It is no secret that Jamaica suffers from a gross lack of accountability on the part of our public officials. The fact that this breeds corruption is also no secret. No variant of rocket science is needed to deduce that the high levels of corruption in our society directly causes lack of confidence in our government, and our governance, to the extent that very few actually want to conduct any business with our government, thus severely impacting economic output and revenue collection.
Here’s another secret that’s not really so secret. Voter apathy, especially among youth, is frightfully and dangerously high. The voting statistics from the 2016 General Election also show for that. If one could summarize it neatly in our Jamaican parlance, “It nuh pretty”.
Therefore, the youth of the country, that is, the set of youngsters who are to become the next generation of professionals and leaders in this country, must begin to inculcate within themselves such attitudes and mindsets that will allow them to be an active, and more importantly, a well-informed electorate. This article will, under four broad heading, outline to the young voter, the young CITIZEN how to hold their leaders accountable and take part in the affairs of governance of a country.
In holding our public officials accountable, knowledge is indeed power. In order for the people to truly wield such power, the people must be knowledgeable of the affairs of their government. I must note here that government does not simply mean the Parliament, but also the Cabinet and the wider civil service. The knowledge on the part of citizens must be on the part of the political process and the basics of the Westminster model of government, that is practised by Jamaica and the majority of the Commonwealth. Citizens must know what the branches of government are and must be able to provide a basic definition or description of what each branch of government does and who comprises each branch.
It is also important to know the legislative process and the procedures that are followed when a bill is tabled and debated, especially bills related to expenditure and fiscal policy. It may appear to the average to be a sort of secondary form of studying, but I can assure you that it becomes easy with acclimatization and with some form of passion in the midst.
I am very happy for the reintroduction of civics into our schools. It is hoped that this reintroduction, particularly in our primary and secondary schools, may serve to peak our students’ interests in government and governance, in order that informed decisions and actions may be made.
I refuse to accept that the Jamaican electorate only comprises of a tribal majority and an articulate minority. I find that it is possible to have a reasonably informed electorate and that achieving such a status is well within our reach. It can, and through the efforts of such noble youth advocacy groups as JAYECAN, it can be done.
Knowledge of the political processes aside, how many of us actually know who our elected representatives and public officials are? If our politicians did not post mundane activities on Facebook, ask the public if they look like losers, provide the comedic industry with satirical fodder or display emotions to the media through a particularly long middle finger, would we know who our local representatives are?
Let me provide an example of such ignorance, which for our situation, cannot be bliss. A certain encounter struck me a few years ago while presiding over a meeting of the Youth Fellowship at my home church in Mandeville. I had announced to the gathering that we would be hosting the Mayor of Mandeville in the following week for a night of current affairs discussions. To my own amazement, and the amazement of some in the gathering, a young man expressed glee at the fact that Desmond McKenzie (who was then the Mayor of Kingston) would be coming all the way to Mandeville! When I inquired of the young man why he thought Desmond McKenzie would be coming to Mandeville, he asked me quite sternly “Isn’t he the Mayor?”. His reaction to the announcement was not something that could have been done in jest.
An informed citizen, in order to hold his/her representatives accountable must know about the person, and certainly, about his or her background in public service. I am not in any way directing you to dig up every detail of that person’s background from the cradle until the present, but it is important to know of his/her record and where that person has stood on the issues affecting his/her constituents.
Do you know the name of your MP? Do you know your Mayor and your Parish Councillor? Where to find their office(s)? How to contact them? If you answer in the negative to any or all of these questions, then you have a problem. I would like to see a society where a voter not only knows these officials, but even the caretakers of the opposing parties in these constituencies and divisions. It cannot be that a person can go to a polling station and make his mark beside a mere symbol over a name that is Greek to him. An informed citizen must make every attempt to know where and how he/she may contact his representatives.
This one, for many persons, can be a sticky issue. Many of the issues affecting our country come from certain disciplines, be they matters relating to law, finance and economics, health and medicine, education etc. These matters of national importance, and the disciplines they are based on, may sometimes bring about complex jargons and technical terms that the ordinary man, or the man outside that discipline, may not readily understand. Be not afraid! It affects a wide cross-section, myself included. (Thanks be to God for good friends who can explain some of the terms to me!) Those technicalities aside, one must try to always keep abreast of the issues that exist and try to form an opinion about the issue. In forming an opinion though, always try to be as informed as possible and discuss your opinions with others in a manner that is peaceful and without partiality. Also, feel free to read the newspapers, listen to the talk shows, watch the news and build on your opinions. You would be surprised how much you learn from doing these seemingly simple things.
This one is actually quite easy to write about. Action includes using every available legal channel to hold your politicians accountable. The most potent form of action is by voting. It sounds simplistic, but it is the most potent. Our politicians seem to be able to get away with acting and their own whims and fancies and not according to the mandate of the electorate, because they have seemingly taken advantage of an ill-informed set of voters, many of whom are swayed by the T-shirts, the paraphernalia, the curried goat and white rum.
In conclusion, I must take time to briefly recount our history. Our forefathers fought and toiled valiantly for us to enjoy the benefits and to endure the responsibilities of Universal Adult Suffrage and internal self-government that we enjoy today. The levels of apathy and inactivity that presently exist do not reflect the dynamic and enthusiastic activism that our ancestors displayed then. We must validate their efforts to prevent them from pointlessness. I charge you all to hold your public officials and politicians accountable. Your country, and YOU depend on it.
Guest Writer: Markel Virgo
Markel A. O. Virgo is a final year student in the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning.