Raymond Pryce | ECJ drama hostile to democracy
The establishment of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) is one of the most important achievements of our political Independence and must be protected with every fibre of our collective being.
The process that saw the Electoral Advisory Commission evolve into the current ECJ was heralded as a sign of our political maturity and a testimony to the rest of the free world that Jamaica took seriously its democracy. In fact, it was one of the few times that we had gone beyond sloganism and manifesto to manifestation with the appropriate institutional arrangements to have made the ECJ a best-practice example that has been modelled across the Caribbean, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world.
As a parliamentarian, I represented Jamaica at a Commonwealth Parlia-mentary Association Conference as a panellist discussing the importance of Public Accounts Committees (PACs) as tools for the promotion of transparency and accountability. I recall the honour I felt when, as the session was being opened, it was noted that Jamaica had a tradition of "institutionalising transparency and good governance". The examples used to illustrate the claim included the decision by the Golding administration to have opposition members chair Standing Committees of Parliament such as the PAC.
I recall the stern advice received by a committee of Parliament that there existed a time-honoured convention that recommendations to the House from the Electoral Commission were normally supported without amendment, not just because of the confidence the Parliament reposes in its commissions, but more so owing to the unique composition of the commissioners. The very anatomy of the ECJ seeks to protect the political process in Jamaica from politicians.
PROTECTING POLITICS FROM POLITICIANS
The Electoral Commission (Interim) Act 2006 sets it out clearly. It is an act to repeal the Representation of the People (Interim Electoral Reform) Act and to make temporary provision for the administration of the Representation of the People Act by an Electoral Commission and a director of elections and to provide for connected matters. At Section Three, it sets out: "This act shall continue in force until provision is made in the Constitution of Jamaica for the establishment of an Electoral Commission in terms which preclude alteration of that provision otherwise than in accordance with the procedures prescribed by, or in relation to Section 49(3) of the Constitution, and shall then expire."
Section Four follows: "There shall be established for the purposes of this Act, and during the continuance in force of this act, a commission of Parliament which shall be known as the Electoral Commission of Jamaica."
Elsewhere at Section 12, the act disqualifies the director of elections and selected members of the commission from voting in elections. Yet, perhaps most importantly, at Section Six, the act outlines the "Functions of the Commission", which removed activities such as the setting of the number of constituencies into which Jamaica should be divided and the boundaries of same from politicians and reposed those responsibilities in the hands of the director of elections, the officers and agents employed to the Electoral Office of Jamaica. Prior to that, politicians were more involved in setting constituency boundaries and determining the number of constituencies into which Jamaica was divided.
The legislative tools to support the ECJ are considered to be among the most robust within legislation, and politicians (parliamentarians) were guided to avoid encroaching on the autonomy of the ECJ.
It is this in-built robustness that has undergirded our electoral process even within the throes of constitutional storms. Recall the Parliament elected in 2007 went through several by-elections occasioned by decisions of the judiciary to remove several members from the House of Representatives on the government side who had each been, in turn, disqualified from sitting in the House in the famous dual-citizenship saga. The 2007 elections were, at the time, the closest result in the country's history.
The current Parliament elected in 2016 emerged from even closer elections. That Parliament has survived three by-elections to date. Had it not been for the credentials of the ECJ, the past experiences of Jamaica's politics could have yielded outright revolts during these testing times. Thus, we have concluded the Electoral Commission is not broke, so don't 'fix' it.
CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
The commission comprises nine members, including the director of elections. It has four selected members (of which one, Dorothy Pine-McLarty, is the chairman) and four nominated members, with two each from the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party. For these reasons, the public tÍte-‡-tÍte between the ECJ and Orrette Fisher is nothing short of a threat to our democratic traditions. It suggests that the arrangement of balance, inclusion and autonomy that had been the nature of the operation of the commission has now reached a state of dysfunction. The former director publicly stated that in his view, politics had interfered with the running of the ECJ and the operations of the Electoral Office of Jamaica. The ECJ, inclusive of the four politicians within its membership, subsequently published a statement that claimed there was no basis for the assertions made by the former director of elections.
Mr Fisher then fired back and accused the ECJ (inclusive of the four politicians within its membership) of being "disingenuous". When Mr Fisher's retort was published, several persons (me included) demanded publicly that Mr Fisher either put up or shut up. By midday May 18, Mr Fisher not only published correspondences between himself and the chair of the ECJ but appeared on a radio programme hosted by attorney-at-law Emily Shields.
Assertions made in that interview have now created an impasse of epic proportions and serious implications. That the ECJ could have become so embroiled in a public spat - with accusations of the nature purported by
Mr Fisher - is cause for pause for all well-thinking Jamaicans. If Mr Fisher's claims of political influence are true, it suggests that the four nominated commissioners have colluded against democracy. This is the very antithesis of the establishment of the ECJ. It also brings into disrepute the chairman and the other three selected commissioners.
The situation now requires urgent intervention at the level of the leaders of both political parties. The nominated members (especially one named publicly by Mr Fisher) also have their reputations to protect. One of them, Julian Robinson, is a member of the House of Representatives. Two (Wensworth Skeffery and Tom Tavares-Finson) are members of the Senate. The latter is the incumbent president of the Senate no less. All are described as honourable and distinguished Jamaicans.
None should suffer this ignominy nor should they brush it aside. A full report of the matter should be tabled in Parliament. Further, the prime minister and opposition leader should by now have met to discuss the resolution of this matter. We have three living former prime ministers whose counsel is available, if required.
One is a framer of the Constitution of Jamaica. This matter may not be as sensational as parliamentarians sparring; however, it should capture the full attention of the both Houses of Parliament and the wider society. Were I still a parliamentarian, that is the course of action I would call for - as a democrat and a citizen.
- Raymond Pryce is a former senator and former member of parliament.