The Pryce may not be right
Right at the start of the new parliamentary year, alongside Budget deliberations, the Internal and External Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives is to consider a private members' motion moved by the member for North East St Elizabeth, Raymond Pryce.
Under the IMF-induced
fiscal rule, the Budget must be concluded by March 31, the end of the old financial year, instead of beginning on April 1 at the start of the new financial year and then lumbering on over a month or more before conclusion. This makes for tidier public administration.
So the governor general last Thursday read the script of the Government's plans and programmes for 2014-2015. And the minister of finance, for the first time, has tabled together both the Estimates of Expenditure and the revenue side of the Budget. This is sensible budgeting, as is done in private enterprise. You cannot spend what you don't have or can reasonably project to get. The Budget 'Debate' will be shortened and tightened, and in subsequent years, regular members of parliament will have an opportunity in a pre-Budget 'debate' to help shape public
policy, expenditure and income.
The Standing Finance Committee of Parliament, which is the whole House, must take greater charge of the budget process in their examination and response to the Estimates of Expenditure and of revenue. Finance Minister Peter Phillips says he wants Parliament to bear more of the burden of setting the Budget. He should be vigorously taken up on his word. Except that blind partisanship and the long culture of passivity on the back benches will have to be overcome.
The member for North East St Elizabeth, Raymond Pryce, has been one of the more vocal and engaged newcomers to the House. Back in July 2013, incensed over increasing public demands for the public declaration of party financing and campaign financing, Pryce fired back with a private member's motion. His motion called for Parliament to debate the need for legislation that will, at the very least, require civil-society groups, special-interest groups, and lobbies to publicly disclose their source of funding. Not only would this be in keeping with emerging global and ethical requirements, but disclosure would serve the lofty purpose of vouchsafing and protecting Jamaica's democracy from such compromise as could be caused by unknown or tainted sources of funds or hidden agenda.
There are too few private members' motions in the Parliament and the few moved tend to suffer the fate of Pryce's motion - deferred indefinitely and often falling off the order paper. But apart from participating on the Standing Finance Committee, one of the most important functions that an MP can perform is to bring a private member's motion. This has the potential to influence legislation and the policies, plans and programmes of the Government.
Pryce, who is first and foremost a citizen like the rest of us, has exercised his power and responsibility in the privileged position of an elected representative in the Parliament in bringing his private members' motion. Chairman of the Internal and External Affairs Committee, Opposition Member Derrick Smith, says, "We consider Member Pryce's motion extremely important." And so indeed it is. Chairman Smith added: "We note that in recent times, ... a lot more civil groups seem to be coming to the fore. We are not sure how genuine some of them are. We expect them to come to the table, and at the end of the exercise, I believe the committee will be in a better position to understand how they operate, why they operate, how they are funded."
The committee was in its meeting on February 10 extending an invitation to interest groups to make written submissions on their operations to Parliament by February 20, a mere 10 days' response time for those which cared to respond.
Smith's comments explaining the purpose of the parliamentary committee, sincere and noble as they may be, set off an amber alert when taken against the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and the protection and preservation of democracy which Pryce says is his grand intention.
We are not sure how genuine some of these civil groups are, Smith declares. Who are the 'we' who need to be sure of genuineness? And what might be the measure of genuineness, and to be applied by whom?
When the committee arrives at its "better understanding" of how these groups operate, why they operate, and how they are funded, then what? The Devil may be in the absence of details in Mr Pryce's proposition.
So important for the effective functioning of a democracy are civil engagement with the Government and those critical rights to dissent and to protest that when the American designers of their democratic republic came to attach a Bill of Rights to the US Constitution, the first article was made boldly to declare that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Our own Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms guarantees, among
several others, the right to liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom from discrimination on the grounds of political opinions. Providing, of course, that the exercise of these rights and freedoms do not trespass upon the rights and freedoms of others.
Subject to a number of clearly identified restrictive clauses and the wide open provision "save only as may be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society", the charter expressly states that "Parliament shall pass no law and no organ of the State shall take any action which abrogates, abridges or infringes those rights". This is going to be the battlefield of the Pryce private members' motion for funding disclosure by civil-society groups.
Political parties, the demand for funding disclosure by them being what triggered the Pryce motion, are a very special case of a 'civil-society group'. Unlike any other civil-society group, they exist expressly for the purpose of securing state power and forming government under which all the rest of us must live. Ensuring that these political parties are not in the back pocket of any special interest group is absolutely vital for just and democratic governance. Hence the reasonable call for financing disclosure.
But what is to stop Citizen Pryce or Citizen Smith from assuming the grand title of Citizen United for More Private Members' Motions in Parliament and seeking funding from whosoever will to pay for the operations of his group? And to what extent should his operations be pursued by the State without burdening and obstructing his rights and freedoms?
There are existing laws under which such entities can register as charitable and not-for-profit organisations with requirements of filing financial statements. Not to mention that in the cut and thrust and competition of a free society, information on the operation of any organisation can be readily outed. It is the overreaching State that free citizens should fear more.
MP Pryce has raised the risks to democracy posed by unregulated groups with sinister agenda, backed by tainted sources of funds, and manipulated by behind-the-scenes puppeteers. He and the Internal and External Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, and the rest of us citizens outside and inside Parliament, should carefully consider the risks to democracy of the State meddling in the affairs of civil-society groups whose very purpose may be to take the Government to task. We need a serious risk assessment here. Some risks are bigger and more consequential than others. And a lot of bad in this world has come from doing good.
n Martin Henry is a