Fri | Jan 21, 2022

Editorial | Put MPs job under review

Published:Thursday | November 25, 2021 | 12:05 AM

AS AN elder statesman of the House and among its cerebrally minded members, Dr Peter Phillips must go beyond his call for Parliament to review what should be the role of members of parliament (MPs) and take the necessary steps to formally place the matter on the legislature’s agenda. For in a Parliament where initiatives by backbenchers generally receive scant attention, a motion in Dr Phillips’ name, with his status as former leader of the Opposition and ex-president of the People’s National Party (PNP), will likely have greater traction.

Further, given the apparently emerging consensus on his side of the House on the need for reform, Dr Phillips should also attempt what for a Westminster-style Parliament would be innovative, by attempting to have signatories to the proposed motion, or something akin to multiple sponsors of the initiative. He might also seek to have the backbenchers sign on to the effort.

Additionally, if, as we expect, Dr Phillips will soon retire from the House and take up private advocacy, the question of the role of the parliamentarian and the status of the legislature as guarantors of Jamaica’s democracy are subjects worthy of his attention in his post-political life.

‘Santa Claus business’

Indeed, the question of the obligations and responsibilities of the MPs has popped up periodically over the 77 years since the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage in Jamaica, and in the 59 years since the island gained its Independence from Britain. The matter has recently been put back on the agenda because of the strain increasingly being felt by MPs, who are required, as Lisa Hanna, the opposition parliamentarian, puts it, to be in the “Santa Claus business”.

Before Ms Hanna, Phillip Paulwell, the shadow energy minister and MP for East Kingston and Port Royal, complained of the stress of having to be the welfare officer to constituents, as well as of the “high premium that is placed on patronage”, rather than a focus “on the broader developmental needs of our constituencies”.

A large part of the problem, to which Dr Phillips alluded in the House on Tuesday in the State of the Constituencies Debates, is the failure of the Jamaican economy to grow significantly for many decades, which has kept large swathes of the island’s population on the economic margins. The public bureaucracy, unable to meet the demands made of it, has increasingly shifted the burden to MPs, which they are expected to satisfy from an annual allocation of J$22 million each..

“The net effect has been to bring the MP and the political system into even more disrepute,” Dr Phillips said. Indeed, most surveys on democracy in Jamaica suggest that around six in 10 Jamaicans do not trust, or have little respect for, the island’s Parliament or political parties. Significantly, more than half say that would support a coup by the military, although that is in the specific context of fighting crime or tackling corruption.

These sentiments notwithstanding, Jamaica, thus far, has been able to preserve its democracy. However, disenchantment captured in the data suggests that democracy’s longevity cannot be taken for granted. For, as Dr Phillips observed, “...political parties are losing the respect and esteem of the people”.

No single solution

Clearly, there is no single solution to this problem. Much will turn on how political parties conduct themselves, the extent to which they can regain the trust of citizens, and the efficacy of their policies, when they form the Government, in delivering economic growth and social stability.

It will matter, too, that democracy remains a vital and lived experience, in which the rights and freedoms with which it is underpinned are fully respected. Parliament, ultimately, is the fulcrum of this process. But the centre, and symbol, of democracy is sustainable only insofar as it, in Dr Phillips’ words, retains the “respect and esteem” of the society.

Rebuilding trust in MPs is a critical undertaking in arresting the declining support for Jamaica’s democracy. That, we believe, must include defining the MPs role to something larger, and to a greater end, than delivering patronage.

Dr Phillips’ call for a special select committee of Parliament to conduct hearings into, and to make recommendations on, what this role should look like, and what support MPs should have in doing their jobs, is eminently sensible. Rather than merely having it recorded in Hansard, he should frame it in a formal motion, for which he should seek support across the aisle. Indeed, the idea would have great symbolic value, and more likely to make a connection with citizens, if it was seen to emanate from the backbenches and enjoys cross-party backing.

This newspaper, however, is less enamoured with Dr Phillips’ suggestion that a specific portion of the capital budget be set aside annually for spending in constituencies on projects outside the scope of the allocation to MPs under the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), but which MPs would recommend.

We are open, with further and better particulars and clear structures for oversight, to be persuaded about the potential value of a scheme like this one, which will not have the characteristics of the CDF and morph into another version of sleaze of patronage from which we want to extricate Jamaica.