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EDITORIAL - Cut the number of constituencies

Published:Monday | March 15, 2010 | 12:00 AM

WHILE EVERALD Warmington was right for his vehement protest against the hijack of democracy by parliamentary leaders during that episode in the House last week, he unfortunately ignored the wider issue that triggered this usurpation of his rights - the move to increase the number of parliamentary constituencies by three to 63.

That no other member of parliament (MP), except for Mr Warmington's fellow St Catherine member, Mr Fitz Jackson, made a significant intervention on the substantive issue is hardly surprising. For the constituency boundary shifts proposed by the Electoral Commission to accommodate this increase will hardly upset the existing support balance in their electoral districts or directly affect their chances of re-election.

Legislators, therefore, were willing to be quiescent over the parliamentary leadership's trampling of the rules by refusing Mr Warmington's call for a vote on the matter so as to maintain the 'convention' of Parliament approving the commission's recommendations by acclamation.

Flawed, selfish proposal

This approach may have worked well in reducing partisan bickering and giving independent members of the commission the confidence to take the necessary action to reform what used to be a corrupt electoral system. In this case, however, the proposal by the Electoral Commission is flawed, serving only the narrow interests of politicians seeking to preserve their jobs and the privileges that flow from power.

The Electoral Commission's main reason for increasing the number of parliamentary seats is to prevent a potential constitutional crisis in the event of a tied general election which, for a time, appeared to be case after the vote of 2007. Indeed, tied elections in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1990s and the evidence of the instability wrought by a hung parliament started to concentrate Jamaican minds. There is, however, nothing inevitable about fixing the problem that requires more constituencies.

The Jamaican Constitution fixes the minimum number of constituencies at 45 and, until recent recommendations to lift it by five, a maximum of 65. Parliament has the ability to adjust the number within this band.

Poor pay, poor performance

The other major constitutional provisos are that constituencies must not cross parish borders and that the number of voters per constituency should not exceed the electoral quota by more than 50 per cent, or be less than two-thirds of the quota. The quota is determined by dividing the number of registered voters by the number of constituencies. With a current quota of well under 30,000, there is the possibility for a significant increase in the average number of constituents represented by MPs. Which is our preferred solution and considered recommendation, especially in these tough economic times.

Jamaican parliamentarians are underpaid. Yet, the country struggled in the past financial year to find the half billion dollars for their remuneration. Poor pay contributes to the poor performance of MPs and the perception of political corruption.

The number of constituencies should be cut to the existing constitutional minimum of 45, or lower, while the salaries of MPs should be increased and measurable performance targets established. The report on MPs salaries of a decade ago, by the Clarke Committee, provides a guide.

Such a move would also force the prime minister to run a slimline administration and to drive for greater efficiency. That would be good.

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