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Peter Espeut | Binding the strong man

Published:Friday | April 26, 2019 | 12:00 AM

If there is one thing that the Donald Trump presidency of the United States is teaching the rest of the world is that effective checks and balances must be in place to guard against despotic political leaders.

The Jamaican Constitution has several safeguards, some contained in the Charter of Rights. But there are others: for example, the Constitution tries to guarantee the independence of the judiciary from the executive and legislative branches of government and freedom from political direction of certain public offices, like the director of public prosecutions, auditor general, and contractor general.

Why do we need these safeguards? Because sometimes we have to protect our people and our patrimony from the very government we elect to serve us, which, in its exuberance, might embark on schemes which do us long-term harm. If we do not adequately “bind the strong man”, he may use the force of the State to plunder its natural resources short term gains.

The trouble is that the very man we seek to bind is the one given the constitutional task to pass laws to protect the resources of the State, a definite instance of the fox being asked to guard the hen house.

The safeguards we have have not served us particularly well. We pretend that when the governor general makes an appointment (on the advice of the prime minister), that somehow, it is an ‘independent’ appointment. Nothing of the sort!

We pretend that when an appointment is made by a ‘services commission’ made up of a majority of government nominees, that this, somehow, it becomes an ‘independent’ body and that the appointment is ‘independent’. Nothing of the sort!

If the judiciary is supposed to be ‘independent’ of the executive, why is it that the chief justice is appointed directly by the prime minister and the president of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) is appointed directly by prime ministers in the region? Witness recently how PM Holness appointed Bryan Sykes to ‘act’ as chief justice? I believe this is why many Caribbean people do not trust the CCJ as our final court of appeal.


The old Fishing Industry Act set up an authority made up of technocrats to license fishermen, but before doing so, they were required to determine the capacity of the fishery to absorb more fishing pressure. But the act allowed persons who were refused licences to appeal to the minister, who had the power to grant the licences anyway. Jamaica is a monarchy, and not all our monarchs are in Buckingham Palace.

Today, Jamaica’s waters are the most overfished in the Caribbean, and maybe the world. Recently, the government had to institute a ban on conch fishing because resources were so depleted, but the government is to be blamed for ignoring the advice of the scientists, and granting too many licences. The fox cannot guard the hen house!

One arm of the government is dedicated to expanding mining and another to conserving the natural resources of the country, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority, (NRCA). Who protects the one from the other?

One arm of the Government seeks to build housing and another the Land Development and Utilisation Commission, LDUC to ensuring that good agricultural land is not made unavailable for production. Who protects one from the other?

The LDUC has been merged with the NRCA to produce the National Environment and Planning Agency, governed by a board of political appointees. Technocrats are consulted, but the board is under political direction.

Maybe we have saved the Goat Islands and the Cockpit Country – for now – but Bernard Lodge lands are slated to be paved over, and the green space, which is the Kingston Race course, is under threat.

Maybe heavy lobbying will save those, too, but then, some other threat will emerge. What we need is strong legislation (with sharp teeth) which will “bind the strong man”. Genuinely independent bodies need to be constituted which will objectively weigh the issues and save us from exuberant politicians.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to