Political stranglehold - Civil servants hurting MPs in partisan deadlock
FOR MANY first-timers to representational politics, the stubbornness of the political executive to put financial muscle behind projects in their constituency is often the major downside to service. But for Hugh Buchanan, his greatest surprise being a first-time parliamentarian is the extent to which some public servants have stood in the way of progress.
"We talk about the things we didn't expect before we came in, and I am going to talk about our civil servants and the people who we, as members of parliament (MPs), have to deal with across the board to get things done," Buchanan, the MP for South West St Elizabeth, told a Gleaner Editors' Forum last Thursday.
Describing the situation as "the most surprising thing" he has encountered since being elected in December 2011, Buchanan said the extent to which the divisive political culture permeates the public sector "is a serious problem".
"We are not the executive, we are members of parliament. We are legislators, and if we make a phone call to the relevant officers at the National Works Agency or the National Water Commission or the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) and can't get through, how can we carry out the tasks that is expected of us? The truth is that it is a serious problem," said Buchanan.
"The politics is very strong in the Jamaican civil service and it makes no sense any of us pretend we want to go around it. The NSWMA garbage collection, we know it is a big problem, but I am going to tell you my reality in South West St Elizabeth. The lady that is in charge of garbage collection, she contested the Brompton division for the Jamaica Labour Party twice. I can't talk to her, she doesn't take my phone calls. I have spoken to the regional head, I have spoken to the executive director, I have spoken to the minister of local government," bemoaned Buchanan.
"The people ask me, 'Can't you see she is sabotaging you?' There is nothing done. Can't she carry out her duties somewhere else?" Buchanan fumed, while adding that there are other examples in other areas of the public sector. He said it is unacceptable that there should be such level of distance between MPs and some public servants.
However, contacted for a response, Michelle Foster Vassell, the zone manager responsible for garbage collection in sections of Buchanan's constituency, including Black River and Treasure Beach, said he was not speaking the truth.
"He has never called my phone," Foster Vassell told The Sunday Gleaner.
Buchanan's mother, Dorothy, twice defeated Foster Vassell to be elected councillor for the Brompton division in the St Elizabeth Parish Council. But the zone manager said politics has no place in how she does her job.
"As a person who ran for office, my approach is not political and Mr Buchanan knows that. The only issue we have now is that the trucks are down. Politics has never had anything to do with it. My job is strictly professional. All of us of have our political differences, but we don't put politics in what we do. Politics has its time," said Foster Vassell.
In the meantime, another first-time MP, Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, said he, too, faces the obstacle of an unresponsive public service in the area of garbage collection.
"Three, four years ago, garbage was being collected; everybody was impressed with how things were going. But since the elections, I have to be calling someone personally to say go around this place to pick up the garbage because [in the past] two weeks you haven't been around there," said Bloomfield.
He said that the matter of apparent sabotage extends beyond garbage collection, and also includes the distribution of water in his constituency.
Notwithstanding those issues, Bloomfield said he knows he will prevail at the polls when the next election, due in December 2016, is called.
"I am going to win by a bigger margin, in spite of everything being done to prevent it," Bloomfield said.
Paul Buchanan, the MP for West Rural St Andrew, also decried what he described as the awesome power wielded by public servants.
"They have enormous power [yet] they are elected by no one. They need to consult more when they are taking on a number of these projects, some of them to our detriment," he said.
DISAPPOINTMENTS & SURPRISES
- Dr Dayton Campbell, North West St Ann:
A priority feature that I have been speaking about from day one is the water supply for Bamboo to open up that community, and it is long overdue, and it is something that we would appreciate if it is done.
In relation to the parliamentary process, I believe that more time can be given to us as backbenchers to engage and participate in the process. I think that some persons on the backbench may have some ideas that would be worthwhile going forward, and that the opportunity should be given, because in order for us to have consensus, we must have consultation.
- Arnaldo Brown, East Central St Catherine
I am student of political sciences - that is my first degree - and quite frankly, there is nothing about the parliamentary process that surprises me or disappoints me because I understand the workings of the Westminster system. Are there things that we can improve? The answer to that is yes.
- Hugh Buchanan, South West St Elizabeth
One thing that the party promised and did deliver is the JEEP. It allowed us as members of parliament to have some flexibility in terms of what programmes we wanted to put in. In terms of disappointments, I would say my major disappointment after becoming a member of parliament wouldn't have anything to do with the parliamentary procedure, but with the civil servants and their [lack of] professionalism.
- Paul Buchanan, West Rural St Andrew
The limited time that we get to participate in the Budget [Debate] - things that we bring to the fore, we would love some reaction on them. I haven't seen it. Coffee country, West Rural St Andrew, and you are fixing roads, while coffee country provides the foreign exchange and no roads are fixed. This is the sort of thing we would love to see followed up on.
- Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, East Portland
In terms of Parliament, I think we waste a lot of time.
I have got one road for $27 million, there is one for $200 million, and of course, we got a couple of bridges, and of course, the water, sewerage and drainage, which is $1.85 billion.
We have the tourism sector; we had three or four projects, through Minister (Wykeham) McNeill, and Boston Beach and Winnifred Beach are going to be redone. So we have got our fair share.