February 23, 2023
Jamaica’s democracy is at an inflection point. At this turning point we face the prospect of either becoming a country of perverse lawlessness, led by those who make laws, or we take a hold of our collective selves and affirm the principle of one law for all. The paths ahead of us are clear.
The factors which will shape the path we will take are rooted largely in how decisions which impact on the majority are made. Sadly, decisions of the state, in most democracies, are made by a few, despite arguments about people power. This is true of Jamaica. It is true that at elections the general population expresses its voice at the ballot box (though some election results are contrived through vote-buying), but broadly speaking, the decisions of whichever political party forms the government, are influenced by a few. In short, interest groups, whether aligned to one political party or another, or strategically aligned to both, are behind many decisions made by elected governments. This is not unique to Jamaica.
One of the richest and most powerful families in America is the Rockefellers. David Rockefeller (Snr) is reported to have quipped that governments hold office, but businesses hold power. The most basic, and widely accepted, definition of power is that it is the capacity or ability to direct the behaviour of others or the course of events (Oxford Dictionary). But aside from power, there is influence which can also be instrumental in directing the course of events. John Kenneth Galbraith (1983) suggests that there are three types of power, the first two of which are the capacity to punish others for non-compliance and reward those who comply. Thus, if the perspectives of Rockefeller are accepted alongside the definition of Galbraith, what emerges is a picture wherein businesses with the capacity to punish governments which do not comply with their wishes are the ones which “rule” a country.
The foregoing analysis is supported by the research of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who in a 2014 article which drew on analysis of over 1,700 government policies, concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
Special interest groups
In effect, businesses influence the affairs of countries, and elected officials seek to avoid punishment and / or gain reward, either personally for their political parties and political interests (and sometimes both), by complying with the wishes of businesses. Thus, organized business groups, such as the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ), are powerful by virtue of the amount of capital they collectively control and the strength of the number of members in their organization. The PSOJ is “revered” as the most powerful interest group in Jamaica.
But while governments of Jamaica, particularly when formed by a particular political party, are known to make rules and laws as influenced by the PSOJ, there is also a strong degree of reciprocity, wherein businesses which have an interest in gaining government contracts will “defend” the government or be silent on certain issues. In this regard, these businesses promote their interests by both exerting power over governments as well as appearing to be supportive of governments.
Given the propensity of some governments to run afoul of the law, violate their constitutions, as well as mismanage public resources either through corruption or incompetence, when businesses seek to exert their influence and power over governments, they may either condemn acts or remain silent on issues. In essence, given their interests, businesses invariably will act based on convenience rather than on principle. This disposition poses a threat to law and order.
Law, order, and business interests in Jamaica
There is no doubt that compliance with law and respect for good order is of great concern to many. In my assessment, however, political and business leaders see this phenomenon as a condition which is manifested among the lower social classes. It is my submission that the assault on law and order is exceedingly prevalent among the leaders in business and politics. The recent examples are disturbing.
The Prime Minister’s uncertified integrity declarations
The law requires that the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition obtain certification of their integrity declarations. In October 2022 the country was advised that the certification of that of the Prime Minister has been outstanding. Not once during these four months has the PSOJ asked about this matter, at least publicly. Questions have been asked by some civil society organizations, but the most powerful interest group, the PSOJ has said nothing on this issue.
Corruption investigation of the Prime Minister
In mid-February 2023, Jamaica was jolted by the frightening news that the Prime Minister was the subject of a corruption investigation – which was concluded in October 2022, but was not tabled in the parliament, as the law requires, at that time. It remains unclear why the Integrity Commission did not table the report then. But having done so on February 15, it then issued a ruling on February 16, dated February 12, which indicated that the Corruption Prosecution Unit (of the said Integrity Commission) had found that the evidence was insufficient to mount a successful criminal prosecution.
The PSOJ in response has demanded that the Executive Director of the Integrity Commission resigns, claiming that they have lost confidence him. What is striking, however, is that the PSOJ has not expressed concern in relation to the fact that the Prime Minister has not obtained certification of his integrity declarations, nor has it commented on the findings of the Corruption Investigation.
The contrasts in the PSOJ’s positions could not be any starker. They have been exceedingly vocal in calling for the removal of the Executive Director of the Integrity Commission (without showing that he has broken any law, acted ultra vires, acted contrary to the will of the Commissioner, or acted unethically), but have been deafeningly silent on the failure of the Prime Minister to obtain certification or the contents of the report.
This contrast not only positions the PSOJ as morally equivocal and probably politically self-serving, but worse as a contributor to lawlessness, disorder, and a culture of placing some above accountability. Given the power the PSOJ holds in the Jamaican society, it is exceedingly troubling, though not surprising in the eyes of some, that they have chosen to use their power to weaken the infrastructure of accountability and transparency.
Strengthening accountability – Proposed amendments to the Integrity Commission Act
Prime Minister Andrew Holness has, in the wake of the revelations that criminal charges will not be preferred against him, signaled his intention to amend the Integrity Commission Act. For those who hold the view that the Act is already not strong enough, the fear is that the amendments to be made will likely weaken the law. Notwithstanding the likelihood that the government’s move will weaken rather than strengthen the law, I propose here some amendments which would strengthen the law and Jamaica’s overall accountability, integrity, and transparency infrastructure.
- That the declarations of all members of parliament shall be subject to certification and then publication in the Jamaica Gazette.
- That if the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition fail to file their declarations within the time provided, they shall be liable to a fine of five million Jamaican dollars ($5,000,000.00) and imprisonment not exceeding one year.
- If any member of parliament (other than the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition) fails to file his/her declarations within the time provided, he/she shall be liable to a fine of two million Jamaican dollars ($2,000,000.00) and imprisonment not exceeding six months.
- That the Integrity Commission shall make public the reasons the declaration of any MP cannot be certified.
- If any member of parliament (including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition) having been asked by the Integrity Commission to provide further information on declarations, fails to do so within sixty (60) days, he /she shall be barred from parliament commencing on the 61st day after such failure to provide such information.
- That if the required information remains outstanding for a maximum of another thirty (30) days, the seat of the member in the House of Parliament shall be declared vacant.
Principle of higher duty
The principle of higher duty is the underlying consideration in this critique of the PSOJ as well as the proposed amendments to the Integrity Commission Act. The central issue is one which invites powerful organizations, like the PSOJ, to ponder what may be the best ways to deploy
their enormous power and influence over the government. In an earlier era of its life, the PSOJ was a major antagonist and critic of the government. In other words, if government’s actions are demonstrably not in the public’s interest, powerful groups should show the courage to
speak loudly. The other element of the higher duty is reflected in the proposed amendments to the law. Lately, the government has been increasing the penalties for all kinds of offenses, from traffic violations to murder. The same principle should apply to laws which will affect lawmakers.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.