Rookie MPs and changing the system
Martin Henry, Columnist
Throughout last week, The Gleaner devoted its prominent Page 2 to featuring the travails of first-time members of parliament and of their constituencies in the series, 'Politics: No easy ride for first-timers'. The series confirmed the popular perception of the MP as godparent, 'boops', and magician.
The quote of the week for the series easily goes to Keith Walford, first-time People's National Party (PNP) member of parliament (MP) in the traditional Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) stronghold of South West St Ann, where he had beaten Ernest Smith by only 822 votes in 2011. Walford said he had come to the conclusion as MP that the way politics has been practised in Jamaica is one of the reasons the country had not progressed to a greater extent in the 52 years since gaining political Independence.
Mr Walford is right. Indeed, the practice of politics is the single most important reason that has impeded Jamaica's development. Mark you, the MP had in mind "dirty tactics", which he says are being employed by political opponents bent on driving him out, even at the cost of undermining constituency development. So the contractor general has recently written to him demanding that he produce documents to show them how he has managed to fix the roads in his constituency. In this, the MP perceives the hand of an enemy. "I am [only] the second MP in the constituency for the People's National Party, and I sometimes get the feeling that whenever you are trying to get things done, somehow, there is somebody out there who is trying to stop what you are trying to do. There are people intent on trying to stop what I have been trying to do."
I have in mind when I agree that politics has been one of the biggest factors holding back the country the whole business of the behaviour of the political parties in political completion and the conduct of governance at the level of Parliament, the executive and public administration.
I wonder why the contractor general would not be asking the National Works Agency to account for roadworks in SW St Ann, rather than the MP?
The West Kingston first-time MP Desmond McKenzie was the first to be featured. West Kingston, at least the part that became Tivoli Gardens, got a favoured jump-start for development in independent Jamaica when its MP was minister of development and welfare in the first decade of independence. The present MP, who has been mayor of Kingston, now complains of "development denied", complaining of poor housing stock, water problems and sewage in the streets and lamenting that he has been given a basket to carry water, a cry to which all other non-ministerial MPs would say 'amen'.
The Gleaner writer reminds us that over the years, Western Kingston has paraded some of the most feared gangs and gangsters in Jamaica's history. He didn't bother to mention the political connections of the gangs and how political tribalism drove the reverse development on what was Jamaica's leading commercial district extending into Central Kingston.
Mr McKenzie says he has been reduced to begging favours from government ministers and public officials. "I don't believe that you should be reduced to having a relationship with a government minister where, because you know that person, you can take up your phone and you can call them and you can do something."
Being on the government side may not help much in the begging game either. First-timer in Western St Mary, Jolyan Silvera, unburdens himself to The Gleaner. "St Mary, which has delivered time and time again to the People's National Party," he complains, "has not been treated favourably."
But then the rookie MP gets on to something very important for fixing the system, which has so badly impeded Jamaica. "Just look at how the budget is crafted," he directs, "with parishes being favoured for major projects being Kingston and St Andrew, Clarendon, St Catherine, Westmoreland and St James, with the new kid on the block being Trelawny."
Parliamentary democracy began with rebellion. Rebellion against the autocratic power of the English monarchy. The disaffection and disillusionment of Jamaican backbencher MPs create conditions ripe for 'rebellion' of a sort, rebellion against the excessive power of the executive. And the Gleaner series on the travails of first-time MPs and of their denied constituencies could be an important catalyst. Carpe diem! The MPs should grasp the day, seize the opportunity. A long, long overdue new budget procedure, which some politically conscious citizen observers like myself have been begging for for years, comes on stream for the new budget cycle.
MPs for half a century of independence and before have been content to petition the throne of grace for crumbs. More recently, they, universally on both sides, thought they had found salvation in the extra-constitutional Constituency Development Fund (CDF), which gave them discretionary spending power over a paltry few million dollars.
What the CDF does more than anything else is set up the MP as direct provider of scarce benefits with all the sticky problems attached. What we want is a clean and cohesive system of Westminster governance with executive policymaking under the direction of Parliament for implementation by a neutral and efficient public service. And the Budget is the key.
And the moment has never been better to use the Budget process to drive improved governance for all citizens in all parishes and constituencies. The Standing Finance Committee of Parliament, which technically must craft and vote the Budget, is the entire House of Representatives, all 63 members.
A number of significant changes have been made, starting with the 2015-2016 fiscal year, to make the Budget process work better and more in the favour of MPs and their constituents. The process is dragged forward in time with the ceremonial opening of Parliament scheduled for February 19 and the Budget Debate to open on March 12 with the minister of finance tabling together for the first time, both the expenditure and the revenue side of the Budget. While the list of speakers has been scaled down to only four, the minister of finance, the opposition spokesman on finance, the prime minister, and the leader of the Opposition, in future years backbench MPs will be able to make recommendations for the Budget in a September debate well before the actual Budget process the following March.
MPs like the first-timers featured by The Gleaner last week and fellow sufferers should forgo narrow partisanship and seize the power of the Standing Finance Committee and the Backbenchers' Debate to impose real changes on the Budget to make it a genuine development Budget.
From West Kingston to West St Mary, for instance, water was a matter of pressing concern. Why shouldn't MPs gang up on the executive to push for a cross-country water-supply development policy, with budgetary commitments.
Roads were another cross-constituency concern. Instead of relying on the CDF, the special favours of the minister of works, and 'private' sources like Keith Walford hinted at using in SW St Ann, why shouldn't the Parliament of the people's representatives hold down the executive to a fundable cross-country road maintenance plan. We even know already where the money is to come from. Twenty per cent of the special consumption tax on gas has been earmarked for road maintenance but has never been paid over to the Road Maintenance Fund by the Ministry of Finance, a case of highway robbery.
What about cross-constituency inner-city renewal projects? Rural-development projects? Safety and security projects for the most crime-ridden constituencies?
MPs, at least as loyal to their constituents as to their party and using the old and new tools of representation and policy influence at their disposal, can go from being frustrated 'beggy-beggy boops' to be real agents of change and development for their constituents.