Unless you have been living under a rock (as they say) you would know that general elections are in the air. Three-quarters of last night’s television news broadcasts consisted of political party rallies (we need to watch these; are relevant issues, important to the Jamaican people, addressed at these rallies, or is it just “ray, ray”?) So now seems the best time to share with you a speech made Professor Trevor Munroe, Executive Director of National Integrity Action and Honorary Visiting Professor at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute (SALISES) at the University of the West Indies. The speech was given at Port Antonio High School in Portland on July 23, 2015.
Remember, SPEAKING OUT IS OUR DEMOCRATIC RIGHT!
This afternoon I want to talk about your vote not only as your right , your responsibility but as your ‘voice’, as a fundamental part of your democratic right to ‘speak out’. In fact when our forefathers won the right to vote, they used it to win the right to speak out in other ways. This was not always so. A hundred years ago we Jamaicans could not speak out, could not speak our mind for anybody to hear. There was no democracy; one newspaper; no radio station; no talk show; no TV; no social media; no right to speak out. In fact, our National Hero Marcus Garvey did speak out. He said that judges who were not fair and not upholding the constitution should be sent to jail. Instead it was he who was sent to Spanish Town prison for three months– for speaking out.
No wonder, because at that time none of us in this room would have had the right to vote in those who would make the law. Then only one out of every ten Jamaicans, the few who owned the big properties and big merchant houses – they were the ones who mainly had the right to vote. And alongside them the English colonial rulers in London and the Governor – they made the laws and they made the laws such that we could be sent to prison if we spoke out.
As you know all that changed 71 years ago, in 1944. All adults, one out of two Jamaicans then and now won the right to vote, the first pre-dominantly black people in the world to achieve that milestone. This allowed us, then and now, to choose and remove our representatives, those who had the right to make the law; and our M.P.s changed the law to give us the right to speak out. And that right was further enshrined in the Jamaican Constitution Charter of Rights four years ago, along with the right to vote.
So today you and I can speak out without suffering Garvey’s fate. We can call Cliff Hughes’ Online, Hotline on RJR, Independent Talk on Power 106; we can text in our views on questions asked after TVJ News; we can do the same on LIVE at 7. We can write letters to the newspapers; we can post online comments; we can have our voice heard on the website of the Office of the Contractor General, the Auditor General or the Public Defender. In fact just as the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) and the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) are highly rated internationally because of how they administer the right to vote, so too the level of freedom of speech and freedom of the media in Jamaica is world class, in many years ranking above freedom of the press in America, in England and in many other democracies.
Some of us don’t know this; don’t appreciate nor realize that there are not many countries where you can speak your mind, as in Jamaica, without getting locked up. Others of us know that we have the right to speak out and don’t make use of it. We will shoot off our mouths in the bar, at the bus stop, in the barbershop or at the hairdresser. We don’t feel it makes sense to speak out beyond that.
Others of us, thankfully, are and have been speaking out, getting results, showing that it makes sense – and we need to learn from them. It is because many of us spoke out thirty –six years ago that we got the maternity leave law which means now, today, that no woman can lose her job because she gets pregnant and is entitled to two months’ maternity leave pay while on leave to have their baby. Where that doesn’t happen, it is breaking the law.
It is because so many Jamaicans spoke out , and not only because the Americans demanded it, that the self-confessed criminal don – Christopher “Dudus” Coke is no longer in Jamaica but now serving 23 years in prison.
It is because some Jamaicans spoke out that five years ago the Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM) was set up to investigate and prosecute police if and when they kill people without proper cause.
It was because so many Jamaicans spoke out that the old Board of the National Solid Waste Management Agency (NSWMA), which stood by and did nothing while the law was being broken for ten years by the agency in not auditing their accounts – that is why the Board was changed.
It is because so many Jamaicans spoke out that there is now a new Chairman of the National Housing Trust.
It is because so many Jamaicans spoke out, including people from Portland, for signing a petition for Local Government Reform that after twenty years these laws are now being passed; and it is because so many Jamaicans spoke out that we now have a Bill before Parliament to set up a Special Prosecutor for Corruption.
The moral of the story is clear: keep silent, say nothing – and nothing happens to change what you don’t like. Speak out; use your democratic right and things will happen. The more we speak out the more the ‘powers that be’ will have to listen.
Take the issue of ‘corruption in politics’ – the reason why 18% of those not voting, according to Don Anderson’s poll, say they are not voting. Keep quiet, and it shall continue. Speak out, and you can get government to pass the law now before Parliament for a Special Prosecutor for the corrupt; speak out to end the foot-dragging on the law to make it harder for big criminals and big money to buy influence in our parties or over our politicians. Remember he who pays the piper calls the tune.
And what about the 26% of those who are not voting ( according to Don Anderson) because ‘ politicians are for themselves’ and they, the people ‘ have not benefitted from either party’? The only way to change that is to ‘ speak out’ – for example, when you see the politician giving contracts to friend and family and not to those who can do the work. Report it to the Contractor General—that’s what people from Hanover did, and they had to change the Mayor.
And the 22% of those who are not voting because they said ‘ there was no difference between the parties’. How is that to change unless those inside the parties speak up to get the party to change; to make themselves different?
And there is much more to speak out against today:
- Speak out against the wasting of money; for example a billion dollars being spent every year on the NSWMA without any accountability. No wonder Jamaica ranks 109 out of 144 countries in wasteful spending of public money.
- Speak out to get more done about local government. Under the law we were to exercise our vote in Parish Council General Elections seventeen times since independence. We were only able to exercise this fundamental right eleven times, because different governments put off Parish Council elections. No government must be able to do this again. We must speak out to make the positive Constitutional recognition of Local Government more positive – by preventing any government from postponing Local Government Elections and requiring any administration to hold the local government election every four years.
- And talking about the Constitution, nine years ago it was agreed that the Electoral Commission should be entrenched in the Jamaican Constitution. We must speak out so that this is done, so that no government can in the present or the future simply abolish the ECJ.
- And should we not be speaking out to know who are the large tax payers, who according to the Minister are not paying their taxes, making it necessary to cut money spent on clinics, hospitals, schools; yet we publish the names of the students who received loans and are not living up to their obligations to pay back?
- Most of all should we not be speaking out to get the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to lower the Primary Surplus Target from 7.5%, to ease the burden of paying the debt which we must pay – and not leave it up to American Congressmen to ask the IMF to play fair? I cannot accept that they should be speaking out for me, and you and I keep quiet.
And so I urge you – let us use our voice, our democratic right more effectively to speak out for what is right, to change what is wrong now, in between elections, so that when elections come more of us will see that it make sense to vote in who we want and to vote out who we don’t want.
The Mission of National Integrity Action (NIA) is “to combat corruption and build integrity in Jamaica through the persistent promotion of transparency, accountability in the conduct of government, businesses and the wider society.” For more information on NIA, go to their website at http://niajamaica.org, where you may find a video of this presentation followed by questions and answers with the public. Address: 6A Oxford Road, Kingston 5 or P.O. Box 112, Kingston 7; tel: (876) 906-4371.