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The Gavel: Backbenchers committee, greater government involvement in public services - are they necessary?

Published:Monday | March 30, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Two interesting suggestions emerged during parliamentary sittings last week, which the advocates feel that if they are embraced, may have far-reaching impact on governance.

One of the suggestions relates to creating a framework in the House of Representatives to allow for greater inclusion of backbenchers in parliamentary affairs.

Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, the member of parliament for East Portland, has given notice of his intention to lead a debate on a motion on the role of backbenchers in the House. He has suggested that a backbenchers' committee be created, which would become a fixture of the Parliament, allowing it to receive reports and to present a unified backbenchers' position on bills, motions and resolutions to the House.

The other suggestion came in the Senate, and was made by returning Senator Dr Christopher Tufton.

Tufton wants the Parliament to seriously zero in on the role the government should play in the provision of various services to the public. His reason for calling for this examination is due to the fact that government is faced with tight fiscal space, limited revenue and yet has to decide how to spend such scare resources.

For Tufton, the way in which discussions take place around the budget only fuels unrealistic expectations. He says that what is proposed to be done does not often get done and the demands are not in keeping with the realities.

Without a doubt, the two proposals are worthy of discussion, but I am unconvinced that either of them is as far-reaching as the proposers seem to think.

Take, for example, Bloomfield's motion. There is nothing that is preventing any backbencher from making any meaningful contribution to the Parliament. There are no barriers to participation or bringing motions to the House. Backbenchers can, and do contribute to debates on bills, and are fixtures of the various parliamentary committees.


Another say in matters


In Bloomfield's mind, if technical and other information were made to reach the backbenchers before a debate is taken, the backbenchers could caucus and present a position to the Parliament, which may enrich the process.

The Gavel, however, is not so convinced about the need for this committee. First of all, there is no guarantee that there will be a large backbench from which a quorum could be formed.

Let's recall between 2007 and 2011 when the Government had a razor-thin majority, and there were few backbenchers on the government side, and nearly all opposition members were spokespersons or junior spokespersons. If there was a backbenchers committee then, the House would struggle to find members.

What Bloomfield should be calling for is greater resources for parliamentarians to do their jobs as legislators. They should be given research assistants and all reasonable support that would enable MPs to make meaningful contributions to debates.

While Bloomfield may not be guilty of this, it is an open secret that government backbenchers have traditionally been afraid to challenge ministers because of fear of victimisation. The backbenchers committee, therefore, would guarantee strength in numbers and allow MPs to hide behind a committee to address issues they would have remained silent on if they had to confront it openly.

If Bloomfield feels this strongly about giving backbenchers a real role in the Parliament, he may, without the need for any formal endorsement by the House, follow the example of the 1922 Committee in Britain.

Also known as 'the 22', it is a committee of backbench conservative MPs. It meets often enough to be a powerful group in the Parliament. Jamaican MPs can do the same and, in so doing, can be the conscience of the Parliament. There is no need for the special committee.

As it relates to Tufton's suggestion, it would appear to me that is what public-sector reform ought to achieve.

The call for a definition of the role of government must go beyond merely defining key areas that the state should be involved.

If there is to be a meaningful review, there must be a commitment to cut out the many unnecessary ministries, agencies, departments and units within the public sector, which are burdensome to the public.

This, however, requires a kind of maturity, both at the political level and in the wider society, to first of all, commit to having an open mind in the discussions, and, thereafter, to accept that government cannot continue to be so big.

A critical step in the process of cutting government is for parliamentarians to engage the process of budget debate in a honest and realistic manner. We need to get to the point where narrow partisanship and populism is shoved to the back of the room during budget debates, and those who advance calls for wasteful spending are treated as if inflicted with leprosy.

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