Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Tuesday | February 12, 2013
Home : Commentary
It's all in the process
By Gordon Robinson

The essence of democracy is the people's (or their elected representatives') inclusion in important decision making.

For example, it's not democracy to have Cabinet selected from members of parliament (MPs) because that effectively prevents the people from making their government accountable. As their representatives are converted from the executive's supervisors into the executive itself, it's left to Cabinet to create, through a puppet Parliament, any process of accountability. This gives birth to incongruities like a government suing its own statutory creature, the contractor general. I hear you responding, "But it works in England! Isn't it the 'Westminster' system?"

Well, here's a shocker. It works (not always) in England for two reasons: one constitutional, one practical. England is a constitutional monarchy whereby the Queen's authority, as wielded by her Parliament, is supreme. In England, there's no difference between parliamentary representatives and the executive as they're all exercising power at The Queen's pleasure. The British aren't citizens, only subjects of the Queen. Accordingly, at least theoretically, they can't be 'represented' in any way as to fetter her government.

The practical reason Westminster works (occasionally) in England is the huge number of parliamentarians (more than 600) in the House of Commons. Even with a 51/49 split, less than 10 per cent of the elected majority can expect to be ministers. So, the vast majority of British MPs know they'll never reach Cabinet and must work for their constituents to keep their jobs. Even so, party whips pretty much ensure MPs publicly toe party lines. But, every now and then, there's a mutiny (mostly behind closed doors) and ministers often must endure awkward meetings with individual MPs as government policy clashes with local interests.

Parliament must do due diligence

The essence of democracy is seated in every Parliament. That's where, theoretically anyway, the people's views are expressed. Parliament, in carrying out its role as the people's watchdog, can't focus on Cabinet alone. Cabinet is only the captain of the ship of State.

It's critical that Parliament ensure important national positions aren't handed out as prizes to political hacks but are made in full public view and that thorough due diligence is performed. In Jamaica, we're accustomed to announcing key appointments only after they've been made in secrecy.

Take, for example, the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ). Outgoing chairman, Professor Errol Miller, has done an outstanding job. All Jamaica owes him a debt of gratitude for his exemplary public service. But not even his appointment was made in accordance with the tenets of democracy, and it's to Prof Miller's eternal credit that, despite this, he gave full value for his salary. We were lucky.

Will we be lucky again? How will his successor be chosen? Will there be parliamentary hearings into applicants' suitability? Or will we simply hear another announcement that Mr/Mrs So and So has been appointed in secrecy to head this most critical bastion of democracy itself?

Transparency a must

Only for the purpose of exposing the dangers of this anti-democratic practice, let's invent an extreme hypothetical possibility. Suppose someone entirely unsuitable is appointed in secret? We could get a serial killer. We could get someone who once headed another national institution but left under a cloud of suspicion.

Suppose (an imaginary example) a married man who once led an important institution was threatened by staff that, unless he resigned, they would circulate a signed letter, based on statements they had collected, exposing him as a sexual deviant, abuser of young children, and even as having raped a young boy in his care.

Suppose that man resigned hurriedly rather than face exposure and, accordingly, the threat was never executed. His victims know but remain silent, fearing they won't be believed over such a powerful and respected man. Should such a man be considered for any position of national significance?

But, based on how we make public appointments, such a man could be appointed to replace Prof Miller at the ECJ. Or the governor general. The very purpose of democracy, in demanding public hearings into such appointments before they're made, is to ensure that just such an embarrassment never befalls any government by giving members of the public an opportunity to come forward in the national interest and have their allegations tested. Remember Anita Hill?

So, I recommend to this Government that if it wants to reduce public-sector waste, it'll ensure as many Professor Millers as possible are appointed to crucial public posts. The way to do it is to make those appointments in a transparent way. Should I hold my breath?

Peace and love.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.

Home | Lead Stories | News | Business | Sports | Commentary | Letters | Entertainment | The Shipping Industry | Social | Caribbean | International |