JLP's parliamentary reform proposals found wanting
By Vernon Daley, Staff Reporter
Monday, September 2, 2002
AMONG THE legacy bequeathed to us by the British, after they shed us as a colony in 1962, is a parliamentary democracy that had been nurtured and developed over centuries.
The British Westminster model of government, by its nature, relies heavily on customs and norms of propriety to support the institutional structures. Some countries of the former British empire, including our Caribbean neighbour Barbados, have done reasonably well in operating this system of government.
On the other hand, some countries such as Jamaica have not done so well in delivering good government to their people, using the Westminster system. In Jamaica's case, academic scholarship and popular belief have converged on the view that we took the system without bothering to apply the norms and customs that are so vital to its operation.
Therefore, what we have ended up with is a Jamaican creation of the Westminster parliamentary model, which elevates the interest of political parties and their supporters above the interest of the rest of the country.
With the unrelenting cry for better representation from citizens across the society, one would have thought that the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) would have latched on to the issue and come out with some far-reaching proposals for reforming the system.
Instead, the party has presented in its manifesto a package for parliamentary reform, which is sadly lacking in substance and unlikely to result in a major change in the country's parliamentary practice, if
According to the JLP, it is in favour of a republican form of government, with a President as Head of State. This President would be selected by the Prime Minister subject to approval by two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate.
Since the President would perform basically the same role as the Governor-General now performs, one wonders why go through the trouble of change in the first place. If all this does is to give us the right to call ourselves a republic, then it's merely useless
But the JLP's anaemic plans don't stop there. Under its reforms, the Government's party Whip, in both the House and Senate, would have ministerial rank but would not have portfolio responsibilities. This, it says, is to ensure that Parliament does not fall under the control of the Executive arm of Government.
Sounds wonderful but does it make sense? Is it the ministe-rial responsibilities of the party Whip that results in the ascendancy of the Executive over the Legislature or is it the overarching influence of the political parties in deciding the political survival of an MP that causes this?
But for a few exceptions, Parliamentarians are notorious for carrying the party's line. Former MP for Central Kingston Ronnie Thwaites was perhaps one of the few persons who would speak his mind even if it did not fit in with the Government's position.
Surely there are several others who would like to speak their minds but calculate against it because of the risk of being seen as pariahs within their party and the potential that has of affecting their political careers.
Clearly, there can be no talk about creating a viable, independent Parliament that is primarily concerned with representation, without addressing the matter of internal democracy in our political parties. The JLP's plans fail to address the issue. Despite their claims of being democratic, it is a known fact that members of the two major political parties who come out with positions that depart from the official line, can expect an unkind fate.
The JLP says it would also introduce legislation to ensure that the number of Ministers and Ministers of State do not exceed half the total of the House. The intention is good, but it will not achieve its desired result of creating a viable backbench.
To the extent that a viable backbench is possible under a modified Westminster model, then the number of Ministers and State Ministers should constitute far less than half the House. A quarter of the House would have been more revolutionary and would demonstrate the JLP's desire for real change.
As it is, the most useful suggestion the JLP has made for Parliamentary reform is to increase the number of seats in the 60-seat Parliament to make it an odd number House. The party is rightly concerned about the political deadlock in Trinidad and Tobago over the last eight months, and would want to prevent that from occurring here.
Given our history of political violence, a tie between the JLP and the People's National Party (PNP) at the polls could be disastrous.
The JLP is likely to win over a few right-thinking people with the proposal. However, it needs to go back to the drawing board on the general issue of Parliamentary reform. Parliament is the centre of our democracy and there needs to be real, workable solutions to make it better. The Jamaican version of the Westminster model has exhausted itself. It either needs to be reformed in major ways or abandoned. The JLP should spare us the tinkering.