Wise Voters and Grown-up Politicians

Published: Sunday | November 25, 2007

Palavering is probably Jamaica's second favourite pastime. We may rank in the world per capita GNP bottom half, but we make the global cellular phone top 20. (http://www.nation master.com/graph/med_mob_pho_sub_percap-mobile-phone-sub scribers-per-capita)

If we learned to shut up and get on with the job and not commentate on everything, our productivity would no doubt soar. Yet, the constant chattering may be one reason we are so good at peacefully changing our leaders.

Democracy, in theory, is a great conversation - as many views as possible are expressed, and the populace then decides which is correct. So all voices must be welcomed, even those of partisan cranks. Some elitists would have only 'expert' intellectuals listened to. But in The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki defines the four characteristics of wise crowds as "Diversity of opinion (each person should have some private information, even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of known facts), independence (people's opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them), decentralisation (people are able to specialise and draw on local knowledge), and aggregation (some mechanism exists for turning private judgements into a collective decision)."

Wrong or right

Individuals in a crowd can be mostly wrong, yet collectively come up with the correct solution. At the 1906 Plymouth fair, Francis Galton tallied the 787 entries in a 'guess the ox's weight' contest. The average was 1,197 pounds, and the ox weighed 1,198. Galton strongly believed that a society could only stay healthy and strong if power and control stayed in the hands of a select well-bred few. But after this experience he wrote: "The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected."

Which pretty much sums up Jamaican democracy. Our self-styled 'intelligentsia' often complains about voters 'who can barely read and write, and vote for curry goat'. But the masses always make, what in retrospect seems, an astute decision.

Take the September 3 general election. Trafigura and the light bulb scandal are proof that a change of government after 18 years of same party rule was healthy for Jamaican democracy. A fifth straight People's National Party (PNP) term and the Dutch authorities, not to mention we Jamaicans, would likely have been denied the opportunity to find out the truth about that $31 million 'chickenfeed-gift-donation-commercial transaction'. Nor would we know that our 'free' light bulbs cost $280 million. Innocent until proven guilty is our law. But the public wants some sensible answers.

Did Cuba offer to donate the light bulbs, or did former minister Paulwell ask for them? Has Cuba itself carried out a programme like this? Has it done the same thing in other countries? How can Cuba, which is poorer than Jamaica, afford to give us US$3 million worth of light bulbs which are made in Vietnam? Why would Jamaica need 300 Cubans to screw in bulbs? Why spend $280 million distributing light bulbs that cost $200 million, when they could have been picked up at JPS offices by bill-paying customers? How many of the 4 million bulbs were actually given out?

If Mr. Spencer was so anxious to expedite the process, why not use existing companies instead of waiting for new entities - one managed by his child's mother - to be registered and set up? Yes, we await the Attorney-General's and Contractor General's rulings. But a diligent media would be vigorously digging into these questionable circumstances.

On the other hand, the 50.2 per cent to 49.8 per cent split in the popular votes for the election was also a good thing. It showed money brokers of every stripe that political power in this country cannot be nakedly bought or sold, and that no one owns Jamaica except the Jamaican people. No kleptocracy, no plutocracy - and who can quarrel with that?

Good opinion, good choice

Yet, though you need diverse opinions to make good collective choices, the quality and accuracy of these choices improve with the general level of education and knowledge. And the more demonstrably competent and informed those vying for election, the more likely they are to make nationally beneficial decisions.

There is no area of life where expertise is not crucial. Who would want their children taught by someone who cannot read or write? Who would go to a doctor without a medical degree? Who would take their car to a mechanic who doesn't know how an engine works? Why should we not then demand from our leaders a mastery of the issues facing the country?

Prime Minister Bruce Golding keeps sounding impressive. But does the appointment of Joan Gordon-Webley as the executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority not contradict his accountability and transparency promises? Vando Palmer had to resign from the National Works Agency when he became a PNP parliamentary candidate. So, while it's hard to see her doing worse than Mr. 'Shut your damn mouth!', consistency surely demands that Ms. Webley should have resigned as Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) caretaker before taking up her position. Caesar's wife must not only be virtuous, she must be seen to be virtuous.

Now, our politicians and commentators keep sidestepping the issue, but crime is almost the only issue the man on the street is talking about these days. As a JLP supporter said to me on Sunday, "Bruce gave a good speech, and yes, we need better parenting. But that is a next generation thing. I want something done now, and if I don't hear something concrete on crime from these guys I will soon stop listening." Why is Mr. Golding so conspicuously silent on the vaunted 'It doesn't need money, only political will, and we will push through these 33 laws as soon as we get into office!' MacMillan crime plan?

Immaturity of parliamentarians

Jamaican democracy is admirable in many ways, but the immature level of parliamentary discourse remains disappointing. After 63 years, our leaders should by now have developed a grown-up sense of humour. Instead we have those who called others 'devils' and 'rapists' and 'worst government in history' - after two months in power! - bawling about victimisation when they are accused of suffering from 'intellectual depravity' and having 'brains infested by termites'. Well, same knife stick sheep stick goat, and if you live in a glass house ... To abandon crucial bipartisan talks because of a verbal political counterpunch is childish and dangerously irresponsible.

Just as unimpressive as our 'poor me' politicians were the commentators who condemned the recent jibes as 'insulting' and 'unnecessary' and 'distracting'. Maybe they should watch Britain's Prime Minister's questions on the C-Span channel.

To see Dave Cameron hurl verbal darts at Gordon Brown - 'We have a Prime Minister who lacks common sense!' - while Brown fired back from the hip, with both sides of the house cheering and jeering loudly - well, that is the cut and thrust of Westminster democracy as it should be. Politics is not played in short pants, and if you can't take the heat ...

A Jamaican-style Prime Minister's questions would surely strengthen our body politic. Here is a British perspective which to me makes perfect sense. ('The fine art of PM's', Iain Dale, The Guardian October 25. http://commentis free.guardian.co.uk/iain_dale/2007/10/the_fine_art_of_PM's.html)

"Many people, complain about the combative nature of PM's and how it often sheds more heat than light on political debate. I fundamentally disagree. Few other democracies have a platform where, each week, political leaders can be asked anything at all, and can be held to account in this way. Yes, it can be a bearpit, yes it can be shrill, and yes, it can be unproductive. But it's a wonderful way of exposing the political weaknesses of a politician, whether they are prime minister [or] leader of the opposition. At PM's there's nowhere to hide, and your capabilities are laid bare."

Don't we all want leaders who can stand up and be counted?

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