February 09, 2009

Searching for the Silver Lining

Searching for the Silver Lining
Published: Sunday February 8, 2009
A.J. Nicholson, Contributor

The recent announcement by the prime minister that, by the end of this month, there will be a new governor general in Jamaica, once again brings into focus certain issues relating to the reform of our constitutional arrangements.

It has long been recognised that the method by which the appointment is made of the governor general, who is the representative of our head of state, the British monarch, is less than open and transparent, since the decision rests in the hands of one person, the prime minister.

This is not to say that there has ever been any real quarrel or dissent concerning any of the appointments that have been made since independence. Conventional wisdom, however, holds that the fulfilment of that kind of public obligation requires broader input to satisfy the dictates of transparency.

Political upheaval

Some people say that this kind of issue is really of no moment. They maintain that the status quo of the British monarch as our head of state has no economic, social or political drawback, and 'if it ain't broke don't fix it'. They say that we have not witnessed any kind of social or political upheaval that should drive us to change course in this regard, and that there are other countries which are in that same boat and have managed to climb the economic ladder with sustained success.

The obvious question that arises, therefore, is: what it is that has impelled former colonies within the British empire to change from a monarchical to a republican system of government with their own indigenous heads of state? The answer is simple, yet profound: it serves to instil the kind of confidence which propels their citizens to say and mean that they must rely on themselves to survive.

Economic headaches

And that is the kind of message that must be adopted by the peoples of nation states even in the best of times; in times of crisis, that point of significance becomes an imperative.

Indeed, others will say that this is a time of crisis and economic headaches, and that it cannot readily be expected that a people who are labouring under such stress would easily turn their minds to constitutional issues such as the appointment of the head of state and the transformation to a republican form of government.

The truth is that reasons and excuses can always be found for leadership not to embark on certain initiatives. For example, if a consensual approach had been adopted at the time of the financial crisis which gave rise to FINSAC, as a people, we would now be in a far better position to face the unprecedented economic challenges of today. The inappropriate excuse that was given by the then Opposition for 'not interfering or helping' amounted to 'you created the problem, you fix it'.

Again, when Prime Minister Patterson launched the values and attitudes initiative during the decade of the '90s, there was no cooperation from the then Opposition. In fact, it was stated by someone in the highest echelons of the Opposition that no cooperation would be forthcoming since, according to him, Patterson "did not have the moral authority" to lead such a charge.

With the necessary cooperation in such a culture changing enterprise, how much farther along the road towards a disciplined society we would now have been! It can hardly be doubted that Prime Minister Patterson has been the most accommodating leader of government that Jamaica has ever had. So that, if he did not have the moral authority to lead such a process, who then?

Further, the move towards the establishment of a social contract or social partnership was never truly embraced by the then Opposition. In fact, stakeholders met from time to time without their participation. Our journey, today, would not be as rocky as it is proving to be, had the collaboration route been adopted by them.

The outcomes from that short-sighted attitude to the conduct of public affairs now hang threa-teningly even over possible well-intentioned efforts in these times of global and national monetary trials and tribulations.


So, the fact that we are in times of crisis should not be used as an excuse or reason for leadership to fail to pursue national goals that have long been agreed to be necessary for the development of our people.

The three main issues that have been recognised as necessary for the modernisation of our constitutional arrangements are the establishment of a republican form of government, the adoption of an up-to-date Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and de-linking from the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and subscribing to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
As far as our constitutional provisions are concerned, only the first - moving to become a republic - requires that a referendum be held. The holding of a referendum is, admittedly, a costly exercise. If, however, both political parties are agreed on the answer to be given to the question that is posed, the cost would be reduced to a minimum since campaigning would almost be non-existent.

In the case of the adoption of a new Charter of Rights, even though there are certain wrinkles that remain to be ironed out, all that is required is a two-thirds majority vote of all members of each House of Parliament.

Republican status

As far as subscribing to the Caribbean Court of Justice is concerned, there is no constitutional requirement for a referendum to be held, even though the party that forms the present government insists that such a course be taken. Again, if both parties are at one in moving in the direction of severing ties with the Privy Council, the referendum route need not be costly and, indeed, this question and that concerning the republican status could probably be put at the same time.

In any event, all that is necessary for Jamaica to subscribe fully to the Caribbean Court of Justice is a two-thirds majority vote of all the members of both Houses of Parliament, should the governing party choose to change course in this regard.

These are the kinds of efforts which serve to plant seeds of consensus, even in these unusual times, for the sustainable development of our country. Such tasks, of course, will not be easy; for these are times when people are concerned with survival and day-to- day living. Regardless, it is my view that we have no other choice than to find areas around which we may coalesce, if we are to emerge from this crisis with wholesome seeds having been planted and left to germinate in an environment of accommodation.

Three areas come immediately to mind. The first is fostering a culture of production. There are clear opportunities for local production to be enhanced. But there is an even wider and deep-rooted reason for a culture of production to be pushed. It fosters the kind of discipline that is required for the creation of the just society.

At the workplace, one cannot listen to talk radio and produce at the maximum; one cannot even produce with a passing grade with such interruption and distraction, and that is the kind of initiative that requires coaxing but which leads to cooperation, built upon an understanding that production and productivity constitute the underpinnings of personal and national development.
The second is inculcating into our people the habit of saving. One might be led to ask: how can we seek to embark upon such a project in times of financial trials and tribulation? This is precisely the time to begin, for it has to be demonstrated to our people that the habit of saving places us in a far better position to face the storms that will inevitably come upon us. The biblical story of Joseph in Egypt can go a far way in the development of part of the curriculum in schools which could assist in cementing the habit of saving as a part of the way of life of our people.

And the third opportunity comes, as I have said and will continue to project, in the form of steps that must be taken towards consensus building.

Global challenges

Jamaica has not, and could not have, escaped the prickles of the present global challenges, even though the impression had been given to the contrary by persons in high authority. After all, these are trials that the vast majority of the peoples of the planet have never encountered.

We do not wish that Jamaica should emerge from another crisis without lessons learnt. The success of nation states in tackling challenges of this sort is directly related to the approaches that are taken by the nation states themselves.

Those nation states in which bickering and proneness to confrontation constitute the guiding spirit will fail - as they usually do - to grasp the opportunities that are presented, even in times of distress. Those countries in which a consensual approach is the norm, where give and take is the natural action and reaction, in which a culture of togetherness for survival and deve-lopment is firmly set, are likely to cross the hurdles successfully.

One thing is sure, we are called to see these times as signals for searching after opportunities, personally and collectively, and searching for the silver lining.

A.J. Nicholson is opposition spokesman on justice.

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