Public Discourse in Montserrat: A Silent Electorate

Public Discourse in Montserrat: A Silent Electorate

David McKeand

Release Date

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


On reading and listening to recent articles critical of the elected leadership of Montserrat, I felt compelled to expand on the discussion. I agree that Mr. Romeo has broken a very basic tenet of leadership - that of communication. The saying goes, "Communicate, communicate, communicate, and when you think you've communicated enough, communicate some more." However, since "talk is cheap", leaders must communicate in a way that moves us closer to the realisation of our shared vision.

So yes, Mr. Romeo has failed to be the outspoken, consistent and unifying standard-bearer for our shared vision on which his party was elected. Yes, he has consistently failed to meaningfully communicate the progress, challenges or modifications to that vision.

In Jeevan Robinson's articles on Mr. Romeo's leadership, there was a call for the electorate to stand up and be counted. To be fair however, we must remember that Montserrat continues to be a place where people are reluctant, and even afraid to speak, presumably due to the well-founded belief such behaviour would hurt the individual or his/her family when it comes to sharing equally in future benefits or opportunities. This behaviour is not unique to Montserrat. It takes place in many small communities where there are a few powerful actors/families. I made this statement in person to all PDM candidates and to the DFID Governor-of-the-day prior to the election.

This unseen hand preventing people from speaking is corruption. It permeates multiple levels of "official-dome". The most informative and constructive definition of corruption is - using public office for private gain - for yourself, your family, friends or associates. When you agree to be a candidate for elected office or accept a job as a civil servant, you are presented with a remuneration package. If you seek to use your position to increase your fortunes, you are using your office for private gain. Interestingly, the opposite of corruption is integrity - the willingness to do the "right thing", even when no one is looking.

Since we can only assess a job applicant or candidate for office on his/her words - and remember "talk is cheap" - we must rely on the rule of law to prevent corruption. To be clear, I am not stating nor suggesting Mr. Romeo is corrupt. There is absolutely no evidence of this, and in large part, this is why Mr. Romeo was elected. It was believed this new government would be less inclined to ensure contracts and favours went to members of the assembly or their associates.

So in the face of seemingly little movement by the current government, why are individuals so reluctant to come forward and speak out? Simply this - the British Government's (or rather DFID's) abject failure to tackle corruption through any meaningful improvements in law, order and good governance. I will expand on what these terms mean and how the British continue to fail in this regard in a future article, but I will touch on the rule of law because the phrase has become a slogan in the hands of the self-interested rather than a guiding principle.

In a modern democracy, the requirements for the rule of law are:

1. Only elected trustees, operating within a public forum, create laws/amendments/exemptions. These laws must be prudent and necessary, and demonstrably move the community/society towards a shared vision - the one for which the political party was elected. The primary benefit must accrue to the public, not a select or chosen few. The "trickle-down" theory has been soundly discredited as a means of achieving economic justice.

2. The Government's Executive (the Cabinet) through its direct control, staffing and guidance of police and prosecutors, faithfully monitor and audit compliance with these democratically enacted laws, and consistently, transparently and competently investigate and prosecute violations of the law. Members of the Assembly do not enjoy parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution (Dicey, A.V.; An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, Part II Chapter IV; 1885).

3. Courts, operating independently of the Government, apply and interpret the law in an open forum, and must provide a rationale on how the court reached its verdict. Verdicts are subject to appeal.

On Montserrat, as in other countries, the electorate clearly understand laws, and resultant benefits, are not applied "fairly" to all. There are two legal standards - one for the "in crowd" and one for everyone else. This has become a rallying cry around the world. However, we in Montserrat have a distinct advantage. Since our country is so small, it would be easy to monitor and enforce the rule of law given competent oversight. This is where the British continue to fail miserably - while primarily benefiting the self-interest of a few. Again, more in a future article.

In my opinion, Mr. Romeo needs to be a vociferous advocate for the rule of law for all Montserratians and foreign officials. When the British fail to assist in this regard, Mr. Romeo must be willing to publicly call attention to the lack of meaningful support. Finally, Mr. Romeo needs to communicate, communicate, communicate. Maybe only then will the electorate trust enough to speak out.

Note: David McKeand studies ethics and has degrees in Linguistics, Political Science and Management. He lives in Montserrat.

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