Mon | Oct 26, 2020

Editorial | Bad move on parliamentary committees, PM

Published:Friday | October 2, 2020 | 12:18 AM

Except for the Government’s most earnest and uncritical supporters, Prime Minister Andrew Holness will be hard-pressed to convince Jamaicans that what he realised this week in scrapping the Opposition from the leadership of some key parliamentary committees was anything other than the culmination of a ploy started nearly three years ago.

The difference this time is that the administration is emboldened by the big majority (49-14) in the House after last month’s general election. Most people will cast the PM’s arguments about the inefficiency in the functioning of the committees as disingenuous red herrings. For if having committees meeting more frequently was the crux of the issue, there were other, less offensive cures for the mischief. There are provisions in the Standing Orders it could apply.

The committees in contention are those for Public Administration and Appropriations (PAAC), Economy and Production, Internal and External Affairs, Infrastructure and Physical Development, Human Resources and Social Development – established by the P.J. Patterson administration in 1999 in the aftermath of riots over increased petrol prices. The idea was to enhance the Government and, critically, to ensure that tax policy was subject to review before implementation.

These committees were initially all chaired by government members, until Bruce Golding, Mr Holness’ predecessor as leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), flipped control during his 2007-2011 administration. Opposition chairmanship of the committees continued during the People’s National Party (PNP) administration of 2011-2016 and remained so when the JLP returned to office, under Mr Holness, in 2016.

NOT CODIFIED

The arrangement, unfortunately, was not codified in the Standing Orders. It emerged in Mr Holness’ last stint that the convention was not solid. Two years into Mr Holness’ administration, in early 2018, there was an attempt, spearheaded on the floor of Parliament by then acting House Leader Everald Warmington, to overturn opposition leadership and install government members as the chairmen. In the face of pushback, the administration retreated, but not for long. For in October 2018, the Government under the then House leader, Karl Samuda, revived the effort. The administration, he said, “feels strongly that committees that deal with policies of the government members ought properly to be chaired by government members”.

Pushback again, including by Mr Golding, stalled the scheme. “There is, of course, the possibility that the Opposition chairman will use his/her position to embarrass the Government, but such is the thrust and interplay of a parliamentary democracy,” Mr Golding wrote in this newspaper. “It is the responsibility of the Government to seek to ensure that there is nothing about which it can be embarrassed. That is what checks and balances are about.”

The Opposition had in fact used the platforms of the PAAC and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to embarrass the Government. It was in these committees that schemes were revealed that led to the firing and, ultimately, the arrest for alleged fraud of Education Minister Ruel Reid, members of his family and the president of the Caribbean Maritime University, Fritz Pinnock. It was these committees’ probe, too, that caused the auditor general’s, and later, the Integrity Commission’s investigations into wild spending and nepotism at the Petrojam oil refinery that cost the then energy minister, Andrew Wheatley, as well as several senior officials at the refinery, their jobs.

Prime Minister Holness argues that the Opposition spent most of their time on the PAAC and the PAC and almost none on the other committees. That, he says, was to the detriment of a broader oversight of the Government, including reviews of policies from which the administration might gain advantage. Which would not have aligned with the Opposition’s intent.

GREATER TRANSPARENCY

We hear the Opposition’s various counterarguments, but accept the prime minister’s claims about motive at face value. Our question, though, is whether in Jamaica’s circumstance and the Government’s massive advantage in Parliament, which brings a greater demand for transparency, Mr Holness has employed the best fix. We think not.

He is right that there are many issues in the Government and its agencies that would benefit from committee reviews. But also, it is not the tradition of our politics for government members to be robust in the oversight of their own side.

In any event, if Mr Holness is really concerned, he isn’t sufficiently taking up issues, there’s an easy remedy: just refer the matters to them, with timelines to complete the job. Indeed, among committees, only the PAC and the PAAC, based on the language in their terms of reference, appear to have almost unfettered control of their operations. Standing Order 77 (7) says: “The deliberations of a select committee shall be confined to the matter referred to it by the House, and in the case of a select committee on a bill, to the bill committed to it and relevant amendments”.

Further, the Standing Orders set out the quorum at committees meetings as well as procedures for selecting chairmen, in the absence of the regular chairmen, for meetings. Parliament could, as the good governance advocacy group National Integrity Action suggests, establish the minimum number of meetings which committees should hold during a specified period.

That, though, should be a short-term solution. There should be a broader review of the operation of Parliament.