The importance of protecting the Senate process

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

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Today we return to the issue of sexual abuse allegations which have been raging in the United States around the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh — President Donald Trump's pick for the Supreme Court.

One of the problems of a democracy with two established and entrenched political parties is that the party holding the majority of seats in parliament can exercise political power in a manner not dissimilar to that of a dictatorship.

The check on this type of use of political power are several and they are built into the constitution. For example, the role of the judiciary is a check on the parliament and/or the executive. More important is the political culture in which consensus-building through dialogue and public opinion must have a vital role.

Civil debate among rival political parties is often sacrificed to acrimony when there is a serious philosophical divide between the political parties, as is the case with Mr Kavanaugh. When political power is at stake, and there is a fundamental ideological difference, it can produce a self-induced myopia which ends up with members voting along rigid party lines.

One of the most admirable qualities of the political system in the United States of America is the tradition that members of Congress can vote their conscience and not subject their views to the immutable dictates of adhering to the positions of their political party. This is particularly the tradition in the Senate, and it is aided by media coverage allowing the public to see and hear the conduct of their representatives.

This admirable quality of American democracy seemed somewhat strained in the current Kavanaugh hearings in the US Senate in which both sides appear to have assumed very rigid positions.

That situation was salvaged somewhat by departing Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona who, while toeing his party line, joined Democrats and the American Bar Association in demanding a further investigation of the candidate by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

In doing so he exhibited the best of American democracy and was complemented by the calm and immediate decision of President Trump to order the FBI to conduct the investigation. Senator Flake could be said to have rescued the credibility of the Senate process.

There are some lessons to be learnt from the process.

First, whether a candidate is approved or rejected, the integrity, transparency and credibility of the process is of paramount importance and should not be overshadowed by political party quibbling.

Second, political tribalism must never be allowed to put in jeopardy the confidence of the public in the fairness of the democratic process.

Third, the vital role of the media in democracy is integral.

Fourth, the issue of the sexual harassment of women must never be subject to partisan fights. In the instant case, Judge Kavanaugh could come out as much the victim as his accuser.

Here in Jamaica, we must approach debate about sexual harassment with a cool head, as the women — and men — who are victims are not of only one party.

We are pleased to note that at long last, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment draft Bill in Jamaica is reportedly ready to be signed off. Let's keep moving on it.

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