Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Martin Henry: Of wigs and a better Parliament

Published:Sunday | April 3, 2016 | 4:00 AM
Martin Henry
Jermaine Barnaby/Freelance Photographer House Speaker Pearnel Charles created a stir in Parliament when he entered the chamber of Gordon House wearing a wig.
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Apart from the speaker of the House's horse hair wig (which I'll get back to later), several matters of public interest for governance emerged in the sitting of the House of Representatives last Tuesday to vote a carry-on Budget as the second Supplementary Estimates of Expenditure.

The new Budget cycle for 2016-2017 has been delayed by the general election and subsequent change of government.

Parliament, which first convened on March 10 after the February 25 election, had already been off for two weeks without any sittings. This itself is a matter of significance. We have had a lazy Parliament, which I have written about a number of times before. The number of sittings and the number of laws passed by the Jamaican Parliament have been consistently well behind several other Commonwealth countries, even with the pickup in the legislative agenda in recent years to satisfy IMF requirements. But with the measly salary of J$3.5 million for members of parliament, we may be signalling that parliamentary work is merely a philanthropic add-on to members' real business.

The fiscal rules enacted under IMF supervision to enforce fiscal discipline are working. Budgets are now a little more than bits of paper to be constantly revised, racking up more and more debt in the process. The Phillips innovations in the last Government of holding an all-members pre-Budget parliamentary debate and of tabling the expenditure and revenue sides of the Budget together must be continued by Shaw and this Government.

Continuing an old bad habit, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica President's Forum and interviewing journalists there last Tuesday morning were told by the minister of finance about the problems the Government was facing in honouring its income-tax relief campaign promise on the given timeline before Parliament was so advised on Tuesday afternoon. This is dissing the Parliament of the people's representatives. Much as many would like that, or believe that, neither the Pegasus nor the press is the Parliament.

Mr Shaw and the JLP were banking on money from the special consumption tax (SCT) on fuel to plug the hole that the income-tax relief plan would cut in the Budget. The contrived consternation of the minister that the SCT has all been sucked into the Consolidated Fund would be laughable, if not so serious. Where did the education tax go? Remember the bauxite levy starting in the 1970s?

Furthermore, it was Mr Shaw, when previously finance minister, who began the diversion of earmarked portions of fuel taxes into general revenue. I clearly recall that 20 per cent of fuel taxes was to have been put into a Road Maintenance Fund, but Mr Shaw reneged on that promise.

Special funds don't survive in the hands of the Government of Jamaica unless sequestered in a bank safe created as a quasi- governmental statutory body like the NHT or the HEART Trust. And even these are raided!

Mr Shaw's immediate predecessor, Dr Peter Phillips, explained to the Parliament last Tuesday when the matter came up that the SCT was to have been sequestered in an Energy Stabilisation Fund, but the legislation to establish that fund had not been completed by a lazy Parliament. Had it been, the Shaw plan would be nothing less than a raid upon a special fund! Robbing Peter to pay Paul!

Mark you, I am very much in favour of the income tax relief with a $1.5-million threshold despite the expert naysayers mobilised from everywhere. At its very highest, the estimate of revenue foregone is J$32 billion, which is just about five per cent of the 2015-2016 original expenditure budget of J$641 billion. The J$12.5-billion estimate by the JLP in campaign is a mere 1.95 per cent of Budget.

Beyond the numbers, an interesting and significant exchange took place in the Parliament between Mr Shaw and Mr Phillips, presided over by the quaintly bewigged Pearnel Charles. That wig crowning an 80-year-old head represents 800 years of British parliamentary democracy tradition of which Mr Charles seems to be conscious in his resurrection of the richly symbolic wig.

The speaker rarely speaks, but the bewigged Charles used the opportunity of an opening address to plead for parliamentary decorum and seriousness of purpose to set a national example by the nation's Parliament.

He should now get the leaders of Government and opposition business in this era of collaboration and cooperation, to organise a blistering pace for the legislative agenda of the Parliament.

Meantime, obviously taking a dig at the income-tax relief proposal now in a spot of bother, Phillips said, "There is not much play in the Budget. There may be temptation to give up revenues, and certainly, there have been promises made to the public which have significant revenue implications."

"Now is not the time for recklessness, as the country still faces many difficult choices. National interest must prevail over political expediency".

Shaw's reply to sound, if obvious, advice was nothing short of inspiring. "God," he said, "works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. You know why God made us win by one seat ... ? Maybe God Almighty is sending us a message with this small margin of victory, saying 'All of you must grow up and start working together in the interest of Jamaica."

And God must be sending another message as well. In this new era of small margins and one-term governments, God would wish for a government to govern boldly and vigorously in the national interest for the term secured, conscious that there is little guarantee of a second. In the case of this Holness Government, the one term is not even secure, as a single defection will bring down the Government.

In response to Dr Phillips' challenge that the Government make unequivocal declarations about the continuity of critical new consultative institutions for consensus building and collaboration, naming the Economic Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC), and Electricity Sector Enterprise Team (ESET), Mr Shaw assured the Parliament and the nation that he had already consulted with EPOC and was keeping Richard Byles as chairman. ESET had been asked to continue its work, the only issue to be resolved being the political chairman.

The political partisans see everything through party eyes, but in both the 53 per cent voter abstention in the general election and the meagre margin of victory, and of loss, Jamaican citizens are signalling loudly their disenchantment with politicking, and their hunger for good governance in the broad national interest.

The return of the speaker's wig on Charles' head with all that it stands for in history and tradition, and the earnest appeal made from under it, no less than the Phillips-Shaw conversation for consensus and collaboration, point to the prospect of a brighter day for governance.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.