Jamaica’s opposition party leaders are vigorously urging the People’s National Party’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and members of her administration to explore ways to give members of the diaspora a constituent vote in Jamaica.
Former Prime Minister Andrew Holness who now heads the opposition Jamaica Labor Party met recently with Jamaican nationals residing in the Washington D.C. area as well those living in two cities in England — London and Birmingham — and promised to take the issue of the proposed diaspora vote in Jamaica to members of the public in its island wide consultations.
Although not a priority for Jamaicans on the island, the opposition leader said the issue was a legitimate concern for all Jamaicans.
Holness said the diaspora vote would mean that Jamaicans abroad would have a representative in Jamaica’s Parliament. He added that Jamaica should treat its nationals living abroad as members of its ‘commonwealth’ and not only those persons who reside in the British Commonwealth. He said the country should consider changing its constitution to allow members of the diaspora who are not residing within the commonwealth to sit in Parliament.
According to Holness, the diaspora vote could be considered as one of a number of decisions to be decided in a grand referendum on several issues of national importance.
“You can craft it such that they vote in a constituent, and, therefore, it is a constituent vote, rather than deciding the government.”
The one-term prime minister of the island said the JLP would recommend a similar model to that practiced by the French government, where their nationals vote overseas, but their ballots are registered for only one constituency in France, and not across all constituencies, which would then have an impact on the outcome of the elections.
“We have looked at the French model and see that it is quite appropriate, and we will bring it to public attention and public debate,” he stated.
Also siding with the opposition leader and diasporans nationals seeking a stake in deciding national policy here, the party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs and former Minister of Tourism Ed Bartlett said: “I have consistently raised the issue of engaging the diaspora in our parliamentary process. I am not suggesting absentee balloting. What I have in mind is a voluntary approach to the issue with government and opposition nominating for appointment of an independent member of the senate to represent the views of the diaspora.”
“I make the proposal because I believe that the diaspora has a lot to contribute to our growth and development. From all indications, it seems that it would be the best way for them to participate in the development process, especially with 2030 in mind. Such an appointment would not hurt the government unless it aspires to overturn the lack of a two-thirds majority in the senate, and it would not hurt the opposition unless there is the fear of the government attempting to overturn the constitutional position in that chamber,” Bartlett added.
The suggestion for a diaspora representative in the senate was proposed five years ago and many were firmly against the notion of Jamaicans holding United States citizenship being elected to the island’s House of Representatives.
The senate now comprises 21 members, 13 appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister and eight of whom are appointed on the advice of the leader of the opposition.
“What we encourage Jamaicans to do is to take advantage of the fact that Jamaica observes and recognizes dual citizenship,” Arnaldo Brown, state minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, said.
“We encourage them to become full citizens where they are, which includes the right to vote where they are, and to exercise their franchise where they are because, invariably, in so doing and being actively engaged where they are, they can also impact policy where they are, which can be a positive to them and to Jamaica.”
Bartlett amplified his position by arguing that engaging the diaspora is a way of boosting investment on the island. He pointed out that the World Bank has estimated that the Jamaican diaspora has more than $5.4 billion in savings.
“There is every indication that the diaspora stands ready to invest in their country, once they can be satisfied that the environment is conducive to such investments. However, the continued complaints from the diaspora about the lack of information on investment opportunities seem to suggest the resources expended on a conference were a total loss,” Bartlett said.
The shadow minister on foreign affairs also argued that biennial diaspora summits held in Jamaica are not adequate for consistent and effective engagement. He said the parliamentary opposition is suggesting that space be created in the senate for Jamaicans living abroad.
Diasporans in Canada was in favor of a senatorial representation, if not voting rights. That decision was agreed five years ago during a joint select committee on diaspora affairs meeting.
“We are not in favor of extending the right to vote to non-residents because we outnumber the Jamaicans living here, and it would not be fair for persons here to live under a government we elected. We do not feel this should be allowed, but we do believe we should be represented in the Senate,” Sharon Ffolkes-Abrahams, a Canadian spokesperson said. She recently returned to live in Jamaica and has been elected as a Member of Parliament representing West Central St. James.
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