Edmund Bartlett | Parliamentary oversight strengthened by reforms
Since the prime minister’s recent announcement in the House of Representatives to commence the transformation of Parliament by having government members chair several committees of the House of Representatives, there has been some criticism.
The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration is confident that, once our plans for the transformation of the Parliament are fully explored and implemented, the country will see the need for those changes, based on their effect on the performance of the Parliament. However, misrepresentations of our efforts have appeared which require urgent explanation.
The most explicit of the fabrications is that we are intending to remove the chairmanship of all select committees from the Opposition and replace them with government MPs, in order to protect our administration from exposition.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, by retaining the chairmanship of the two main oversight committees – the historical Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is chaired by the Opposition’s spokesman on finance, and the Public Administration and Appropriation Committee (PAAC) – we are expressing our support for continuing the highest level of oversight that can exist in any democratic society, and exercising the highest level of parliamentary scrutiny.
In the reformation of the Parliament, the historical PAC, which handles reports from the auditor general, and the more recent PAAC, which deals with many aspects of Government, including reports on the performance of the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are chaired by Opposition members.
There is no intention on the part of the Government to interfere with the chairmanship of these committees which are primarily involved with oversight. In fact, by ensuring that the other Select Committees do the job for which they are appointed, and stop meeting intermittently as they are now doing, will reduce the strain on the PAC and the PAAC in ensuring that the Government meets its performance targets and fulfil the need for good government, as they will handle many of the issues for which the PAC and the PAAC are not generally required.
By introducing this method of oversight, the Government is not, therefore, restricting that activity, but ensuring that there is the best possible programme of oversight in place, and the best possible support for the Ministries and MDAs in carrying out the Government’s policies and plan, without the hindrance and long delays which currently stymie our efforts to meet the challenges of economic recovery and social development.
However, we do understand the resistance to change which has handcuffed the Jamaican economy to the slowest possible route to development and delayed much-needed changes to the detriment of the country in general.
This effort to maximise the efficiency of parliamentary committees began with the decision of the then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson administration in June 1993 to create the Economy and Production; Infrastructure and Physical Development; and Human Resource and Social Development committees, to stimulate these essential areas of the economy to meet the public demand. However, all of these committees were chaired by government ministers.
Prior to 1993, the sessional committees of Parliament were confined to housekeeping matters, for example, privileges, ethics and the Standing Orders of the House, or the efficacy of the Chamber and the comfort of the members.
The Standing Orders Committee of the House of Representatives, which is responsible for such changes, in its 1995 report, saw the need for additional select committees – the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) and the Internal and External Affairs Committee (IEAC). The Committee’s recommendations were not disaggregated to indicate the particular resolution from which each item proceeded, and the chairmanship of these committees continued to be limited to Government MPs.
There was no amendment to the Standing Orders to accommodate this change, and the aforementioned report of the Standing Orders Committee made reference to an unresolved similar proposal which was considered by them in 1995: “To provide that each of these Committees be chaired by a Member of the Opposition but with a majority of Government Members”.
The Standing Orders Committee failed to find consensus on the subject of amending the Standing Order, and the Committee returned the matter to the House for its determination. The matter was never resolved, but the practice was accommodated by consensus.
The big point that really needs to be made is that the responsibility of Parliament overall is to enable the effective pursuance of policy, programmes and actions for the benefit of the people. The purpose of Government is to lead that process and to utilise the sources that are available, in the most optimal way, by making decisions that characterise the greatest need for the people, and develop mechanisms for implementation that are transparent, efficient and effective.
But, the result has been that most of these committees have either failed to meet, meet on the rare occasions, or meet often in a climate which is created to unfairly target the Government in its performance while ignoring its efforts to meet its obligations to the nation and its people.
Parliamentary oversight does not necessarily have to be achieved through the chairmanship of the committees by Opposition members. What is required is that the non-executive members sit on the bipartisan committees and share responsibility for their actions and decisions.
- Edmund Bartlett is the leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives and minister of tourism.