House Clash over Local Governance Bill
"Something has happened why I have to stand for the first time in seven months," declared a stern Speaker of the House of Representatives Pearnel Charles, who stood yesterday with gavel in hand to quell an uproar and shouting match between members on both sides of the parliamentary divide as they traded barbs over a bill that would have the effect of splitting the Portmore Municipality from the St Catherine Municipal Corporation.
Charles, who earlier, had told members of the House that he felt an air of hostility, seemed to have summed up the mood of members long before Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie rose to introduce the Local Governance (Amendment) Act, a bill that was previously inappropriately placed on the Order Paper of Parliament and was challenged by Leader of Opposition Business Phillip Paulwell, who demanded that the error be corrected.
McKenzie's fresh attempt to have the bill "read a first time" yesterday was first resisted by Paulwell, who cautioned that to introduce the legislation, which speaks to the setting of boundaries in municipalities, without first allowing the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) to review it, would be a fundamental departure from a tradition that parliamentarians have observed for decades.
St Catherine South West Member of Parliament Everald Warmington challenged Paulwell's comments, saying that the Parliament was not seeking to interfere with the ECJ's responsibility. "When they (PNP administration) in September 2015 signed an order outside of this House to create a new boundary in Portmore, nobody knew about. That did not have the oversight of this House ... and that is illegal because all such provisions must be brought before the House."
"Now they come here today (yesterday) on fire because of parish council elections. What you get in February, you going to get again," he said in reference to the election victory the Jamaica Labour Party scored on February 25.
Speaker Charles intervened following extended interventions from members on both the Government and Opposition sides who engaged in verbal clashes. He instructed Clerk to the Houses of Parliament Heather Cooke to read the bill, a procedure that results in its tabling.
However, the parliamentary opposition would not relent as senior legislator Dr Peter Phillips rose to address the Speaker. Said Phillips: "Up until 1979, ministers were to bring any matter of electoral administration to this House. The constitutional power still rests with ministers, but the way in which that power was exercised brought the country to the brink of chaos and civil war."
He warned the Government not to break with tradition by bypassing the role of the ECJ.
"My heart is full. We are trampling on dangerous ground," Phillips cautioned.
Charles then stood, suspending the sitting for seven minutes to give the leaders on both sides time to arrive at an agreement.
When the sitting was resumed, Leader of Government Business Derrick Smith reported that an agreement to refer the bill to a committee of Parliament for deliberation had been reached.
Phillips sought to recant some of his earlier comments, noting that he did not intend to accuse the Government of trampling on the role of the ECJ.
Yesterday, the ECJ, recommended that Parliament delay the passage of legislation that would split the Portmore municipality from the St Catherine Municipal Corporation.