Thu | Jan 23, 2020

Phillips accuses PM of 'untrue, self-serving' claims about Cabinet secrecy convo

Published:Sunday | October 6, 2019 | 1:00 AM

Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips is taking issue with claims by Prime Minister Andrew Holness that the two political leaders had come to an agreement ahead of the Government's tabling last week of resolutions aimed at increasing the time period for which Cabinet documents are blocked from public access.

In a statement yesterday, Phillips said he was taking the unusual step of directly contradicting the prime minister "regarding his version of a brief private conversation which he held with me behind the Speaker’s chair in Parliament two weeks ago".

Said Phillips: "In a public statement [Friday], the prime minister said ‘I briefed the leader of the Opposition that we would bring an order resolution and that the order resolution would increase [the waiting period] from 20 to 70 years. I explained what had triggered it and that we would want his support, which he agreed to. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone through with it'.”

Holness' comments had come during a media interview in which he attempted to explain the rationale behind the move to amend the Access to Information (ATI) Act and protect Cabinet minutes from public scrutiny for the lifetime of anyone involved or mentioned in those discussions. 

The Opposition leader said, however, that the prime minister's claims about their brief exchange were untrue and "an incomplete and unfaithful representation of the conversation between us".

Phillips said that, when Holness indicated the Government’s intention to change the policy on the period of exemption of Cabinet minutes from 20 to 70 years, he immediately told him the period was too long.

"The prime minister then indicated that 70 years was the international norm. This has turned out to be false," said Phillips, noting that on checking the situation in a number of other Commonwealth jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, he felt the prime minister was not candid in his response.

"It is also clear that the general trend is to move closer to the provisions of Jamaica’s Access to Information Act 2002. At no time did I tell the prime minister that the Opposition agreed or disagreed with his new policy."

Phillips said that, as far as he was concerned, Holness was extending a courtesy in informing him of the Government's intention to change the policy.

"In fact, unlike a constitutional motion, like states of emergency, passage in the Parliament requires only a simple majority. The Government has that majority and does not require the Opposition’s concurrence."

Phillips, who is also president of the People's National Party (PNP), chided the prime minister for the misrepresentation of their conversation and what he said was a breach longstanding conventions with respect to private discussions between parliamentary leaders. 

He accused Holness of attempting to publicly divert attention from a "grievous and unacceptable policy error which has been universally rejected by public opinion".

After the resolutions were tabled in Parliament last week, stakeholder groups vociferously decried the move, with the Press Association of Jamaica declaring it a body blow to press freedom.

With Media Association Jamaica Ltd, Jamaicans for Justice, National Integrity Action and other individuals and civil society groups sharing the concerns, the Government subsequently indicated the resolutions would be withdrawn. 

They were withdrawn from the Senate on Friday.  

Yesterday Phillips noted that the Holness administration had claimed the reason being given for the change was an ATI request for Cabinet minutes covering the 1975-76 period during which the PNP was in power.

"The PNP has no objection to documents for this or any period being provided to any applicant within the law," he said.

"The provisions of the ATI are clear and, in any event, I would not expect any retroactive application of a new policy. It was a PNP administration which passed the Act, in 2002, with full knowledge that there would be full disclosures within the 20 years." 

Phillips said the episode once again revealed a pattern where "the prime minister chooses to breach trust and standing conventions by giving his own untrue and self-serving accounts of private conversations, in an effort to show himself in a positive light".

Said Phillips: "This practice of his, has brought to an all-time low, the trust that ought to exist between parliamentary leaders. In my experience his conduct stands in stark contrast to the behaviour of all previous parliamentary leaders on both sides of the political divide, with whom I have to work.”