I’ve been mulling for weeks the notion that the Westminster-style of Parliamentary government has not served Jamaica well. I’ve never been impressed by governments made up of elected representatives. I saw it in Britain for decades. However, the reasons for not liking it in the UK are not the same as those that prevail in Jamaica.
The fact that many elected politicians in the British Parliament are relatively intelligent, often highly qualified, often with excellent experience in other fields, does not justify having governments made up principally of those elected to represent geographical constituents.
In the Westminster-style system, No MP is elected to be a government minister. Party leaders are elected to represent a constituency, but on the expectation that they will form governments; but they are not constitutionally obliged to make them up from the body of MPs.
We have plenty of examples where important British Cabinet positions were filled by unelected representatives, who were usually already in, or ‘elevated’ to, the upper house, the House of Lords, and then parachuted into the ranks of Government ministers. So, Britain, during the Thatcher administrations ion the 1970s/80s, had, for example, an excellent foreign minister in the form of Lord Peter Carrington (a politician and peer, who’d also served in governments during the 1950s). In the 1960s, Harold Wilson appointed Frank Cousins (a trade union leader) and Partick Gordon Walker (a politician who did not win a seat in the 1964, but who was able to win a by-election in 1965) to be Cabinet members.
But, the Westminster-style system uses government positions as part of the ‘spoils’ system that often prevails in politics. So, the fact that government members will be chosen from the party with the largest number of elected representatives, means that government positions are easily seen as rewards.
The USA demonstrates, albeit with a presidential and federal system, that Cabinets without elected officials can make effective governments. Its elected representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate are not usually vying for positions in government. In fact, if elected officials are chosen to be in the President’s Cabinet, they vacate their elected seats. The person elected as President chooses Cabinet members who can deliver policy results, and generally work with nationally elected representatives to pilot through legislation. They have no mandate other than that given by their approval by Congress.
Jamaica has had the misfortune of its elected political spoils spilling over into bad government. The potential conflicts of interest with a government minister needing to pander to the needs of his or her electoral base are often evident.
Jamaica has also not been blessed by having its brightest and best vying for elected office, either because they do not put themselves forward or because they lose electoral battles. So, the stock of MPs is clearly far from the best bunch from which to choose.
That’s acknowledged by the fact that many recent Cabinets have been filled with ministers who are from the unelected Senate. In the current PNP administration, the ministers of foreign affairs and justice are prime examples. In previous JLP administrations, Don Wehby, a senior executive of GraceKennedy Ltd., was appointed as minister without portfolio in the ministry of finance and public service.
Should we consider changing the system, to something similar to the US administration?
Our ‘spoils system’ has been put on a different level because of the intense tribalism of electoral politics. So, almost inevitably, party supporters expect ‘their government’ to deliver largesse when in power. That is better secured through a system where MPs make up government. But, that’s a zero-sum game through which the overall benefits of the country have been sacrificed over decades to the whims of partisanship.
Coalition government, especially if based on a change of voting to proportional representation, may work against some of the partisanship, but it would still exist at the core of chosen MPs.
Governments without MPs need not be governments that are non-partisan. It’s too easy to fill Senate positions with party faithfuls, in much the way that they find their ways into the leadership of public agencies.
But, would a move away from choosing MPs to govern facilitate a move towards thinking in ways that governments are formed that are less partisan?
I have to mull some more.