Trevor Munroe | Honour Seaga’s wish - Limit prime ministerial power; break political tribalism
Fourteen years ago when Mr Edward Seaga retired from Parliament, as a Senator then, I paid tribute to him in the Senate on January 28, 2005. On that occasion, I publicly acknowledged “the deficiencies and one-sidedness of the left”, in which I played a prominent part, in demonising Mr Seaga, at the same as I advised against the opposite extreme of deifying this outstanding Jamaican leader. With the further passage of time, the exceptional and extraordinary contribution of Edward Seaga to Jamaica’s modern development can no longer be questioned.
As an institution builder over many decades, his impact remains unparalleled in its scope, depth, and resilience. As so many have recalled, it spanned:
- Culture and music;
- Economy and planning;
- Education and training;
- Sports and community development.
However, it is in the fundamental area of governance that Seaga’s legacy is very likely to be the most enduring as well as complex.
In this area, Seaga played a critical role in the number of crucial initiatives to safeguard and deepen Jamaica’s democracy.
- The establishment, along with Michael Manley, of the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) at the end of the 1970s, was a pivotal and historic step. This EAC later evolved into the Electoral Commission of Jamaica – an institution, unique in the pivotal role accorded to non-political representatives and which helped rescue Jamaica’s electoral administration from being among the worst to becoming among the best in the world today.
- The preservation of Jamaica’s parliamentary democracy in the second half of the 1980s when Seaga appointed independent senators to the Upper House and developed other mechanisms to ensure checks and balances on his own power when Jamaica, arising from the People’s National Party (PNP) boycott of the 1983 election, had only Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) members of parliament occupying all seats in the House of Representatives and thereby faced the prospect of ‘one-party dictatorship’.
- Most of all, Seaga parented the development of Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, eventually passed in 2011 under the Golding Administration. This Charter strengthened the rights of the Jamaican people against erosion from any quarter, including from Government or any government body, and incorporated path-breaking clauses such as provisions to protect women against discrimination on the grounds of gender as well as the right of the people to a healthy environment.
Seaga’s approach to leadership undoubtedly included an authoritarian element, but it also combined strength and courage with a willingness to change when the evidence and facts so required. Courage and strength he displayed, for example, in standing up to the impositions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), 1986 – 1987 when he felt that their demands at the time, which included the devaluation of Jamaica’s currency, were inimical to Jamaica’s national interest. Equally, he displayed great courage to stand up to criminal elements in his own constituency, reporting them by name to the police in 1994 when, as he himself said, they embarked on a spate of violence, rape, and murder.
At the same time, to his eternal credit and Jamaica’s enduring benefit, Seaga was able to develop his views on good governance from experience. As I record in my 1972 book on Jamaica’s decolonisation, during the committee discussion in 1961-62 of provisions to be included in Jamaica’s independence constitution, Seaga was against the entrenchment of The Bill of Rights and supported the pre-eminence of prime ministerial power over Jamaica’s governance arrangements. On this most contentious issue, Premier Norman Manley felt that the prime minister’s power should be qualified. His first Vice President, Wills Isaacs, disagreed with him: “in truth and in fact a prime minister is a dictator for five years”. The young Edward Seaga agreed with Isaacs: “Quite right and if any minister can’t get along, the minister must resign as only one minister must rule.”
Forty years later, the mature Seaga, learning from experience, changed his view fundamentally. Seaga became one of the strongest advocates of measures to impose far-reaching limits on the power of a Jamaican prime minister, including the strengthened Charter of Rights. He advocated amending Jamaica’s constitution to
- limit the number of ministers a prime minister could appoint.
- introduce a significant number of non-party senators representing civil society bodies, appointed independently of the PM and the Leader of the Opposition.
- include a mechanism for impeachment of public officials, including the prime minister himself.
- weaken the prime minister’s power of appointment of government officials.
- strengthen the independence of Parliament from the Executive.
The downside of Seaga’s legacy remains his role in the development of ‘zones of political exclusion’, otherwise called ‘garrison constituencies’. This phenomenon continues to undermine Jamaica’s democratic political system. However, in the development of this scar on Jamaica’s democracy, Seaga was, of course, not alone. Both sides of the aisle were complicit in this outgrowth of political tribalism. To his credit, however, by 2002, the mature Seaga rejected a tribalism he had helped to nurture and declared unequivocally, in the JLP Manifesto of that year: “We must break the past tradition of polarisation of Jamaica politically … into warring tribes”.
An essential part of all of us honouring Edward Seaga’s outstanding legacy must be to carry forward this imperative: break political polarisation in Jamaica’s politics, leaders as well as followers, respect one another whether orange or green, place nation above party loyalty, particularly in working together along with civil society, to confront today’s twin demons: violent crime and corruption.