Imperative considerations for a New Jamaican Constitution: What the Diaspora is Saying about Constitutional Reform
Franklin W. Knight, PhD
By writing a constitution in 1776, the United States of America pioneered the concept of a codified way in which political states establish themselves and organize their administration. But it was also a way in which successive new states expressed their highest ideals as well as a sense of self.
Those ideals and self-consciousness are fundamental manifestations of the healthy development of any nation. The formation of a state usually precedes the construction of a nation. In the Americas, the only exception to this was the case of Cuba.
If Jamaica is to create a successful nation state from its incoherent colonial past, it is imperative that it gets a new constitution that clearly outlines its administrative structure as well as its ideals for a better, more inclusive society. And this society must reflect the reality of the Jamaican people.
A new constitution, therefore, need not be long but it has the onus of defining citizenship, defending individual rights and freedoms, and outlining the composition of the important instruments of state control. A Jamaican constitution should always place foremost the interests of the majority of Jamaican citizens.
A monarchy, constitutional or not, cannot properly convey the realities and aspirations of the plural, complex, multi-cultural and dynamic people in Jamaica today. So, the British monarchy should absolutely have no role in a new constitution.
What should replace the monarchy? That should not be a difficult question.
Any system that recognizes and describes the three essential overlapping divisions of any democratic state — an executive authority; a legislative body; and a judiciary—ought to be clearly delineated and should prove sufficient. This means that the writers of the new constitution ought to declare exactly where national sovereignty rests.
If the sovereignty of the state is invested in the people as it should be, then a republic represents an optimal form for constituting the state. Investing sovereignty in the people requires a serious method of incorporating popular input in the highest levels of state administration. This means that all elected officers of state are subject to the general population who elected them. They are public servants, not privileged masters.
For Jamaica, an elected executive president should serve as the head of state. Merely ceremonial heads of state are absurdly anachronistic in this modern age. The president should be elected every four years and be restricted to no more than two terms in office. The president should have a committee of no more than six ministers to assist in the carrying out of all executive functions. The ministers should be nominated by the president and approved by the elected legislature.
The legislative body may be divided between a lower house and an upper house.
The maximum number of representatives in the lower house should be two for each parish, plus an at-large representative for urban centers such as Kingston and St. Andrew, Portmore, and Montego Bay. The maximum size of the lower house should be 31 or 32 representatives.
The upper house should have no more than one representative for each parish, plus one at-large representative for each of the three counties. The upper house should have no more than 17 members. Laws should be initiated by either house and approved by a majority in both before submission to the president for assent and execution.
All members of both legislative houses should be elected every four years and serve no more than two terms in office. This facilitates the maintaining of power among the majority of the population and gives meaning to investing power in the people.
Laws passed by the legislature must be approved or vetoed by the president. A two-thirds vote in both house and senate can override a veto by the president.
Unlike elected executive and legislature, the judiciary should be selected and nominated by the practitioners in that field and approved by a majority vote in both houses of parliament. This process may be delegated to appropriate committees in the house and the senate. The highest court of appeal should rest within the island or within the Caribbean region.
A new constitution should reject the notion that parliament can be composed of only two major parties. Indeed, it makes far more sense in a plural society to accept multiple parties. Leadership in parliament can be determined by any party or coalition of parties that produces a working majority.
If parish and urban boundaries coincide with constituencies, then an efficacious way of political representation in the lower house of representatives would be to have parties present a slate of candidates and each party gaining above a designated proportion of the total votes would be rewarded with an equivalent proportion of the total parliamentary seats in that house. Any member included in the slate presented before the election may be assigned by the party to hold any seat for any designated constituency in parliament. Every member must have an office in the assigned constituency.
It is not enough, however, to continue with the model of a lightweight English parliamentary model with anyone gaining the most votes being declared the winner. As stated above, parties are awarded seats based on tehri overall performance – the proportion of total votes determines the proportion of seats in the parliament. The composition of the senate need not be determined in the same way.
Political power also needs to be decentralized. Jamaica does not need to have all decisions emanating from a single legislative body in Kingston. The country needs to differentiate between activities best handled at the center of political power in Kingston and activities that may be effectively delegated to the counties or parishes.
To strengthen local political participation the constitution may even exclude local elected representatives from term limits. Having served two terms in a national office, a politician could return to his local base and serve indefinitely in a county or parish position.
One example of this delegation may be illustrated by revenue sources and collection. The national government should have the authority to impose an income tax, or a national sales or value added tax. The national government ought to distribute revenue with the counties and parishes. Counties and parishes should have the means to acquire revenue from local sources. They should have the authority to impose a property tax across the county or parish. And parishes could have the authority to impose their own individual sales tax.
This delegation of functions to the counties and parishes may result in an empowering of local authorities as well as an incentive to political participation at the local and regional level. It would ensure that the population at large remain an integral component of political decision-making. And therein lies the enduring strength of any democracy.
This focus on the political constitution and administrative composition of the state does not exhaust the many other considerations of a new constitution for Jamaica. But it merely indicates that without drastic overhaul and without a greater sensitivity to the needs of the people, any new document will fall short.
© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post