In a fiery objection which resulted in a walkout, the Opposition refused to support a Bill brought to the House of Representatives on Tuesday to again postpone the holding of local government elections, rubbishing the Government’s explanation of a fragile post-COVID economy, and unfinished consultations on Portmore’s 15th parish status.
This third postponement since 2021 — when the elections were originally due — comes a week before the second extension expires on February 28.
Opposition Leader Mark Golding categorised the repeated postponements as a disgrace, making clear that his side would not support it. He pointed to the Local Governance Act passed in February 2016, which amended the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) by the insertion of an eighth schedule to provide for a fixed four-year cycle for local government elections. He said this included a 90-day window, beginning on the fourth anniversary of the last local government elections, but “There was no provision for an extension”.
Tabling the Representation of the People (Postponement of Elections to Municipal Corporation and City Municipalities) Act, 2023, Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie said, “the Government has weighed the balance and we believe at this time where the country is, the fact that we have to consider important issues — an election is important — but I urge the patience of the country, to understand and respect the decision of the Government”.
He pointed to the IMF’s latest article four review of the economy, stressing that the country’s economic recovery is still very fragile. “We are in a better position than we were last year but it is clear that we are not yet out of the woods. The Government is sharply focused on building national resilience against any further economic shocks; and the expansion and the maintenance of strong economic growth.” According to the minister, the holding of the municipal elections at this time carried significant risk of diverting the country from these two tasks.
“The Portmore Municipal Council has requested further time for consultations; we want when the time rolls around the people will be allowed to cast their vote as the 15th parish of Jamaica,” McKenzie said.
Golding said the Opposition had not resisted when the local government elections which were due in February 2021 were put off, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but pointed out that, ” when Jamaica was reeling, they called a general election in the heights of COVID, they came to this Parliament to extend it for a year, citing COVID as the reason. In February 2022 they brought legislation here [and] on the very day that the prime minister announced in this House that there would be no need for the disaster risk management orders, and social distancing was a thing of the past and Jamaica was back to normal and was going to be building back for recovery…it was spurious then, and this is spurious now”.
Leader of Opposition Business Phillip Paulwell said the Opposition was not buying the reasons given for the postponement, particularly the economic concerns, given that the Government, “brag every day, about recovering stronger — it is incomprehensible. What is the real reason, for postponing the local government elections?” He made clear that the Opposition would not support the Bill.
Paulwell argued that it was tragic that for years local government has not been given the priority it deserves, having previously been reduced to a department of government. He pointed out that some constituency divisions are now without representation, some for as long as four years.
St Catherine Members of Parliament (MPs) on both sides engaged in a clash of words, arguing over the municipalities proposed 15th parish status, and electoral boundaries. MP for St Catherine Southern Fitz Jackson said the current proposal gives the Government the authority to determine the political boundaries of Portmore. “It is a sad day in our political history that a Government in 2023 is seeking to reverse gains to suppress democracy, in a most vulgar way for convenient political advantage,” he said, referencing provisions in the law which formed the Portmore municipality to have at least seven per cent of the registered voters’ poll to either accept or reject any new boundaries.
McKenzie rejected all opposing arguments, insisting that his Administration’s intent is to revert to the previous electoral boundaries for Portmore, before they were realigned under a People’s National Party Administration. Jackson rejected the statement, pointing out that both sides had participated in the realignment, administered by the Electoral Office of Jamaica.
Furthermore McKenzie said, the Holness Government had no fear of facing the electorate. “Our track record is clear,” he said.
The Electoral Office of Jamaica has indicated that it needs just over $1 billion to hold the elections.With 29 aye votes to the Opposition’s eight nays, the Bill was pushed through, to postpone the elections until February 28, 2024.