Williams, Tufton and lessons for Jamaica
Rosalea Hamilton, GUEST COLUMNIST
On November 15, 2013, when Senator Arthur Williams issued a press release stating that in January 2012, "all Opposition senators were required to sign undated letters of resignation and a letter authorising the opposition leader to date and submit the resignation letter to the governor general", some of us were stunned. Unfortunately, not enough of us seemed concerned!
Although Senator Williams erred in crafting the letters, he did the right thing in seeking a judicial interpretation from the Constitutional Court.
This action, which was tried but failed in Trinidad & Tobago, provides important lessons for the Jamaican people.
In 1973, then T&T Prime Minister Eric Williams proposed that each parliamentary candidate of his People's National Movement (PNM) should sign an undated, irrevocable letter of resignation. In an address to the PNM's General Council in May 1976, he argued that this was necessary to "protect the party against defection". However, well-thinking citizens of the twin-island republic saw this as an undemocratic, authoritarian effort to suppress dissent from within the PNM by preventing its MPs from crossing the floor and a form of discipline against those whom he thought might challenge him.
Andrew Holness will go down in history as the first (known) leader of a political party in the Commonwealth Caribbean to make use of this draconian and subversive action to consolidate his power. His action makes a mockery of the role of a senator as a parliamentarian who acts freely in the interest of the Jamaican people in the review of legislation. It also reinforces the view that senators, like MPs, are mere puppets who act in the interest of their party, rubber-stamping the will of the party leader.
The JLP senators who signed the undated letters will also go down in history as capitulating to Holness' power-grabbing demand. These letters should not have been signed in the first place, and should not have been drafted by Arthur Williams as a matter of principle, as well as legality.
I urge Jamaicans to reflect on the following questions and to consider some lessons:
1 Will we continue to accept this type of old-style politics? Modern forms of direct democracy requires ongoing activism and oversight of the people, beyond the vote every five years. An important lesson from T&T is that the people, not only the judiciary, are the guardians of our Constitution.
2 If such signed, undated letters are perceived to be acceptable, why limit their use to senators and not to other appointees, eg., the contractor general, and to statutory board appointments? Similarly, why would others in society not use them to consolidate their power in an unequal relationship, for example, an employer asking an employee to sign an undated letter of resignation as a precondition of employment?
3 Politicians should not be given a free hand to curtail our freedom. The protection of our rights and freedoms is essential for our democracy, and is guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (Constitutional Amendment) Act, 2011.
4 As we approach another Budget and face tough decisions about cutting expenses, can we afford a rubber-stamping governor general who will act unconstitutionally if so instructed?
5 This fiasco highlights the weakness of the current role and composition of the Senate and the practice of party leaders appointing to the Senate their friends or persons who fail to win seats. It is time for us to demand the reform of our Constitution, particularly the Senate, so that it comprises people who will act in the interest of the Jamaican people without being fettered by devices to toe the party line. In so doing, we should revisit the 1995 Constitutional Commission's recommendations that include an enlarged Senate with non-partisan, independent senators.
6 In the face of this constitutional crisis, will Jamaicans now demand changes to our Constitution?
Which (if any) of these lessons will the Jamaican people learn from this unfortunate incident? Will it be business, or rather politics, as usual?
Rosalea Hamilton, PhD, is VP, community service and development, UTech, and Scotiabank chair professor, entrepreneurship and development. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.