Columns

Voting matters... and other matters

Garfield Higgins

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

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The comfort of the tree is the comfort of the bird. — A Yoruba proverb, Nigeria

Great political weight is placed on the voting record of public officials in the United States of America and other mature liberal democracies. We need to examine this approach very closely in Jamaica. I believe its adoption would likely increase direct accountability from our elected and selected leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate, who for the most part have demonstrated a proclivity to vote strictly on party lines. As a consequence, specific constituency needs and, indeed, the wider national interest, have been disregarded far too often.

Earlier this month, for example, in a matter which most of us agree is about securing life in a country with a severely abnormal murder rate, 18 members in the House of Representatives, though present prior to the vote, were not in the chamber when they were needed to register a “yea” or “nay” regarding an extension of the current states of public emergency (SOE) in St James, Hanover and Westmoreland.

Balford Henry, ace parliamentary reporter, wrote among other things, on May 13, 2019:

“The 18 absentees comprised several Opposition members who were present prior to the vote, including Julian Robinson, general secretary of the Opposition People's National Party (PNP), who had earlier engaged the prime minister in a discussion on the national identification system (NIDS) Bill; spokesman on education Ronald Thwaites, who had earlier tabled questions about the current state of affairs in that ministry; and Michael Stewart (Manchester Southern), who had earlier taken part in the sectoral debate.

Only four absentees did the clerk the courtesy of sending in an apology. They were Opposition spokespersons Fitz Jackson (spokesperson on national security), Lisa Hanna (foreign affairs and foreign trade) and Government backbenchers Marisa Dalrymple (Trelawny Southern) and Ann-Marie Vaz (Portland Eastern).

The other non-voters were: Noel Arscott (Clarendon South Western); Richard Azan (Clarendon North Western); Luther Buchanan (Westmoreland Eastern); Dayton Campbell (St Ann North Western); Denise Joyce Daley (St Catherine Eastern); Dr Morais Guy (St Mary Central); Evon Redman (St Elizabeth South Eastern); Victor Wright (Trelawny Northern); Robert Montague (St Mary Western); Colin Fagan (St Catherine South Eastern); and Ian Hayles (Hanover Western).

In the Senate, Dr Andre Haughton, who is also the PNP's standard-bearer in St James West Central, declined to vote. When asked why by a Nationwide News reporter, he said: “My vote would not have mattered.”

Can you believe that?

Balford Henry, in his comprehensive report, also said: “Two Opposition senators — Damion Crawford and Floyd Morris — actually voted against the extension.” Henry also reported that “two were listed as absent — Sophia Fraser Binns, who, incidentally, is pregnant; and K D Knight, who left the chamber after making a contribution to the debate; as well as the sole absent Government member Ransford Braham”. ( Jamaica Observer, May 13, 2019)

These revealing developments in the Lower and Upper Houses should not escape the suspicion muscles of well-thinking Jamaicans. What business did so many Members of Parliament (MP) have that was so important that they had to leave the chamber before casting their vote in a matter that centred on securing the lives of their constituents?

I believe the vote to extend the current SOEs was a matter of securing life and property, in particular for thousands who do not live in gated communities, or who cannot afford to hire a private security company, or have a licensed firearm and/or a pack of pit bulls. Too many of us are too often oblivious of the realities in which some our fellow citizens are literally held hostage by criminals. That is just reality.

I believe in the next general election the voting records of MPs need to be given great premium by citizens when deciding who to send back to Gordon House.

Say what you want about Everald Warmington, minister of state in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for works and MP for St Catherine South Western, but I believe he should be admired and commended for repeatedly telling his colleague MPs that he was sent to Parliament by the people of St Catherine South West, and he is there to represent their interests as priority number one. Yes, he has foibles. Nonetheless, from all credible accounts, Warmington is a damn good MP. The majority of his constituents are quite happy with his representation.

I believe MPs who have demonstrably ignored the interests of their constituents should be given the political boot at the next national plebiscite. In the USA, the Democrats, the Republican, and other interest groups ensure that the voting record of those who seek public office is broadcast, especially at opportune times. I don't think it would hurt to examine some of their strategies.

This newspaper, on December 12, 2018, reported inter alia: “After a lengthy debate, which lasted past 10 o'clock last night in Gordon House, the full complement of 33 ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Members of Parliament (MPs) voted to extend the measure by another three months, but the 20 Opposition MPs present voted against an extension.”

Ten Opposition MPs, who were present prior to the vote, were absent when it was time to vote. We should all demand to know why.

The PNP had telegraphed their intention to vote “no” long before December 11, 2018. After the deed was done, Dr Phillips said in Parliament, “We don't need a state of emergency to continue the reductions that have been achieved.” ( Jamaica Observer, December 12, 2018)

In the language of the streets, he was proved 'wronger than wrong'. Soon after, the PNP foolishly voted for the discontinuation of the SOEs in 2018; murders shot up in St James by nearly 50 per cent.

