Editorial | Gov’t should relent on House committees
They need not have the juicy morsels such as have been revealed about Petrojam at the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PACC), for chairmen of parliamentary committees to fashion them into bruising rings for governments.
So, we understand why Andrew Holness' Government wants to reverse the policy of the past decade of having all of the committees of the House chaired by members of the Opposition. We are, nonetheless, convinced that Bruce Golding, the former prime minister, and Mr Holness' predecessor as leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), was not only right about the change he made in 2007, but that it has proved its worth.
Until Mr Golding's administration, Jamaica's parliamentary committees, except the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) - which Parliament's Standing Orders say should be chaired by an Opposition MP - were, like those of most other legislatures, led by governing party members.
Mr Golding would have been in no doubt about the risks of having most committees chaired by the Opposition. In opposition, he had the evidence of Audley Shaw's chairmanship of the PAC, the committee that reviewed government expenditure, and the platform from which the then shadow finance minister probed cases of mismanagement or misallocation of public resources and/or allegations of pure corruption. Mr Shaw became famous for unearthing scandals.
Mr Golding's motivation, however, was the pursuit of what, at one point in his public life, especially during a seven-year hiatus from the JLP, was his declared agenda: the overhaul of political institutions to make them more transparent and accountable and to improve their quality of governance.
There is little doubt that, with regard to the chairmanship of the parliamentary committees, the experiment was a success. No one would question that there are times when political opportunism has crept into the management of parliamentary committees, including their use by the chairs to embarrass governments.
But it is without question that Opposition chairmanship of the committees has led to a more robust review of the subjects they cover and encouraged a higher-quality debate and a greater level of transparency in public affairs. Indeed, the quality of discourse at committee meetings - partisan barbs notwithstanding - tends to be of a much higher standard than obtains in the House as a whole.
Mr Golding's failure, and the People's National Party's (PNP) when it subsequently formed the government, was not to enshrine automatic chairmanship of the standing committees by Opposition members in the standing orders, or rules of the House. The convention was that chairmen were agreed by both sides of Parliament, and then confirmed by a resolution.
That obtained for the first two years of the Holness administration, until earlier in 2018 when the then acting leader of government business in the House, Everald Warmington, moved a resolution that, essentially, would mean reverting to the system for selecting committee members and chairmen that existed prior to the Golding reforms. That resolution, if it carried, would have effectively vitiated an earlier carryover resolution that maintained, intact, the committees from the previous parliamentary year. In the face of Opposition complaints, the Government withdrew Mr Warmington's resolution.
It is a moot issue whether, in the face of the withdrawal of Mr Warmington's motion, the earlier carryover resolution remains in force and if the Opposition could attempt to hold meetings of the dormant committees.
The larger issue, however, remains deadlocked. The senior minister and House leader says that the administration "feel(s) strongly that committees which deal with policy of the Government ought properly to be chaired by ... Government member(s)". Neither he nor any other member of the administration has provided the deeper logic for their argument.
In an environment where perception of official corruption is widespread and confidence in the national institutions low, Opposition-led parliamentary oversight of the agencies of Government is a small, even if uncomfortable, and sometimes even unfair, price to pay if it helps to improve official behaviour and thereby enhance trust.