Mon | Jan 24, 2022

Ronald Thwaites | Crooked thinking

Published:Monday | November 8, 2021 | 12:07 AM

I remember being called to her room in a tenement yard on Hanover Street many years ago. Suffering from asthma, an epidemic in fetid, inner-city conditions, and wild-eyed with panic, she was literally trying to climb the wall to catch her breath....

I remember being called to her room in a tenement yard on Hanover Street many years ago. Suffering from asthma, an epidemic in fetid, inner-city conditions, and wild-eyed with panic, she was literally trying to climb the wall to catch her breath. The medication had run out, there was no more money on her health card and no cash to even take a taxi to the hospital.

Her grandson had called the member of parliament (MP). Who else? To do what? To find money to save his grandmother’s life. Don’t you get $20 million? Spend some on her now. She did vote for you.

Then there were the years when HIV/AIDS was raging and before antiretrovirals were cheaply available. A monthly dose cost $40,000 and there were at least half a dozen infected persons begging for help to survive. Where would the money come from? These were days before the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) even existed. You tried to help out of your own pocket. Many months, your entire MP’s salary went that way. It is the same for councillors, who get even less.

What do you tell a group of children, now bereft of school meals, when they come to you saying that there is no food for the day? “Have a good day, study hard and behave yourself”?. “I am planning a Christmas treat and you will get cake”? Do that and you deserve Marie Antoinette’s fate!

Every elected representative faces hundreds of such cases each month. It is worse now because more people are really hungry, and even those who work cannot feed their children or elderly relatives properly.

These reflections were evoked by Phillip Paulwell’s recent sincere plea that members of parliament concentrate on development rather than welfare. Also, there have been cries from others for an increase in the amount and permitted scope of the CDF.

That fund at least allows relief for the kind of acute cases mentioned, although, so complicated is the process to access resources, you better have your own cash to respond where the need is urgent.

The truth is that Jamaica has more and more needy people and less and less of a functioning welfare system. For the most part, state agencies are thick with process, often more tribal than professional politicians, and incapable of responding to emergencies or chronic situations.

Paulwell and this newspaper are correct in asserting that being primarily an inadequate welfare source ought not to be a MP’s role. But for that to change, the nation would have to rethink its philosophy of care for vulnerable citizens, and strengthen resource systems to meet their needs.

There will be no political appetite for the drastic reform of the public sector and budgetary reallocation which would be required to make the CDF unnecessary.

INADEQUATE LAW CREATION

The constitutional role of a member of parliament is to make good laws. That is impossible when the nation’s political economy is more in the thrall of moneyed interests than it is in the electorate’s. Just check the fate of food prices and the exchange rate escalator over the past month.

Moreso, lawmaking has really become the purview of Cabinet only, with non-executive representatives being mostly a supporting cast. Scratch us and most will have to acknowledge how useless the annual State of the Constituency Debate really is; how futile it is to ask questions or introduce private members bills. Ask Fitz Jackson.

The lawmaking apparatus doesn’t work in the interest of the mass of the population, and we are complacent about it. How much more proof do we need than the foolishness going on about the Road Traffic Act. This law, which took almost a generation to draft and pass, cannot operate without new regulations.

So it is delayed for three years and counting because of grossly inadequate policy and drafting capacity. Prime minister after prime minister have made promises about illusory implementation dates, while the police and tax offices bleed our pockets without proper authorisation.

By the way, is the Provisional Collection of Tax Act really constitutional? What is the morality and constitutionality of a minister being able to extract my money without even the normal procedures of budget making and the consent of the people’s representatives for money bills?

And as for the illegal fines collected over the past 15 years, think through this. If money is collected through false pretences, isn’t the only right thing to do is to restore value to those aggrieved? If not, what kind of dangerous lesson is being taught to children?

No wonder the Government, very short on legal talent, didn’t want this matter discussed in Parliament last Friday. Crooked thinking!

Kudos to Mr Housen and attorney Gavin Goffe for striking a blow for legal reform. I hope they will continue with their class action.

REOPENING SCHOOLS

The muddle and indecision about face-to-face teaching and learning continues, to the detriment of our children’s future and our entire national purpose. Straight thinking would indicate that once a school is cleared by the Ministry of Health and abides by their protocols, the school board, not the Ministry of Education, must determine reopening. Churches and trusts who operate schools, please step up to your responsibilities and stop being supine. Check the private schools for example.

Also, it is crooked thinking and an overreach of power by the Government to prescribe a new regimen for sixth-form education, without full consultation and agreement with the owners and administrators of the schools. This, particularly after the instances of unresolved corruption and inefficiency in the career advancement and related programmes.

Straight thinking and proper priorities should first lead to getting all children back to school, curbing increasing absenteeism by feeding them properly; confronting the abysmal Caribbean Examinations Council results; stopping social promotion and the ‘graduation’, at whatever level, of thousands of illiterates.

Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.