Saturday, November 19, 2011

It is well past time for Jamaica to become a republic

Time to get on with the task of becoming a republic

By Keeble McFarlane

In his usual forceful manner, fellow columnist Franklin Johnston recently tackled the argument that it is well past time for this country to become a republic. We have heard the promise many times over the past 20 years or so, particularly from former prime minister PJ Patterson. But so far no one has even come close to actually doing anything about it. This is a subject which should have properly been addressed a half-century ago as the leaders of the day prepared to move forwards after the convincing vote of the Jamaican people to withdraw from the West Indies Federation.

As one after the other of Britain's colonies declared independence in the 1950s and 60s, they were faced with what system of governance to adopt. When the predominantly white and fairly developed countries - Australia, Canada, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand secured vastly increased powers of self-government early in the 20th century, they adopted the dominion system and became known as the "White Dominions". Ireland and South Africa later went for republicanism, with a president, rather than the British monarch, as head of state.

That was the template India and Pakistan chose when their turn arrived right after World War II, and the African colonies followed suit as they shed the colonial shackles. But when the smaller colonies such as ourselves decided to fly the nest, most adopted the familiar system under which they had been governed - clones of the Westminster parliamentary system. It was a manifestation of timidity, unwillingness to venture into the unknown and - perhaps uncharitably - having been successfully brainwashed by the colonial masters who, let's face it, were essentially the creators of these new national entities.

Trinidad and Tobago made the adjustment a few years into independence and Guyana chose right off the bat to be a republic. But they didn't stray very far from the Westminster system, opting for a figurehead president whose position and powers closely track those of a governor general as did India and Pakistan as well as many other republics far removed from British influence, like Germany, Austria, Italy, Israel and South Korea.

There are essentially two kinds of republics - those with a titular head of state and those with a president with real executive powers who is also head of state. The most prominent example of a country with a powerful executive president is the United States, but even there, the president is not all-powerful. Those far-sighted men who created the United States in the 18th century devised a tripod system in which powers are distributed among the executive (president and Cabinet), the Legislature (Senate and House of Representatives) and the judiciary. Thus, no one part of the triumvirate can accumulate too much power and thus dictate how things happen.

Time for a comprehensive constitutional review

It seems to me that it is indeed time to take a serious look at the structure of the government. It is obvious that the mechanism is creaking and clanging like the engine room of a Victorian steamship or industrial plant. Instead of computer-controlled robots, laser probes and plasma cutters, we are stuck in the age of coal-fed boilers, belching steam engines driving ceiling-mounted shafts and canvas belts.

The structure lifted directly from the British playbook no longer fills the needs of a small, predominantly black, Western Hemisphere country in the 21st century. The creaky old edifice headed by a figurehead taken directly out of the colonial mould is no longer relevant. It is true that modern governors general tend to avoid the plumed helmets and ornate uniforms with sashes and gold braid, but that is about the only thing they have shed. They are still titled with knighthoods which have their roots in ancient British tradition and very little to do with grass-roots Jamaican traditions. The fact that many Jamaicans still love the titles, the ceremony and the bowing and scraping means nothing in the real operation of government.

It is true that "man shall not live by bread alone", and that a little bit of ceremony and ritual helps lubricate the difficulties of daily operations. But by opting for an executive presidency, a country can combine the practical business of running a country with ceremony and protocol. We see this every day with the presidents of Brazil, Mexico, the US, France and South Africa. By electing a president, the people of the country can see themselves and their wishes, hopes and aspirations reflected in the person occupying the nation's highest office, no longer representing a foreign monarch who obtains the office by reason of birth and who is of a different race and nationality from the majority of the people, and who lives in another country half a world away.

In the process of transforming Jamaica from a dominion to a republic, it is necessary to look at all aspects of the governmental structure. The framers of the present constitution retained the nominated Legislative Council as the Senate alongside the house of elected representatives. I would convert the appointed Senate into an elected one and let the senators run at large, campaigning across the entire country and gaining some increased powers.

The founders also hung on to the flexible Westminster system of five-year terms unless the government falls on a vote of confidence, and continued with the old scheme of parochial boards under the new title of parish councils. In a country as geographically small as Jamaica, with its limited financial means, there is a considerable amount of overlap between the powers and duties of the parish councils and the central government. There is a strong case for getting rid of those councils altogether and retaining only the bodies responsible for the big population centres. Parish roads and such can just as easily be built and maintained by the central government and properly integrated in a national transport system.

The reviewers should take a serious look at fixed election dates, studying carefully the benefits and drawbacks as demonstrated in places with such a system. At the moment everything grinds to a halt when Parliament is dissolved. Under the first-past-the-post system, it is possible for a party to gain more votes and yet lose the election to the other party whose fewer votes were distributed more advantageously across the constituencies. One way to prevent this inadvertent thwarting of the wishes of the population is to stagger the votes for the presidency and Parliament. A desirable change would be to impose term limits - two terms of six years each would be enough to prevent politicians becoming entrenched in their posts. In some countries they would then be ineligible to run again for life. I would allow them to run again, but they would have to stay away for one term.

So, under this scheme, the president and senators - who both would be seeking the votes of the entire nation - would run together, while the election for the House would be held three years later, providing enough of an overlap to allow voters to adjust the representation according to how well or badly their representatives are performing.

Any review of the constitution would also have to address this business of a final court of appeal. We still cling to the outmoded use of the British Privy Council as the court of last resort, with increasingly unpleasant results. This country has an excellent legal history and tradition, and needs no further tribunal of last resort than the Appeals Court, which would need only a few constitutional and administrative tweaks along with an infusion of resources to work effectively as the court of last resort.

The new prime minister, who wasn't even born when the country became independent, faces many monumental challenges as he settles into office. Jamaica turns 50 in little more than half a year, and so it's not feasible to become a republic by then. So, let's celebrate the first half-century as a dominion, then get on with the task of reforming the nation's state machinery to face the challenges and possibilities of a new century.

November 19, 2011