Gov’t pushes through delay bill for local polls despite boast of JLP’s readiness
A declaration by Dr Andrew Wheatley, the member of parliament (MP) for St Catherine East Central, that the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) is prepared for local government elections was met with a chorus of “call it” from the parliamentary Opposition during a debate on Tuesday in Gordon House to postpone the polls a fourth time.
It appears the irony was not lost on many as government lawmakers voted unanimously to delay the local polls by up to a year amid strong dissent from the opposition benches.
One by one, members of the Opposition sought to poke holes in the arguments set out by the Government for delaying the polls.
In a vote, which followed a divide called by opposition members, the ayes recorded 29 votes and the nays eight, which meant the bill was carried.
Members of the parliamentary Opposition walked out after the Speaker announced the results.
Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Desmond McKenzie, who piloted the bill to postpone the polls, outlined three reasons behind the Holness administration’s move to not allow Jamaicans to elect their local representatives at this time.
With the polls being put off for up to February 28, 2024, McKenzie said that the Government needed more time to carry out consultations around draft legislation to establish Portmore as Jamaica’s 15th parish.
The bill to postpone the polls also cited “the high level of monetary cost of holding the elections” and “building resilience to possible future shocks as well as setting the country on a path of sustained growth”.
McKenzie charged that the Government was not afraid to face the electorate.
Earlier during the debate, St Andrew South Eastern MP Julian Robinson castigated the Government for citing monetary costs as one of the reasons for putting off the polls.
With a $1.5 billion bill to hold local government elections, Robinson reminded the country that the finance minister “boasted” about the more than $80 billion above its own estimates pulled in by the administration for the 2022-2023 financial year.
Additionally, he said that the Government projects to collect an additional $127 billion in tax revenue for the 2023-2024 fiscal year.
Robinson further noted that the Government called national elections in September 2020 at the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the economy fell by 13 per cent of gross domestic product, and the country’s tourism sector was virtually locked down.
“So you come here and say ‘economic reason why you can’t call election’ weh cost $1.5 billion? Joke business! It’s better you never put this on the paper, Desmond,” Robinson lamented.
He charged that a government has the responsibility to budget for an election.
“This election was known. It never catch anybody like Nicodemus in the night. It is overdue; the Government has the revenue to do it, but the Government is afraid to face the people,” charged Robinson, who is also the opposition spokesman on finance.
St Catherine South Eastern MP Robert Miller defended the postponement of the election, arguing that the Sunshine City should achieve parish status before the next local polls.
The government legislator argued that the elected mayor in Portmore does not have real power to institute change in the municipality.
Denise Daley, the MP for St Catherine Southern, believes that the Government has treated Jamaicans with scant regard, noting that councillors have been anticipating the elections for a long time now.
“We continue to postpone because we believe the people out there are stupid. The time has come to give them a new mandate,” said the opposition MP.
But Wheatley argued that successive administrations have treated local government as a bastard child.
He accused the Opposition of not cooperating with the Government to move the process forward to make Portmore the island’s 15th parish.
“I would implore the members on that side to fast-track and assist us, support us in establishing Portmore as Jamaica’s 15th parish, so that we can get on with the business of the people,” Wheatley said.
“I would have loved for us to have local government elections this month. The Jamaica Labour Party is prepared. All our candidates are in place,” he added.
Leader of Opposition Business Phillip Paulwell complained that the residents of 15 divisions across the country are currently without councillors.
“Whether you think you will win or lose, it is the people’s right to choose,” he stressed.
Opposition Leader Mark Golding said the reasons posited by the Government for shifting the date for the polls were “spurious and disingenuous and cannot be supported”.
He said that in 2015, the Constitution was amended to enshrine local government in the supreme law. He said that this was endorsed by a joint select committee of Parliament comprising members on both sides of the House.
Golding said that three strategic laws were passed in February 2016. According to the opposition leader, the Local Governance Act amended the Representation of the People Act, which provided for a fixed four-year cycle for local government elections with a 90-day window for those polls to be held.
He said during the COVID-19 pandemic, a bill was taken to Parliament to postpone the elections. The Opposition gave its support.
The country last had local government elections in November 2016.