Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Editorial | The new parliament with a proviso

Published:Wednesday | August 31, 2016 | 8:00 AM

The Holness administration, it appears, has all but signed off on a long-standing proposal, reprised two years ago by the former government, to construct a parliament building at the grounds of the 50-acre National Heroes Park in Kingston.

"We are going forward with it," Derrick Smith, minister without portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister and the leader of government business in the House, told this newspaper.

We believe that there is consensus that Jamaica needs a new parliament building, or at least agreement that Gordon House, on Duke Street, not far to the south of National Heroes Park, where legislators have sat since 1960, does not have sufficient space. The facilities are sparse, with no committee rooms, a tight library and inadequate private meeting space for MPs and senators.

Or, as Mr Smith put it: "What we have there is just not workable."

Most people have appreciated this for a long time. But parliamentarians have been afraid of approving the money for a new facility for fear of an understandable public backlash. Part of the reason is their appreciation of the public's distrust of parliamentarians, but more important because they know just how slothful Jamaica's parliament has been in the conduct of the people's affairs.

For instance, in its busiest session in decades, 2014, the House managed 57 sittings, each averaging less than three hours, and passed 40 bills. New Zealand's parliament sits around 90 times a year, for longer periods. In Britain, the hours that Commons sat in 2015-16 would translate to nearly 51 full days. Jamaican taxpayers, in the circumstances, would want to be assured that if their money is spent on a parliament it will be put to good use, rather than merely having a showpiece building.

Further, in tough times, with the government's focus on fiscal containment, they also want to be certain that the administration is prioritising correctly and that a new parliament does not equate to more debt. In 2015 when Omar Davies, the former construction and works minister, unveiled the Urban Development Corporation's redevelopment plan for National Heroes Park, including recreational areas, the price tag was approximately J$3 billion - not including, we believe, the building to house the parliament.

 

THE EXTENT OF THE PROJECT

 

So, people have to be told how this project is to be financed. One way, we suggest, is that every dollar spent must be matched by one earned from the divestment of a government entity, such as the government's horse racing promotions company, Caymanas Track Limited, the Norman Manley International Airport, the National Water Commission, or its 20 per cent stake in the light and power company, JPS. Perhaps, too, the administration might consider asking the Chinese government to divert its offer of financing of a new finance ministry in downtown Kingston to the proposed new parliament, although given parliament's larger symbol of sovereignty this is a matter worthy of deeper debate.

If, indeed, the government goes ahead with the redevelopment of National Heroes Park, including the construction of a parliament there, that should not be the extent of the project. It should include the rehabilitation - using the resources of institutions like the National Housing Trust and private-sector partners - of the adjacent, run-down communities of Allman Town and Kingston Gardens, which already have basic infrastructure and houses that can be rehabilitated. In some instances, compulsory acquisition of properties will be necessary.