Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Editorial | Why PNP senators should resign

Published:Sunday | April 2, 2017 | 4:00 AM

Mark Golding, the leader of opposition business in Jamaica's Senate, is a politician whom we tend to think acts on principle.

That's why we are surprised at Mr Golding's statement that the People's National Party's (PNP) senators will decide "in a couple of weeks" whether to resign, given Peter Phillips assumption of the presidency of their party and leadership of the Opposition.

Frankly, this is not an issue whose determination requires a caucus of the eight PNP senators. It is a matter of principle, which should lead each member to have a letter of resignation on Dr Phillips' and the governor general's desks by tomorrow, when PNP members in the House of Representatives are expected to confirm to the GG that Dr Phillips is their leader.

This, broadly, is the principle to which this newspaper adhered in 2013 during the Arthur Williams affair when Andrew Holness, then the opposition leader, used presigned letters to purportedly effect the resignation from the Senate of Mr Williams and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) colleague, Christopher Tufton.

The current situation and what happened three years ago are not exactly congruent. But they underline the need for changes to the composition of the Senate, including the right of the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition to fire members who they appointed, but in whom they no longer have confidence.

 

Challenged leader

 

In 2013, Mr Holness, now the prime minister, was challenged as leader of the JLP by Audley Shaw, the shadow finance minister, who now has the job in Mr Holness' Government. Mr Holness won the contest and asked for the resignations, en bloc, of his Senate appointees. When Mr Williams and Dr Tufton declined, the JLP leader used letters they had previously signed to effect the deed.

Mr Williams challenged the action and prevailed in the courts. Not only did Mr Holness have no power of agency in the matter, there is no provision in Jamaica's Constitution for a leader to remove a senator once appointed.

That constitutional provision needs attention. It is based on the presumption of the Senate as a thoughtfully deliberative body whose members will be above narrow partisanship. So, a leader would consider carefully when making appointments.

There is merit to that argument. Indeed, there are many examples of Senate interventions leading to substantive amendments to bills. However, the Senate is also a political chamber where fundamental government policy - opposition ones, too - can be undermined by recalcitrant members no longer in step with their party, or the leader who appointed them.

A new leader, therefore, should have a free hand to choose senators in whom he has confidence. Those appointed by a previous leader should give him/her the opportunity to do so.

This does not undermine the need for independent voices in the Senate. In that regard, we repeat our suggestion that Jamaica, like Trinidad and Tobago, increase the membership of its Senate - they have 31 to Jamaica's 21 - and allow the governor general to, in his own right, appoint up to a fifth of the body.

In that way, balance could be maintained between the Government and Opposition on regular issues, but with either side, if voting along party lines, needing to convince independents to carry votes that require special majorities.