Gordon Robinson | Reconstruct the House to represent the people
Having critically analysed Senate weaknesses and proposed reconstruction last week, it’s time to do a similar exercise for the House of Representatives.
Reality is the House needs more than simple reconstruction. Right now Jamaica doesn’t have a House of Representatives, or better put, other than in theory, the House doesn’t contain members who represent the people.
In practice, members of Parliament (MPs) act as political party representatives and toe party lines regardless of adverse effects on constituents. This is an inevitable consequence of how the House is structured. After we elect its members, one is appointed prime minister then the PM appoints the bulk of majority MPs to the Cabinet, after which the House acts as a Cabinet rubber stamp. The result of this brainless perpetuation of English tradition is that all MPs aspire to be ministers (minority MPs’ aspirations more long term than majority MPs’ but identical).
As usual, in this upside-down world where nothing is as it appears, we aspire to appear English but end up creating a banana republic ruled by a totalitarian government. A governance organisational chart for our banana republic would resemble a precarious political pyramid scheme with a PM on top with the sole objective of retaining “power” for the benefit of party members, cronies, activists, and loyalists.
Once achieved, Government operates clandestinely. Hundreds of partisans are mysteriously appointed to statutory boards in absolute secrecy without sign of job interviews or vetting of credentials by the people’s representatives before these devotees start spending our money. It’s government by decree sustained by sycophants.
We the people’s sole moment of inclusion comes twice per decade as we’re bused to polls to mark our “X” against a political symbol. Many don’t even know the name of the candidate for whom they voted. Then the House treats us as Pontius Pilate did Jesus and proceeds on a frolic of its own.
Some can show tangible personal reward from this corrupt system of governance, but over 59 years, Jamaica has suffered slim or no growth (slim has left town); shambolic public-health care, education, and security; and inadequate youth employment. The sole national index of importance that increased since 1962 is income inequality.
So we have a simple choice. Do we turn sixty years old with the same old same old content. To be led by the nose once every four or five years to hand unchecked authority to raid the public purse to established failures at accountable governance? Or do we demand change (a.k.a. accountability)? It’s clear as day hat the illusion we call a House of Representatives is, in reality, a talk shop that does NOTHING for most Jamaicans.
I vote to demand change. Anything different should be an improvement, but there are urgent fundamental changes impatient of debate. The corrupting influence of the conflation of Legislature and Executive is first and foremost. MPs vote on national budgets created by majority MPs (wearing Executive hats), then approved funds are spent by those same MPs not only through covertly appointed government agencies, but also through an equally non-transparent and probably unconstitutional “Constituency Development Fund” (CDF) created by MPs essentially for MPs to spend Consolidated Fund cash as they like.
The CDF is an odious, obviously vote-buying institution. It has no national purpose nor does it produce a single economic or social benefit for Jamaica. It further entrenches MPs’ ability to parade as area dons or godfathers handing out scarce political benefits and spoils in exchange for wide-eyed voter worship. It isn’t change. It isn’t reconstruction of a flawed society. It doesn’t produce a sliver of growth. It’s more of the same cultish tribalism that helped us spend the last 59 years digging the deep, dark economic and social grave into which Jamaica now lies.
So we need to ensure that MPs don’t get their grubby hands on our money but are motivated, on our behalf, to ensure that approved expenditure is spent in accordance with Jamaica’s development. It’s senseless for Parliament to oversee government spending when it’s the same Parliament doing the spending in accordance with a budget proposed by Parliament and approved by Parliament. That’s a recipe for widespread corruption.
No system is perfect, and corruption, like any other human frailty, can’t be eliminated. But it can be significantly reduced, discouraged, rendered easier to expose and punish. The current system promotes corruption.
The route to governance by accountability begins with a practical separation of the Legislature and Executive so that this totalitarian system (every facet being effectively controlled by a PM) can end. My contribution to the conversation regarding what kind of House with which we can sincerely celebrate our 60th birthday includes:
• Fixed election dates (every four years for the House; every three years for the Senate) and term limits for all elected Executive and House members. Previously serving senators should be ineligible to be MPs, but former MPs can be senators.
• Direct election of a PM and Deputy PM every four years (all citizens outside or leaving Parliament eligible). A constitutional system of succession should specify who takes over if both should demit office before the next election. Any MP who falls in that line of succession must resign as MP if taking executive office and a by-election called.
• Cabinet members can be nominated from any source external to Parliament but must be vetted and confirmed by the House. Cabinet should be constitutionally limited to 12 and ministries named. All portfolio responsibilities should be assigned by the PM to a named ministry. Abolish the oxymoronic “Minister without Portfolio”.
• Abolish the office of governor general. Replace it with nothing. We must NOT do anything to perpetuate a colonial mindset. We can’t afford an expensive government office for profiling. Jamaica needs no more monarchs, monarchical institutions, knights, or QCs.
• An intense review and rationalisation of statutory boards should be undertaken with a view to eliminating 50 per cent. All board chairmen should be vetted and approved by the House before appointment. Remuneration and increments should be harmonised and fixed by law.
• Conditions for impeachment by House/trial by Senate or Supreme Court of members of the Executive should be specified. MPs should be subject to recall elections if a petition with verified signatures of 10 per cent of constituents is presented.
• MPs’ role and duties should be constitutionally specified as to represent constituents’ interests in ALL parliamentary activities. MPs should be specifically barred from directly or indirectly spending public funds. MPs should NOT be allowed to exempt themselves from any taxation imposed on citizens by law. No new tax or increased tax rate should be legal unless passed by Parliament. In that regard, positive or negative resolution of ministerial orders is not enough.
The issue becomes complex when the maze of English-inspired municipal corporations/parish councils is considered. The unholy alliance between MPs/councillors is the origin of parish councils becoming cesspools of corruption. There are alternate ways of improving this governance blot. My preference is to abolish “local government” (didn’t a certain “seven-star general” assert that ALL politics is local?) and convert electoral divisions to constituencies. This would eradicate the multilayered corruption-facilitation system and create a House of over 200, encouraging constructive dissent.
The alternative option (not my favourite because it retains opportunity for corruption conspiracies) is to give parish councils independence to levy, collect, and authorise expenditure of local taxes in order to fund local-government obligations like gullies, street lights, and development planning. Also, limit terms to two years.
Either option involves the demise of the redundant Local Government Ministry. Do we HAVE local government? If yes, why does central government need that ministry?
Time’s up on this incestuous House of Representatives with zero representation for us and 100 per cent with blinkered Cabinet aspirations that disregard constituents’ interests. There’s no better example of that than what’s happening right now in the People’s National Party (PNP), where four vice-presidents (two are MPs) dramatically resigned as VPs, citing leadership disingenuousness. They wrote of their leadership “… there were covert attempts to sabotage the goal of peace and harmony with a plan to horde (sic) the available positions”.
SABOTAGE? Yet these principled quitters only resigned as PNP VPs. They remained in senior PNP posts, including as shadow spokespersons. Since PNP/Opposition leadership is identical, this highlights how parliamentary dysfunction rewards self-absorbed, paradoxical behaviour over representation.
We must find a system that encourages genuine representation of the people or continue to wallow in an ugly concoction of narcissism and sycophancy.
Peace and love!
Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.