Above: Jamaica House
By Garnett Ankle
In Jamaica, whenever a new prime minister is inaugurated, it always gives me a sense of hope for the future of the island nation. The return to office of Portia Simpson Miller is no different.
It must have given many Jamaicans everywhere in the world a sense of pride to watch and listen as Simpson Miller addressed the nation in her inaugural speech at King’s House on Jan. 5.
She spoke of uniting the nation, removing Queen Elizabeth II of England as the nation’s Head of State, and the replacement of the Privy Council in England with the Caribbean Court of Justice, as the nation’s final court of appeal. All of these proposals received resounding applause from the large audience on the lawn at King’s House.
Several Jamaican callers to my radio talk show here in Connecticut were upset that Simpson Miller was returned as the nation’s prime minister. Some said she was too old, while others said she was incapable of governing the nation.
My request of them was to please give her a chance to govern. I told them that the prime minister would need the cooperation of all Jamaicans — at home and abroad — to move the nation forward.
Others were in favour of her return as prime minister. They said she was not given a chance when she was previously prime minister for 18 months.
Simpson Miller was returned to office at a time when the world economy is in a serious downturn. Unemployment in Jamaica is over 12 percent, and the nation’s debt burden is 120 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. The nation has a poverty rate of over 16 percent.
The high number of fatal traffic accidents, political corruption and favouritism must be stamped out. The high level of violent crimes must be tackled and defeated. These are very serious challenges for the Simpson Miller-led government.
With these serious social and economic challenges to be addressed by the new Jamaican government, one would think Prime Minister Simpson Miller would have led by example, and put in place a small, but effective Cabinet. The sacrifice and belt tightening must start with the government.
As opposition leader, Simpson Miller criticized then-Prime Minister Bruce Golding for having a large Cabinet. But the Prime Minister now has a cabinet of twenty members, one more than that of Golding’s.
Jamaicans at home and abroad are looking to the Prime Minister to change the status quo – she cannot be seen to use her Cabinet as payback to the party faithful. It cannot be business as usual; not when the stakes are this high. The approximate current annual cost of the new Cabinet is close to $2.3 million USD.
It is not late to reduce the Cabinet to eleven members. The Prime Minister should abolish all positions of state ministers, and all ministers without portfolios. The Cabinet, all Members of Parliament, and Senators should have their salaries reduced. Given the high rate of poverty in Jamaica, and the huge debt burden, the prime minister should be able to say, “I feel your pain, and I have started by giving ourselves reduced salaries and I have also reduced the number of members in my cabinet.”
Let us not fool ourselves; the road ahead for Jamaica is not an easy task. No fair-minded individual should expect that the Simpson Miller-led government, or any other for the matter, would be able to rid the nation of poverty within five years. It is going to be a long hard struggle.
If the nation sees her reduce her Cabinet, cut politicians’ salaries, and fight political corruption as suggested above, then maybe those in poverty might think there is hope for them.
All Jamaicans must be educated in what it means for the nation to become a republic. This would mean removing Queen Elizabeth II as head of State of the island nation. Constitutionally, this must be done by a referendum, not by the stroke of a pen. This means all eligible voters on the island would vote “Yes” or “No.” How much money would it cost Jamaican taxpayers to conduct such a referendum? Can the nation afford it? I would argue that having Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State of the nation has not caused it to be in the economic and social quagmire in which it finds itself. Why not do away with symbolism and work together to pull the nation out of the stranglehold of economic debt, and social decadence?
Prime Minster Simpson Miller suggested Jamaica should now do away with the Privy Council and use the regional CCJ. Currently, Barbados, Guyana, and Belize are the only nations who are members of this court. For this change to take place, it also must be done by a referendum. In an ideal situation this would be the correct thing to do. But why should Jamaica become a member of the CCJ at this point, when some argue that the regional court system is so politicized? The Privy Council has served Jamaica very well. Some Jamaicans may feel more comfortable knowing a set of jurists far removed from the island would decide their fate.
Prime Minister Simpson Miller is looking forward to Jamaica’s 50th year as a politically independent nation, as a new republic and with the CCJ as its final court of appeal. I would hope that she would rethink having those referenda, even if both were held on the same day. I would hope that the Jubilee is one of commemoration and not celebration.
Jamaica has a lot for which to celebrate, but not its politics – which have failed the nation miserably. Jamaica has no money to spend on a lavish celebration; not when so many live in poverty, and the debt burden is so high. Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting, in his capacity of General Secretary of the People’s National Party in an interview last October on my radio talk show promised me there would not be a lavish celebration if his party formed the government before Aug. 6, 2012.
Yes, times are difficult, but if the Jamaican populace thinks and sees the government working in its interest, then maybe half the battle will already have been won.
Garnett Ankle is a radio broadcaster/talk show host on WESU Middletown 88.1 FM in Middletown, Connecticut.
Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal op-eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.