Martin Henry, Contributor
Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives received at least three major reports from the executive of Government. This, hopefully, is setting a proper trend for the future.
The prime minister reported on the Government's trip to China. The minister of national security provided a crime update. And the minister of transport, works and housing, with responsibility for the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ), reported on the proposed use of the Goat Islands for a Chinese investment in port and logistics facilities.
Successive governments have developed an inordinate fondness for bypassing Parliament and making major announcements through media conferences and at political party meetings. And media have developed an inordinate desire to assign itself the forum for statecraft.
Parliament, unfortunately, was on its long summer break when the prime minister-led delegation visited and returned from China. There was a hue and cry orchestrated by media about the prime minister not reporting to the nation about the outcomes of the visit. Meaning a media conference had not been called at the airport, or soon thereafter, at which major announcements would have been made to be transmitted to the people by sound bites. There was significant media news coverage from China during the trip both by state media doing official releases and by embedded commercial media.
It is altogether proper for the head of Government to first report to her Cabinet and then to the House of the people's representatives. It is at Parliament that the media should properly get the story for transmission to audiences.
We have elected representatives, and in particular constitutionally established a parliamentary Opposition, to interrogate the executive on its stewardship of governance, on its plans, policies and actions. The laziness and partisanship of Parliament notwithstanding, this function has not been transferred to media despite popular misunderstandings.
And we did see some creditable opposition action on the China trip report. Opposition Leader Andrew Holness did not simply oppose, but supported Chinese investment in Jamaica, which he said was extremely important. He quite sensibly noted that "foreign direct investment comes with some conditions. Some of them are known upfront and some of them are discovered as you go along." But, he advised, it is the duty of the Opposition to ensure that as investments come in, it is the people who benefit and that conditions are known upfront.
Opposition MP and trade union warrior Pearnel Charles wanted to know what commitments had been given in negotiations with the Chinese for allocating work between Chinese and Jamaican workers.
The courtesy of a media conference provides canned information to media with limited opportunities for a few of the more aggressive journalists in attendance to ask a few typically not very probing questions, which would require extended unscripted answers.
And the poor public is duped into believing that they are being fed full information. A great deal of behind-the-scenes investigative work is waiting to be done to truly take the public beyond the headlines dominated by official news releases and the pronouncements of media conferences.
Little hard info
After weeks and weeks of circular media debates filling air time and print space, what is the real story behind the Chinese investment interest in the Goat Islands? Quite literally, dozens of sources must exist from which the story could be doggedly extracted and pieced together. The fact of the matter is that some proposal is on the table that the public knows little about either from the pronouncements of Government or from the investigative work of media.
With an abundance of native suspicion and little information, a strong public view has emerged that the Chinese Goat Islands investment is a done deal and will be disastrous to the environment. The environmental lobby has been particularly vociferous in pushing the environmental disaster point. We must constantly bear in mind that neither NGOs nor the media have been elected to govern.
The media have dutifully reported from last week's report to Parliament the minister of transport saying he has instructed the Port Authority to continue its assessment and monitoring of the proposed project area and to undertake detailed environmental and feasibility studies. The PAJ has been instructed to offer effective guidance to the Chinese investors about the required development processes and approvals which must be followed or attained before any final proposal is put to the Cabinet for consideration.
Fool-the-people window-dressing? Serious process under way? That's a critical investigative task for media.
The opposition leader made an important point in responding to the PM's China trip report, which may sound trite and clichéd: "Investments must be for the benefit of the people. In the bad old days, 'benefit' may have been regarded as economic, jobs, jobs, and the goodies that income can buy. Today, 'benefit' must include preservation of the environment and of social and cultural values."
A critical role which the environmental movement can and should play is to make it politically costly to sideline environmental concerns. And that can only be achieved if the voting public learns how to balance economic development benefits and environmental preservation benefits.
Looks like Parliament needs a vigorous Investments Committee and one for the environment and most certainly another for security. But any such committees will need the support to get serious work done. In a report tabled last Tuesday, the day of the reports, the World Bank concluded that the infrastructure and support services of Parliament are woefully inadequate and are significantly undermining the work of members, committees and the parliamentary staff.
The report recommended several upgrade actions that would strengthen proper oversight of public funds. These include better research support for MPs and committees, greater use of ICT, more support staff. Running against shallow public sentiment, debt obligations, and the fear of political fallout, the World Bank report is recommending a new Parliament building with adequate facilities.
Quite correctly, the report proposes that Parliament should play a critical role in helping the Government put the country's public finances on a more sustainable path and making public spending more effective. The World Bank wants the legislature to play a greater role in the pre-Budget process, debating in the full House (the Standing Finance Committee) the Government's Budget priorities. The report writers must have read my columns on the matter.
I have signed the petition of the Tivoli Committee led by Lloyd D'Aguilar "demanding" that the Speaker of the House allow a representative of the committee to address the House on the matter of the 2010 Tivoli Gardens 'massacre'.
The full petition reads:
Dear Hon Michael Peart,
This is to demand that the Jamaican House of Representatives allow a representative of the Tivoli Committee to address the House from the Bar regarding urgent, unresolved matters relating to the sufferings of the residents of Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston arising from the brutal assault committed against them by the Jamaican security forces in May 2010.
This demand is in keeping with House Rules which make allowance for citizens to bring urgent matters in this manner to the attention of country's elected representatives.
Your record as Speaker of the House up to this point is unimpeachable and it is hoped that this will ensure that partisan considerations will not deter you from respecting citizens' rights.
I signed the petition not so much in support of the specifics of the charges brought against the state but in strong support of the principle of citizens petitioning their government and having the right to appear before the Parliament of their representatives.
The American Constitution anchors this principle in its very first amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people ... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Many of the people of Tivoli Gardens had marched in the streets, pre-incursion, in support of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke, their 'President' and area leader then wanted for extradition to the United States to face criminal charges. Give them now access to their Parliament. Sign the petition at http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/hon-michael-peart-speaker-of-the-house-of-representatives-jamaica-allow-tivoli-committee-to-address-2010-tivoli-gardens-massacre-2.
I hope the media can be induced to take a lively interest in the matter.
A letter writer to one of the newspapers has raised again the question of a retirement age for politicians, with questions about job description and certification thrown in for good measure. The letter gained traction on one of the evening talk shows the same day 68-year-old Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller delivered her China trip report to Parliament.
Politicians need not retire. Political engagement is not a job, even if career politicians and many 'samfied' members of the public think so. Political leadership is a service which one citizen renders on behalf of fellow citizens by invitation directly or indirectly extended by votes in a democratic system. We vote them out when we have had enough of them, old or young.
Like the environmental political cost which I raised earlier, an age cost can be imposed if enough public support can be drummed up for it. But I doubt that very much. Strom Thurmond, whose political views I am not endorsing, served for 49 years as a United States senator, representing South Carolina between 1954 and 2003, the year of his death at 100 years and six months. And before being senator, Thurmond was governor of the state, 1947-1951.
He even switched sides from Democratic to Republican, but like our post-retirement-age Karl Samuda, the voters kept voting for him.
The chief qualification for being an uncertified politician should be being an upstanding citizen. Being sensible and experienced in something demonstrating leadership skills would also be quite helpful. But we don't always win!
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to email@example.com and medhen@gmail.