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An election lasting more than four hours

Published:Sunday | March 25, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Daniel Thwaites

Daniel Thwaites, Contributor

What with cable television everywhere, everybody knows to "seek immediate medical help for an election lasting more than four hours". Sounds like good, commonsensical advice, right? We've had an election going on four months! Most will agree that it's been challenging.


As it is now, councillors function as mini-MPs, and there really is little distinction between constituent's expectations of them, except that it's a blessing for an MP if she has strong councillors. Consequently, the 'local' is treated as the younger retarded brother of the 'general', and so it's even more difficult to get anyone excited enough to stand in line and vote.

One great pleasure of living in a basically liberal bourgeois democracy is that it's not always political season, and we don't have to think about politics all the time. When we do choose to think about it, we can do so for a period, then forget about it and get back to our passion for crotchet, donkey races, researching the underground history of the WPJ, or whatever else gives us delight. It's a precious liberty, the right to not give a damn.

There is also other grounds for non-participation that's deliberate. "Nutten nah gwaan fi mi", or "Mi nah vote caz nubaddy nevah doh nutten fi mi!"

My most memorable experience hearing that was from a woman whose house had unfortunately burnt down, but who had thereafter benefited from a new house to live in. The community, guided by political representatives, had acquired space in a communal yard, laid a foundation, and then acquired a house for her so that her new residence stood proudly surrounded by the shacks in which the political activists lived.

The project was achieved through money from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). Observing the later interaction of this woman with her political representative reminded me that a large dollop of masochism is a requirement to be a politician.

Another indicator of masochism would be taking on The Gleaner's mighty editorial pen, like Mr Arnaldo Brown has done over the CDF. The Gleaner had at first thrown a warning stone. Then - to develop the porcine metaphor - Mr Brown squealed, and so The Gleaner took him to the slaughterhouse. Consequently, the editor surmised that the newcomer MP "is now an unabashed defender of, and wallower in, political pork, sometimes identified in Jamaica as the Constituency Development Fund (CDF)." Raaahtid!

Mr Brown is not out on a frolic with his view that the CDF is critically important to his representative function. In fact, there would seem to be perfect unanimity among MPs about its need. He is, I'm sure, struggling to respond to the demands of constituents in a country with a wooden bureaucracy, and without much of a social safety net.

As The Gleaner acknowledges, Arnaldo Brown is a bright articulate new parliamentarian who - in the past tense now! - "seemed to hold so much promise". Why does an MP feel he needs what the editorial page of the country's most respected newspaper think heralds the end of civilisation?

Genesis of the CDF

For the uninitiated, the CDF is a (relatively small) budgetary allocation to each constituency over which the MP exercises a high level of discretion. There is a unit in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) charged with passing and overseeing the projects submitted by MPs.

Take the example of Ms Nutten-Nah-Gwaan in her new house. The MP's staff would have submitted a project to build her a house, which would have been vetted by the unit at OPM, and then funds would have been disbursed for the project. From one perspective, I suppose this is classic 'pork'. From another perspective, if the MP can't achieve something as simple as direct poor relief, what use does he or she have?

I'm sceptical about the CDF, but for a reason mentioned but not developed in the editorial. My problem is, notwithstanding Ms Nutten-Nah-Gwaan, the patronage gives incumbents a taxpayer-funded advantage over any rival and, therefore, throws a wrench into the competitive political process.

But I also understand that the predecessor of the CDF, the Social and Economic Support Programme, was born out of MPs' frustration with bureaucracy. MPs were rubbing out the knees of their trousers because of genuflecting so much before the governmental mandarins. Instead of fixing the problem, they created a bypass.

So when The Gleaner complains that "programmes like the CDF help to erode the independence of the professional bureaucracy and legitimises the usurpation of its authority by the political executive", there is a lot of truth to it. But it is not veniality or swinishness that gives the CDF uniform support among the people's representatives.

I think the voting public would be shocked by the view that their MP ought not to have the authority to choose and implement projects. Ask them! It doesn't settle the matter, as the majority may demand things that are inimical to good government. But it certainly isn't irrelevant that voter expectation is diametrically opposed to the editorial campaign. To John Public, it is not Mr Brown's view that would seem exotic and untethered to reality.

Educating citizens about legitimate expectations and devising solutions to government rigidity and unresponsiveness are complex problems. Ultimately, the CDF is a relatively efficient but admittedly troubling way that electoral representatives respond to citizen demands. As such, my sense is that it's too soon to rip young Arnaldo into Brown bacon-bits for defending his ability to deal with genuine pressures.

Rather, the short-term solution is to fix the "cursory oversight of a lax unit and broad permissiveness of a parliamentary committee". The longer-term solution is an overhaul of a largely unresponsive bureaucracy. For with a meaningful expansion of the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education, and a thoroughgoing reform of the public service, much of the rationale for the CDF would wither away.

Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York, and currently qualifying for the Jamaican Bar. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.