Sat | Mar 24, 2018

Ronald Thwaites | Executive overreach

Published:Monday | January 8, 2018 | 12:18 AMRonald Thwaites

In our constitutional tradition, a Cabinet ought to function as the executive committee of the legislature, which is elected by the people and is presumed, in collective, to be representative of the will of the people.

Except it doesn't really work that way. We have turned the proper relations upside down. Parliament has become a some-time monitoring and approving agency of the executive. For the most part, policy gets handed down from Jamaica House, is seldom discussed fully, if at all, in Parliament until a bill is presented, by which time party positions become rigid and critique is stilted and largely futile.

Ask yourself: How many Green Papers or White Papers have you seen presented during the last several years at a time of great transition in many areas of governance? All you get is a memorandum, say, about monetary policy, which brooks no discussion - and even that, very rarely.

So who is it that really runs government? The truth is that it is the Cabinet and the bureaucrats who advise and supply the members. And since all ministers are beholden to the prime minister for their appointment and tenure, his or her will invariably prevails.

Without change then, we are entrenching virtual one-person rule rather than requiring respectful and responsive servanthood. As Bruce Golding used to remind himself and us, that is what the term 'minister' means.

The uncomfortable bottom line deserves to be repeated: There is very little oversight or accountability of those who tax us, spend our money, and, in large measure, determine our future.

If you don' t believe me, watch the proceedings of the next Standing Finance Committee of Parliament when the annual Budget is being examined. Any serious effort to scrutinise the extent and efficiency of hundreds of billions of expenditure is routinely scorned and shouted down by arrogant and lazy members of the executive who, just like Donald Trump, cravenly believe that all wisdom and power reside with them.

Marginalised backbenchers

Nothing ever gets changed in the Estimates of Expenditure or revenue and so governance, in this most critical area of the Budget, becomes hostage to the caprice of the executive and whoever can pull their strings.

Backbenchers, therefore, end up being marginalised and useful most days only to make up numbers. Their ideas are irrelevant. The function of the member of parliament is relegated to be a distributor of inadequate constituency largesse, to importune ministers, and answer to the Whip's call when required.

The committees of Parliament that should be the ideators of the public weal and pulse are insufficiently operative and easily provide occasions for government triumphalism or become platforms for carping and scandal exposure.

This could all change this year if the nation is really committed to renewing the national project, starting with a resolve to examine and renew the craft of governance as a foundation for the rapid and inclusive development we seek. 

The House of Representatives and the Senate should sit twice weekly; committees should convene public hearings fortnightly. When bills are not ready, discuss and seek wide understanding and consensus on policy and national objectives.

To make this effort at deepening the democracy effective, the next Budget must double the vote for the chief parliamentary counsel so that the legislative agenda can catch up with the people's agenda, and, beyond that, to reform the whole fabric of colonial-era laws for 21st-century service.

Then, controversially but very necessary, the salaries of members of parliament must be significantly improved. Talk the truth: None of us can survive on the current emoluments. So we all have other professions, businesses or, more dangerously, patrons to help us make up.
Being a good legislator and constituency representative deserves full-time attention. It will require a revision of role and function - and more money.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to