To some people Jamaica’s political system is the root of our problems, and constitutional reform will be the nation’s salvation. But many successful countries have systems like ours, and Jamaica has never experienced assassination, revolution or civil war. So how can our governmental model be considered a complete disaster?


Theoretically perfect political documents do not guarantee continuous democracy. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Germany’s 1919 Weimar constitution “the most modern democratic constitution of its day”. Yet Weimar gave birth to Hitler.


America’s success is often attributed to its constitution. But as the May 8th Economist says “America’s ideals are inspiring… But its political system, and in particular the system of separation of powers, is in practice disappointing…it does not permit much leadership.”


Between 1973 and 1989 democratic institutions were introduced in 53 countries outside the OECD. Robert Dahl found that parliamentary systems proved more than twice as likely to survive as presidential ones. Bruce Ackerman, another Yale professor, looked at 30 countries that have adopted the American system and found that all of them suffered breakdowns at some time.


Some cloud-cuckoo-land dreamers want to replace Jamaica’s parliamentary system with an American model. But it would be lunacy to abandon a system that has delivered 36 years of unbroken democracy for an unreliable alternative. Still, the Jamaican body politic is hardly an untouchable utopia. Entrenched patronage, violent garrisons, massive indebtedness, and negligible growth are not hallmarks of faultless government.


The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school point to “changeless” Britain as history’s most durable democracy. But Britain has been enviably stable because it has been governed by pragmatic politicians prepared to adapt the system in response to popular pressures. The world is not static, and yesterday’s solutions do not always answer today’s problems.


Constitutional experts identify three basic flaws in Jamaica’s political system – a lack of anti-corruption legislation, the use of patronage as a political instrument and the consequent rise of garrisons, and the over-concentration of power in the hands of the executive.


A complete separation of powers may often lead to gridlock, but none at all can mean a lack of public policy discussion and a rubberstamp parliament. The public’s only recourse then to unpopular government decisions is civil disorder. Polls show that most Jamaicans support political reform. But the public wants clear-cut propositions dealing with explicit issues, not wooly generalizations


Here are seven proposals that address the issues of accountability and transparency, offer a degree of autonomy to the legislature, and harness executive power. They would not unrecognizably alter the nation’s political fabric, and are similar to modifications carried out in most modern Parliaments.


1. Specific Anti-Corruption Legislation - The greatest flaw in the Jamaican constitution is the lack of statutes specifically addressing official dishonesty. There is no recourse for punishing even red-handed governmental theft. Yet polls indicate that 49% of people think corruption is the greatest threat to our democracy, while 77% think there is more official corruption today than 10 years ago. Laws barring public administrators from accepting gifts for political favours are urgently needed.


The Parliament (Integrity of Members) Act requires the annual disclosure of assets by MPs and Senators. But the Integrity Commission established to oversee this act has no power to bring charges or even to make its findings public. It can only report non-compliance to the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, the Senate Leader and the House Speaker. This act has not been enforced since the 1970s, protecting secrets like political FINSAC bailouts.


Asking officeholders to guard each other is like having mongooses watch the fowl coop.

Anti-corruption and public disclosure laws are pointless if not enforced by a fully empowered independent body.


2. Index Parliamentary Salaries To Appropriate Private Sector Levels - All MPs should be paid salaries commensurate with private sector pay. At the same time corruption laws should be ruthlessly enforced. Removing both the need and opportunity to steal is the best recipe for honesty.


3. Independent Funding Of Constituencies - A fixed percentage of the annual budget should be divided evenly between all constituencies. This would diminish the ability of the executive to manipulate MPs by arbitrarily withholding or disbursing funding. It would also give the constituencies more autonomy in dealing with their concerns. No longer could Jamaican politics be characterized as “a fight between hostile tribes for scarce benefits”.


4. Fixed Election Date - The ability of the Prime Minister to in effect fire the legislature by dissolving parliament is one way to keep MPs in line. A fixed election date would reduce this power. A recall mechanism to remove unpopular leaders would be a necessary adjunct to this.


5. Allow Only A Fixed Number Of Cabinet Ministers To Be Chosen From MPs -

Parliamentarians should view themselves primarily as constituency representatives and not as ministers in waiting. Limiting ministerial appointments from parliament would stymie immediate aspirations to be members of the executive. A country Jamaica’s size needs no more than 12 Ministers, and only 6 of these should be chosen from MPs. This would lead to a more independent parliament less inclined to vote strictly along party lines. When last has any Jamaican MP voted against his party?


6. Resignation Of Cabinet Members From Parliament - At present the Prime Minister and Cabinet virtually monopolize the allocation of public funds. The resulting disparity between MPs who are cabinet members and those who are strictly constituency representatives undermines the independence of back-benchers and the opposition. To remedy this all members of the executive - the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Minister and cabinet members - should be required to give up their seats once appointed.


7. Independent Central Bank - Central bank independence lessens the chance of an irresponsible government mortgaging a country’s financial future for the sake of political expediency.


Reform generally reduces a government’s power, and officeholders everywhere hate to give up power. Which is why those who champion political reform in opposition rarely implement them when elected. Most politicians, they say, think only of the next election, but statesmen think of the next generation. Are there any in Jamaica?

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