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Opinion: Danger to Democracy
Recently, there were two editorials by The Gleaner that gave the opinion that Jamaica’s parliamentary rules should be amended to allow for voting by secret ballot among members of the House of Representatives on some matters. The gist of one of the editorials was that members might vote along party lines either for or against the controversial issue of legalizing abortion rather than according to the dictates of their own consciences.
It matters not for the purposes of this discussion what my personal views on abortion are. This commentary is not about the pros and cons of abortion and not about whether it is right or wrong. It is about the possibility of setting a dangerous precedent in terms of what was suggested in The Gleaner several weeks ago.
In any case, both sides of the abortion debate should be concerned about any proposal to change the parliamentary rules to allow for secret ballots. I am sure that they would want to know how parliamentarians voted on the issue, especially in their own political party.
I am aware that several members of parliament have already signaled that they are in favor of changing the law to allow abortion. But that is neither here nor there in this matter of principle.
In my opinion, the only matter that should be secret in terms of governing Jamaica should be matters of national security.
I am not aware that in any other Commonwealth nation, parliamentarians can vote by secret ballot on any issue that concerns the population of the respective country.
Indeed, a representative from the London-based Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that represents 54 countries confirmed that, in theory, while all parliaments could suspend standing orders and have a vote by secret ballot on a particular issue if they so wished, “in practice, I am not aware of any recent Commonwealth examples of this.”
Canada’s Parliament also wrote that outside of a handful of scenarios on internal House matters like the election of the Speaker, “there is no mechanism in the Standing Orders to conduct votes by secret ballot on other matters, even if they are considered sensitive or controversial.” And just this year in the United States, where there were discussions online about whether the second Senate vote to impeach President Donald Trump could be secret so lawmakers can vote their conscience without fear of political backlash, the Senators stuck to the rules that all votes be cast publicly. The result was that Pres. Trump was acquitted in the Senate for a second time even though he was impeached twice in the House.
Voting Traditions in Jamaica
In Jamaica, there are two ways to vote on issues in parliament and those are the collection of voices or the division of votes.
A collection of voices is where parliamentarians voice aye or no, and the Speaker or Chairman will determine if the ayes or noes have it, but any member may challenge the opinion of the chair by claiming a division.
A vote by division is when names of members are called in alphabetical order and recorded individually. A divisional vote in parliament is referred to in some circles as a “conscience vote.” A conscience vote was the mechanism that was recommended last year by a House Committee that considered a motion to legalize abortion from Member of Parliament for the St. Andrew West Rural constituency Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn.
There have been several divisional votes since independence in 1962. In 1979, the Jamaican parliament voted on whether to retain the death penalty. At that time, Michael Manley was Prime Minister and his brother Douglas was Jamaica's Minister of Health. Michael Manley voted to remove the death penalty while his brother Douglas voted to retain it.
It is to be noted that the then Leader of the Opposition Edward Seaga was absent when the vote was taken. We do not know what to read into that. He may have been genuinely indisposed, but perhaps he did not want anyone to know his opinion on this matter.
Another divisional vote was again taken on the death penalty some years ago with the same result of it remaining on our books, though it’s not usually enforced.
There is also voting by referendum or plebiscite, which is a vote among the electorate. Only once has there been a referendum in Jamaica so far and that happened eleven months before independence when on September 19, 1961 Jamaicans voted to secede from the Federation of the West Indies.
As it stands, the motion by MP Cuthbert-Flynn to make abortion legal fell off the parliamentary agenda when the general elections were called in September last year and a new parliament was formed, according to the Parliament.
Now that Mrs. Cuthbert-Flynn is part of the executive as a state minister of government, parliamentary rules suggest that in order for the issue to become live again a backbencher MP from either side would have to introduce a similar motion or the government itself would have to put forward its own motion or piece of legislation. Additionally, according to two persons familiar with parliamentary procedures, there could be maneuvers to allow for debate in the House on the report of the committee that had originally recommended the conscience vote even though it was produced under a previous parliament.
Until such time, The Gleaner should be called out for its suggestion to amend the parliamentary rules to vote by secret ballot. The mere suggestion is a small event, but the erosion of democracy as well as the erosion of freedom usually starts out with small events.
In Jamaica, where today most people have a modern gadget and have access to cheap clothing, footwear and food, and it seems the Covid-19 pandemic is all we are able to focus on, many are distracted and won’t notice this seemingly small move until it grows like a cancer.
When we spot these kinds of threats to democracy, we must have the confidence to fight for our rights and to sound the alarm when our rights are in danger of being trampled.
The right to a democratically-elected government with all that is entailed therein (not just having elections every five or so years) is enshrined in the Constitution of Jamaica. Once you set a precedent that something can be voted on in secret, what will they think of next?
Reporting contributed by Zahra Burton.
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Editor’s Note: The views of this writer are his own and may not necessarily reflect those of 18º North.
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