Mark Ricketts | Has JLP forgotten when it was Opposition?
The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) concludes its annual conference today, and if last week's warm-up at an area get-together was an indication of what's in store, prosperity has arrived and Jamaica has no more pain, no more problems.
So bullish were the PM and members of his Cabinet that they were already salivating over an assured victory whenever the next general election is called. This sense of being untouchable and unbeatable might have prompted them during recent sittings of Parliament to contemplate constricting our democracy by changing the protocol governing the chairmanship of oversight committees.
There are oversight committees in Parliament chaired by the opposition party. These watchdog committees, under both JLP and People's National Party, have been ideal checks and balances in our relatively young democracy. Yet, the current JLP administration has been providing enough chatter and sending enough signals that it intends to do away with this convention.
No, it must not happen! No, we cannot chisel away the modest gains we have made in the thrust and parry of parliamentary politics.
The Gleaner sounded an alarm on Friday, October 19 in its editorial, 'Don't stifle House committees'. It emphasised the importance of parliamentary committees in ensuring transparency, an essential feature of democracy. The editorial highlighted the outstanding work done by Audley Shaw, who was chairman of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) during his party's long years in Opposition.
According to The Gleaner, "Shaw exposed inefficiency and corruption in government ministries, departments, and agencies. He brought a hitherto unknown transparency to Government and, critically, showed people what was possible in parliamentary oversight. The template established by Mr Shaw, echoing the energy and robustness he brought to the PAC, has now been adopted by shadow tourism minister Wykeham McNeill."
McNeill currently chairs the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), where allegations of corruption and nepotism at government entities, such as Petrojam, National Energy Solutions (NESoL), and the Universal Service Fund (USF), came to light.
What should worry us, because it is likely to suffocate some principles of democracy, including transparency, responsibility, and accountability, is that the Holness administration wants the chairmanship of critical committees to revert to government members, even though the government holds the upper hand, as it has the majority on the committees.
The Gleaner editorial validated a similar stance taken by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding in a letter to the editor on the same day as the editorial. The former PM played a major role in choreographing and advancing parliamentary oversight principles and practices that were set in motion by yet another former prime minister, P.J. Patterson.
Golding declared his opinion with strong language: "It goes without saying that someone who is to be held accountable cannot credibly be held accountable by himself." To support his point, he cited the long-established Westminster practice of having the Public Accounts Committee chaired by a member of the Opposition.
In the 1990s, there were parliamentary reforms under his predecessor, Patterson, and several new oversight committees, including PAAC, were introduced.
"It was - and still is - my view that the purpose of these committees (reviewing the operations of government) is similar to that of the Public Affairs Committee and hence should be chaired by a member of the Opposition, a practice which should improve checks and balances and which was instituted under my administration in 2007."
This opening salvo by The Gleaner and Golding to bolster accountability must be maintained. We cannot make the Government weaken our democracy by removing the opposition chairmanship of our parliamentary oversight committees. We have to institute what I call the 'Bryan Sykes effect'.
In a previous column, I pointed out that government, as part of a principled position and as part of good governance, should feel obliged to do the right thing. Whenever it veers off course, the general public must implement initiatives that produce the Bryan Sykes effect.
Readers might recall that when Prime Minister Holness appointed Sykes as acting chief justice, literally putting him on probation to prove his mettle, the entire society was up in arms. The PM would not budge, offering instead, unconvincing justification.
The public would have none of it. Lawyers, talk radio, letter writers, editorial boards, everyday people kept up the pressure until the prime minister capitulated.
REALITY OF GARRISONS
The same has to be done on this occasion. The reality of garrisons and our partisan politics is too vulgar for us not to maintain the important convention of the chairman of the oversight committee being from the opposition party.
Adopting the Westminster parliamentary model of government, we do not have the long history England has in allowing its democracy to be influenced by conventions, rules, procedures, mores, norms, precedent. While we have codified a lot, we are still playing around with what works best for us.
Shaw gave us an insight into what was possible and what was required to strengthen our democracy. Now McNeill, Robinson, Paulwell are standing tall in Shaw's shoes. Would we have ever known about the waste, human resource foul-ups, and the haemorrhaging of millions of dollars in Petrojam and NESoL?
The public has to be vigilant as the Government does its best to undermine the work of committees led by the Opposition and prevent the kind of revelations that have recently embarrassed the Government.
The public also has to be vigilant because the Government moves with stealth to try to push through the change it wants or to smother the work of the committee. It even tries to impede work getting to the committee by claiming the PAAC should only discuss matters referred to it by the House. Can you see a JLP administration referring the Petrojam file to the committee?
Yet another voice, that of Dr Canute Thompson writing in the Sunday Observer of October 28, 2018, opined, "If the Government were to follow through on its plan to change the rules concerning the chairing of parliamentary oversight committees, it would be committing an error similar to what happened with the National Identification and Registration Act. Rather than reversing the practice on the chairing of the oversight committees, a law should be passed institutionalising it."
Beyond these voices, the Bryan Sykes effect must come into play if the Holness government follows through on its proposal. Our democracy must be given a fighting chance to remain robust.