The Gavel: Put flesh to Simpson Miller's words
When parliamentarians return from the summer break in September, one hopes that Leader of Government Business Phillip Paulwell will schedule the people's business in a direction which will see more time dedicated to fixing social and economic ills affecting the country.
To borrow the words of Portia Simpson Miller, the country is demanding a new way of doing business.
"The Parliament must become the place for solutions to the country's critical and urgent problems. This is a time to be inclusive, not exclusive. I, therefore, propose that the Parliament set aside two or three days every quarter to focus like a laser beam on critical national issues. We should be able to identify the obstacles in the way of our people's development. It will enable us to find solutions."
That was Simpson Miller in 2010. She was leader of the Opposition at the time, and held the view that this kind of approach would lead to consensus building, and argued that a greater level of participation, and the scrutiny that comes as a result of an active media, must be leveraged to "forge that new and inclusive accord with the people of Jamaica".
RHETORIC NOT MATCHED BY REALITY
Simpson Miller's rhetoric has not been matched by reality. For the most part, the business of the House of Representatives - where elected members sit - has been confined to doing government business.
The Government, to its credit, has passed scores of bills. But when it comes to doing Private Members' Motions, those have basically been pushed to the curb.
Take, for example, a Private Members' Motion brought by West Portland Member of Parliament (MP) Daryl Vaz in 2013 for the Government to formulate a long-term sustainable plan to make provision for an adequate water supply system, not only in the constituency of Western Portland but throughout the entire parish of Portland, and other parishes which are similarly affected by drought from time to time. That has not been debated.
Another motion brought by neighbouring MP Dr Lynvale Bloomfield for attention to be given to the issue of obesity and its relevance, in light of its growing importance as a public health concern and its great social and economic implications, has gone nowhere.
This is despite the obvious link between non-communicable diseases, health cost and productivity.
There is also the case of a Private Members' Motion brought by Dr Dayton Campbell, MP for North West St Ann, which mandated the Human Resource and Social Development Committee to urgently examine the adequacy and affordability of funding tertiary education in Jamaica. Not much has happened, and this may be due in part to the fact that committee chairman Rudyard Spencer has been, at the very least, comatose.
The shortage of space to conduct meetings is not a sufficient excuse. Creative scheduling could have allowed for more committees to meet and for more of the people's business to get done.
There must be a change!
Simpson Miller's suggestion for Parliament to set aside two or three days every quarter to focus like a laser beam on critical national issues has gone nowhere. Even if the suggestion belonged to the speechwriter, Simpson Miller has to claim maternal rights to it. She must own it; she must believe it; she must implement it.
The country could benefit from real debates about how to grow the economy and how to reduce crime and violence.
One economic issue that is impatient of debate is that of tax reform. Economist Damien King's sensible suggestion for a lifting of the burden of employment taxes and transfer them to consumption tariffs such as general consumption tax (GCT) should be put on the table forthwith.
King, head of the Department of Economics at the University of the West Indies, Mona, said that the cumulative tax on employment is 43.75 per cent. He said transferring the burden would not only assist in growing the economy but would reduce the level of social inequality.
HISTORY OF TAX REFORM
Jamaica is now midway through an International Monetary Fund-overseen economic reform programme, which, among other things, requires tax reform. Jamaica has a long history of tax reform and a White Paper passed in 2012 seeks to establish some broad guiding principles which will inform the main future tax-related initiatives over the medium to long term.
The White Paper said that from 2013-14 onwards, further reduction of the general personal income tax rate or threshold will be dependent on the overall revenue performance towards meeting of medium-term fiscal objectives. Increased tax compliance will facilitate further conjoint reductions in the corporate and personal income tax rates, further increases in the annual general personal income tax threshold, and further lowering of the standard GCT rate.
Perhaps it's time to consider making that shift to more GCT and less income taxes, as suggested by many economists who have studied the issue.
Paulwell should, without delay, identify the days that discussion on these issues can take place in the Parliament; advise the clerk to the Houses of Parliament to issue invitation for submission, and be prepared to have his leader's proposal implemented.