Wed | Jan 23, 2019

Editorial | Overhaul Parliament’s Standing Orders

Published:Friday | December 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Tuesday's brouhaha between the Government and Opposition over whether a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was properly convened should serve as a reminder of the unfinished business of entrenching the leadership of other parliamentary committees, which should include, we feel, a broader overhaul of the rules that govern the legislature.

In the event, we are surprised that Prime Minister Andrew Holness determined it to be in his remit to, if not instruct, urge House Speaker Pearnel Charles to "investigate this matter thoroughly and have a report tabled in Parliament for the next sitting". For we had always presumed that matters relating to the management of the House were within the authority of the Speaker, to be guarded jealously.

In some quarters, of course, this observation may be characterised as nitpicking against the PM in a circumstance where he was attempting to establish calm. However, in the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, on which our own is modelled, the Speaker, from whichever party he originates, is assumed to be above the fray and is expected to act with complete impartiality. It is this presumption, underpinned by his behaviour, that enhances his authority. Respect for the office has the potential of being undermined, as Mr Charles is assumed to be subject to the direction of the prime minister.

There are two contentious aspects of the immediate issue: whether its chairman, Mark Golding, acted within the rules in convening the meeting, and whether the leader of government business in the House, Karl Samuda, had the power, which he purportedly sought to exercise, to instruct parliamentary staff to withdraw their services from the meeting. There are the background political noises to this contention.

First, there is the auditor general's report that appears to have uncovered both misfeasance and malfeasance at the Petrojam oil refinery, which is proving deeply embarrassing for the Jamaica Labour Party administration and which the opposition People's National Party is keen to exploit. That report, having been tabled in Parliament, by our interpretation of the Standing Orders of the House, falls within the terms of reference of the PAC for review.

Mr Golding, in a round-robin, via email, sought to schedule Tuesday's meeting. There is dispute over whether he had a majority agreement, especially in a situation where most government members wanted to avoid an early session. There is also the matter of whether the declaration of the Standing Orders that a select committee "shall not have power to delegate any of its functions to its chairman" should be interpreted to include convening meetings, even if a quorum is available.

 

Oversight committee chair

 

The other factor of dissonance was the attempt earlier this year by the Government to end the convention of the last dozen years of most parliamentary oversight committees being chaired by opposition members. The administration's concern was that this was being used to discomfit the Government. The Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), whose hearings triggered the auditor general's investigation of Petrojam, exacerbates this fear.

But as Bruce Golding, the former JLP prime minister who expanded opposition chairmanship of parliamentary committees, argued, the approach is eminently sensible. " ... Someone who is to be held accountable cannot credibly be held accountable by himself," he said. In any event, Mr Golding noted, there is a limit to the chairman's influence, given that the majority membership of these committees resides with the Government.

The former PM's suggestion that the right of opposition chairmanship to the oversight committee be declared in the Standing Orders should be done with urgency. At the same time, there should be a review of the Standing Orders to allow greater flexibility in parliamentary debates and encourage more, and thoughtful, interventions, especially by backbenchers. Ministers might be held to greater account. The rules should also make it easier for private members to table, and get action on bills, and motions.