarian Colin Campbell is also averse to the idea of having parliamentary representatives from overseas seated as members in the House of Representatives. He is of the view that while Jamaicans living overseas should have a vote, they should not be represented in the local Parliament.

"I am 100 per cent in favour of Jamaicans living overseas voting in our elections, but I don't agree that members of parliament should be represented from areas outside of Jamaica. The 63 constituencies are enough," argued Campbell.

"We just can't have an MP from New York or Toronto in Gordon House."

Campbell suggested that the modalities of such an arrangement, once hammered out, were practical.

"Once they are registered, Jamaicans overseas should state their last address in Jamaica to be able to be placed on the voters' list," he said.

Although she frequents Jamaica, political analyst Dr Hume Johnson has lived, studied and currently works overseas.

She points out that there are an estimated one million Jamaicans who reside between the UK, US and Canada.

"These Jamaicans are credited with contributing massively to the economy, the stock of Jamaican social capital overseas and for maintaining a largely positive image of the nation on the global stage. This is not to be taken for granted," she said.

Not fully explored

However, Johnson noted that the question of how to appropriately include diaspora Jamaicans in the democratic process is not yet fully explored or addressed. "The issue, in my view, presents a two-pronged matter of one, voting rights, and two, whether there is need for separate representation for this unique constituency. I address these separately," she said.

"I believe Jamaicans living overseas should be allowed to contribute to our democracy through the right to vote while overseas," argued Johnson. "This means establishing systems that ensure that they are given the opportunity to be on the electoral register, and preparations made for registered voters of voting age to cast their ballot in national elections."

She insisted that this was neither impractical nor without precedent as various countries, including those within the Commonwealth such as Australia and New Zealand, allow expatriates on condition to vote.

"That there are Jamaicans who choose, for whatever reason, to live in the diaspora community should not permanently disenfranchise them from the democratic process. I hope that in the future the Government of Jamaica may extend its commitment to including Jamaicans in the diaspora by exploring this aspect of democratic participation," Johnson argued.

"Whether Jamaicans in the diaspora should be allowed to have their own representative in Parliament is perhaps moot," said Johnson. "I would be more inclined to support a member having specific responsibility for diaspora affairs … . Indeed, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade does have a department that seeks to address diasporic issues."