Letters to the Editor

I say yes, Thwaites

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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Member of Parliament Ronald Thwaites has been complaining for months about the treatment of Parliament by our two political parties. His vivid descriptions of parliamentary episodes, even when at times admittedly coming from one side of the aisle, have been enlightening for us outside. He has found the parties' behaviour repugnant and shameful.

Thwaites has made a plea: “...Since it is very hard for institutions and vested persons to transform themselves, the pressure will most likely have to come from interests outside the parties. Any takers?”

Yes, here's one who agrees that the pressure from “interests outside” is, in fact, very much needed. I add, however, that this need points directly to an issue broader and deeper than inter-party relations and their play out in Parliament. It is the relationship between the political parties, civil society, and private sector. This wider set of relations frames the inter-party conflict and will shape how it works out. It is the structural basis of 21st century governance.

As Thwaites suggests, the party system “was intended as a foil against the autocracy of the king, the Church and other unyielding tyranny”. Now the problem is that the parties are the new tyranny. While change agents turned one time to a progressive party to bring in some urgent transformation, now half the population will not vote for any party. Parties are voted out, and only the 'system' allows another in. Then after a one-night honeymoon the new boss turns out to be as much a deaf 'top-downer' as the last, if not worse.

Universally, democracy has been moving over the past half-century from its earlier mainly representation model of government to one that is more participatory. Before deciding on a policy or its content, the State employs consultations and town hall meetings, listens to polls and surveys as well as to media questioning and social media commentary. With all that, civil society still finds treatment by the Jamaican party-managed State of public input into many policy decisions very unyielding. The governance model of tripartite cooperation (government, private sector and civil society) is yet to be taken seriously.

Civil society has two complementary channels to influence political power. One is the appeal to numbers to exercise its social power, since numbers translate in the heads of politicians into votes. Numbers are gathered either through persuasion of the public by reasoned argument in the media or online, or through protests in the streets. The other channel for civil society input is to get legislation such as provides control over procurement practices; or over political parties in their campaigns for election, ie in their competition for political power.

More to the point, the channel for civil influence, where social power tries to find common ground with political power, is institutions like Economic Programme Oversight Committee or Electoral Commission of Jamaica that incorporate by agreed practice or by law the voice of civil society. Perhaps that kind of independent body is needed to monitor Parliament's performance, the parties' competition in governing, and offer in-depth critique.

Right now, however, getting civil society to even push in that direction is problematic, so great is the turnoff on party 'politics', its endless rivalry for a power it does not know how to use wisely. Thwaites's plea for “takers” is unlikely to get much response.

Horace Levy is a member of the Peace Management Initiative. Send comments to the Observer or halpeace.levy78@gmail.com.

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