Editorial | Set timetable for local gov’t vote
It is not possible, as this newspaper had suggested, that a referendum on Jamaica’s transition from a monarchy to a republic is twinned with local municipal elections in February.
In fact, it is not even clear that there will be a vote for municipal councils, whose lives have already been extended by two years. The administration has been surprisingly silent on the matter. Good governance, notwithstanding the political calculations that may affect the issue, requires that it urgently clear the air.
For a referendum on removing the British king as the island’s head of state to have happened next month, a bill to that effect would have had to be have been tabled in Parliament before the first half of 2022 in order to comply with the timetable for amending deeply entrenched constitutional provisions. Legislation of this type has to lie on the table of the House for three months before being debated and another three months after the debate before being voted on. After the vote comes the plebiscite.
After a year of talking about the issue, the Government only recently got around to formally attempting to appoint a committee on constitutional reform, which is now a matter of dispute with the political Opposition.
This newspaper had hoped that by the time the vote on the monarchy happened, Jamaica would have already withdrawn from the Privy Council, which is based in London, as the island’s final court, in favour of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). Achieving this requires only a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Parliament.
Leaving the Privy Council for the CCJ makes both symbolic and practical sense. Taking a case to the London court is theoretically a petition to His Majesty, through his judicial authorities. Breaking that link, and the presumption of who is worthy of delivering justice to Jamaicans, is in the same vein as who should stand as the symbol of the island sovereignty and aspirations: the head of a dysfunctional Anglo-German family, or kith and kin.
Moreover, Jamaica has already contributed expensively to the creation of the CCJ, a court that is not only among the world’s most insulated against political interference, but has a reputation for a high quality of jurisprudence. And it is a far more accessible court for ordinary people than the Privy Council. It is cheaper, and unlike travelling for London-based Privy Council hearings, Jamaicans do not need visas to go to the CCJ’s headquarters in Port-of-Spain.
But having established that constitutional issues won’t – or are vastly unlikely to – have an impact on local-government elections this year, it would be useful to know what is the administration’s time horizon for choosing new municipal councils, especially given its declared commitment to community-related decisions being taken closer to where they affect people.
Jamaicans last voted in municipal elections in November 2016, when the majority of the councils were won by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which holds office at the national level. They should have next been held in 2020, or at the outside, by early 2021. The coronavirus pandemic intervened.
While a national election – which returned the JLP to office – was held in September 2020, local-government polls were initially postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2022, they were further put off for another year.
At the time, the local government minister, Desmond McKenzie, said the Government was “committed to having the next local-government elections in the shortest practicable time”.
“The commitment of this administration to the local-government system is well known,” McKenzie told Parliament. “It is a critical part of national life, and it will remain unthreatened.”
Jamaica’s municipal authorities have not, for decades, covered themselves in glory. Councillors often abuse the system as outlets for the delivery of patronage and see the institutions, notwithstanding their legislated powers, as meek appendages of central government. They rarely display thoughtful policy action or any deep sense of mission.
Further, the idea of subsidiarity is paid lipservice across the political divide. And communities want the authorities to exist even though voter turnout is low in the elections.
Under these circumstances, the Government should say what its plans are for the polls. A Nicodemus-style approach would be wholly unwelcome and not in keeping with Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ new, legacy-building intention for his current premiership.