Thomas Jefferson, one of America's founding fathers, said: “The care of human life, happiness, and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” Does the PNP embrace this principle? I can't imagine what is more important than the preservation of life and security of constituents? If you don't have life, you don't have anything.

Results count

It boggles the mind that any elected or selected representative of our people could have voted against or absented themselves from voting to extend the current SOEs given the objective results that were achieved during the period when the enhanced security measures were instituted in St James, sections of St Catherine and the Corporate Area.

Recall, for example, that when the PNP pulled the plug on the life-saving SOEs, near the end of 2018, figures from the Jamaica Constabulary Force showed that murders were down by 22.2 per cent.

There were 359 fewer murders in 2018 compared to 2017. St James, where there was an SOE for a year, saw a 69 per cent reduction in murders, and 203 fewer people murdered in the parish compared to 2017. Among other things, the SOEs were achieving an important objective of helping to massively disrupt the long-standing crime ecosystems.

Nonetheless, Dr Phillips and the PNP voted against the continuation. Phillips says his reason was the protection of human rights. Maybe the PNP does not understand that the greatest human right is the right to life.

Lee Kuan Yew, the late prime minister of Singapore who spearheaded the transformation of an island roughly the size of St James — with a population today in excess of five million — into a First World country in just over 30 years and who is regarded as one of the greatest nation builders in the last 100 years, repeatedly said, “Figure out what works and do it.”

It is common sense to work with what works for the good of the national interest at a particular time to solve immediate problems.

The SOEs are not silver bullets. That is accepted. The decision to discontinue the SOEs must, however, be determined by the heads of the Jamaica Defence Force and the Jamaica Constabulary Force, first and foremost, since they have the requisite skills in matters of national security.

Radio Jamaica carried a news story on March 11, 2019 which said, among other things: “An RJRGleaner Group commissioned poll has found that there was overwhelming support for the Government's imposition of SOEs last year, and the vast majority of Jamaicans would want to see the measure continued. The poll was conducted between February 15 and March 3, with 1,000 respondents islandwide.

Pollster Don Anderson said the survey found that 90 per cent, or nine out of every 10 Jamaicans, supported the states of emergency. In spite of this scientific data, Phillips and his team continue to court political death.

On May 13, 2019, a post on the PNP and its leader @DrPeterPhillips's Facebook page said that the Opposition party will not support a further extension of the state of public emergency in western Jamaica unless certain things happen, including zones of special operations (ZOSO) in all hot spots, review of anti-gang law, strategic crime talks, and the immediate establishment of a DNA database. Dr Phillips needs to understand that continuing to oppose the Administration, even when it is manifestly right, is a political suicide.

Males matter too

It is graduation season again. In the last two and half months I have attended two graduation ceremonies.

The presentations of the guest speakers at the separate functions centred on the protection and education of girls/women and the economic/social and other forms of positive impact on nation-building in Jamaica. I accept wholeheartedly the importance of protecting and educating the fairer sex. Credible research has shown that when a woman/girl is protected and educated the ripple and transformational impact, on especially a developing society, is phenomenal.

Should we begin to focus, however, on the protection and education of women and girls without or with little reference to the protection and education of men and boys? I say no!

I am beginning to get the impression, not, of course, from two graduation ceremonies, but from listening to a whole host of very lettered people, and the reading of numerous policy papers, that there is an imbalance in the emphasis on male protection and education here at home.

I believe this is not a good sign, certainly not in our society where domestic abuse is galloping like a horse that has bolted from the starting gates. Most of the perpetrators of domestic abuse are male. The majority of inmates in our penal institutions are men. The majority of their victims are males.

Recently, I saw some employment data from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica which showed that vastly more females, compared to males, are finding work in our expanding economy. We all know why.

Unemployment is at a 50-year low of eight per cent, yet if you visit many of the 'corna' you will see scores of men 'rubbing out their hand middle'. Doubtless, many have no marketable skills, some consider themselves like permanent castaways, others are not interested in work vis--vis what the labour market is paying, and some are waiting to forcibly take from those who live by the sweat of their brow. Recall the adage “The busy man is troubled with but one devil; the idle man by a thousand”?

Just across from what is commonly called the post office gate at The University of the West Indies, Mona, there is a sign which says “Congratulations Graduating Class of 2018”. It has the pictures of three females and one male. This is an accurate representation of the sex ratio of that institution's student body. The local universities have similar sex ratios.

And check this: “Just over four out of every five persons to die in traffic accidents in Jamaica since the start of this year were males, and Dorothea Ziadie, technical underwriting manager at JN General Insurance Company, has underscored that it gets worse, because one almost never hears about the 13,000 persons, mainly men, injured annually in crashes on Jamaican roads.

“According to Ziadie, men are both the primary cause of these road risks and the main victims, often in the prime of their lives.” ( Jamaica Gleaner, December 9, 2018)

The trajectory of road deaths, this year, compared to the similar period last year shows strong similarity.

Our male population is in trouble too.

We, in Jamaica, need to espouse the protection and education of men and women equally in our public discourse, policy crafting and implementation.

Let's begin the discussion.

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!


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