Sun | Dec 5, 2021

Editorial | PM’s governance agenda needs clarity

Published:Tuesday | September 8, 2020 | 12:07 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ big parliamentary majority does provide him, as Bruce Golding says, with an opening to pursue “legacy-defining‘’ constitutional reforms. But the larger question inherent in Mr Golding’s observations is, what precisely is Mr Holness’ reform agenda and whether he possesses the skills, and acumen for compromise, to build a national consensus, inclusive of the political Opposition, around his ideas. Further, Mr Holness will have to offer greater clarity about the process by which he intends to achieve his goals, whatever they turn out to be.

In last Thursday’s general election, Mr Holness’ Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won 49, or 78 per cent, of the 63 parliamentary seats. It received 57 per cent of the popular vote, albeit on a voter turnout of only 37 per cent, the lowest since universal suffrage three-quarters of a century ago. The People’s National Party (PNP) will have only 14 seats in the House of Representatives.

“Maybe now, with the strength of his majority ... (the PM) will perhaps be more aggressive in laying out his constitutional-reform programme,” said Mr Golding, a former prime minister and Mr Holness’ predecessor as leader of the JLP. “The media and civil society both have a role to play. If there is broad public support for these initiatives, and if they are properly expressed, then that may induce the Opposition not to withhold their support.”

TEST FOR MR HOLNESS

Herein lies the test for Mr Holness, starting with a clear articulation of what he wants to achieve in terms of governance reform – and when. At the start of his previous term in 2016, Mr Holness promised a “grand referendum” on the issues of:

• Repealing the island’s buggery law;

• Acceding to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as Jamaica’s final court;

• Replacing the British monarch as Jamaica’s head of state;

• Establishing a fixed date for general elections.

Only the latter two of these are deeply entrenched in Jamaica’s Constitution, requiring a majority vote in referenda, in addition to approval, with two-thirds majorities, in both Houses of Parliament. Little was done to advance the undertaking although Mr Holness says, including during the recent election campaign, that they remain aspirations of his Government.

Further, while these issues attracted wide public attention and were subject to sporadic debate during Mr Holness’ last term of office, other significant and potentially far-reaching promises relating to governance resided in the JLP’s manifesto for the 2016 election. “... Appointment to sensitive posts,” the then opposition party said, would “be approved by a two-thirds majority in each House of Parliament, thereby requiring consensus between the Government and the Opposition”.

The posts were:

• Chief justice

• President of the Court of Appeal

• Director of public prosecutions

• Public defender

• Contractor general

• Judicial services

• Commission members

• Police Service Commission members

• Public Services Commission members

• Governor of the Bank of Jamaica.

The undertaking, some of which would require adjustments to the Constitution, appeared not only to have fallen from the Government’s agenda, but were, seemingly, forgotten by the public – even when Mr Holness controversially attempted, two years ago, to appoint a new chief justice on a temporary basis, causing a big uproar among the island’s judges. Neither did the matter gain traction when a new head of the central bank was appointed 14 months ago.

WHAT IS ON THE AGENDA?

While a tiny parliamentary majority – initially a single seat, but later increased to three – may have restrained Mr Holness during his previous administration, that no longer is a constraint. At least, not with his majority in the House, where he has the numbers to pass bills to change even deeply entrenched clauses in the Constitution. He would, however, have to receive the Opposition’s help in the Senate, where a super majority is required to make changes to the Constitution.

What, though, is of more immediate concern, and in need of clarity, is to know what precisely is on the prime minister’s agenda. For instance, while his party’s manifesto for last week’s election promised to engage in “wide-scale consultations and referendum on constitutional reform”, and listed term limits, a fixed election date, the Queen as head of state, and the impeachment of parliamentarians as key matters to be addressed, the JLP didn’t clearly stake out an unequivocal position.

Said the JLP: “These consultations will be conducted to ensure the input of Jamaicans in determining the way forward on the value [of] consensus. We believe in a grand referendum at an appropriate time to determine these and other matters on which there is significant public divide.”

The idea of a “grand referendum”, especially given the long laundry list of matters to which voters would be asked to attend, seems, at best, cumbersome and unwieldy. This potentially ponderous arrangement would be further complicated by quarrels with the Opposition over the CCJ, which the PNP supports, but to which the JLP is averse.

Trade-offs and compromises would have to be made for there to be cross-party consensus going into a referendum. Mr Holness, therefore, has a lot to explain.