Lazy Parliament to push the legislative agenda
Martin Henry, Contributor
WE HAVE a lazy Parliament. So it was some good news to read in last Tuesday's Gleaner (February 16), "House to focus on laws", that "the Government has stated its intention to advance the legislative agenda of the House of Representatives before the 2009-2010 term ends on March 17".
Professor of Government at the University of the West Indies, Trevor Munroe, has helped us to see just how lazy and laid-back our legislature is. Related to his quest for anti-corruption legislation as head of the National Integrity Action Forum (NIAF), he has assembled comparative data on the number of annual sittings of legislatures in selected Commonwealth countries.
The Jamaica House of Representatives has only managed to sit on average 49 times a year in the five-year period 2004-2005 to 2008-2009, passing an average of 26 acts each year. The election year 2007-2008 had only 36 sittings as members of parliament abandoned Parliament for the campaign trail. The Opposition was right in calling for an early convening of Parliament at the start of the New Year to do the nation's business in the very serious matter of entering a borrowing relationship with the International Monetary Fund. The legislature should not have been missing in action.
But we must note that in the People's National Party's last full parliamentary year in Government, 2006-2007, the legislature met only 46 times, while for the first full parliamentary year of this Government, 2008-2009, there were 56 sittings, equalling 2005-2006.
Mr Anti-Corruption is now in Berlin visiting Transparency International (TI) with a view to forming a chapter of TI here. Behind crime, Jamaicans in polls are now reporting corruption as the matter of greatest concern, and our low ranking on the annual Corruption Perception Index put out by Transparency International has been falling.
The NIAF was launched in January 2009 with Prime Minister Bruce Golding as keynote speaker and with the endorsement of the leader of the opposition. The NIAF brings together the heads of Jamaica's main anti-corruption agencies, including the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Office of the Contractor General, the commissioner of customs, the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the Commission for Prevention of Corruption, the Financial Investigation Division, and the Auditor General's Department.
Removal of impediments
The central purpose which the NIAF has been pursuing is the removal of impediments to more effectively combat of corruption in Jamaica.
Among the NIAF priorities is the passage of legislation providing for political party registration and funding (including disclosure of political contributions), whistleblower protection, the strengthening of the Access to Information Act, and the constitutional entrenchment of the Office of the Contractor General. The forum needs a busy Parliament. This Government came to power pledging to fight corruption harder and better.
Not only is it heartening to hear that the Parliament is going to buckle down to some serious work over the next month, it is also good to see the number of private members' motions on the agenda. "Parliament will make its best attempt," House Leader Andrew Holness declared, "to complete 12 government matters and 44 private members' motions by the end of term [March 16]". Tall order; but the proclaimed seriousness of purpose, if serious, is commendable.
Among the matters waiting to be brought to conclusion is the long-drawn-out bill, "An Act to Amend the Constitution of Jamaica to Provide for a Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms." Mr Seaga and Mr Patterson must be pleased, if they can trust their former parliamentary colleagues, to see the Charter of Rights through as NOW planned.
My working copy of the document is dated 1999. Both men, on different sides of the chamber, have been staunch advocates of the Charter of Rights but retired from the legislature without seeing their dream fulfilled. It is one of those weird situations in our parliamentary history where broad bipartisan consensus has not been converted into legislative action over years.
A significant moment
In its latest resurrection, the bill has been tabled for the constitutionally mandatory period of three months. Wednesday will be a significant moment in our constitutional and political history as the Act to Amend the Constitution of Jamaica to Provide for a Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, replacing Chapter III of the Jamaica Constitution, will be taken for passage into law.
I have previously praised its preamble and criticised some of its provisions. The noble preamble says: "Whereas all persons in Jamaica are as a people entitled to preserve for themselves and future generations the fundamental rights and freedoms to which they are entitled by virtue of their inherent dignity as individuals and as citizens of a free and democratic society;
"All individuals having duties to other individuals and to the communities to which they belong are under a responsibility to respect the rights of others and to strive for the promotion and observance of the rights recognised in this Chapter, the following provisions of this Chapter shall have effect for the purpose of affording protection to the rights and freedoms of the individual, to the extent that those rights and freedoms do not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others or the public interest."
Following modern fashion, our Charter of Rights has set out a whole slew of 'fundamental' rights. The United Nations has 30 in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Americans, soon after their Constitution was established, attached to it a brief Bill of Rights in 10 Articles of Amendment. I would like specifically to bring to the attention of our legislators Article Nine, commended for both its wisdom and brevity: "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
In this political tradition of freedom with responsibility endowed by the Creator, governments do not grant rights but simply recognise inherent rights, which the State is duty bound to protect from infractions both from itself and from other citizens.
Almost by definition, 'fundamental' rights must be few. As desirable as it may be, it cannot be a 'fundamental right' that every child who is a citizen between the ages of six and 15 years [is entitled] to free tuition in a public educational institution, at the primary level [Charter of Rights, Section 13(1)(m)(ii)]. This is a matter for statute law.
There really is no need to explicate the right to a passport on top of the more general right to freedom of movement. Or the right to vote. "The right, compatible with sustainable development, to enjoy a healthy and productive environment" does not mean anything in so far as its key terms, as nice sounding as they are, are purely nebulous.
We have learned from history that the multiplication of 'fundamental rights' does not necessarily mean their better protection. The fast-track work agenda for Parliament also has on it the six anti-crime bills which have been on the order paper since December 2008. Tougher anti-crime measures are bound to bump against constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms. The dilemma is that crime compromises fundamental rights and freedoms; but crime cures can do the same.
The balancing act is going to require thoughtful wisdom on the part of our legislature and citizens. Several objections have already been raised by the Opposition and others, the extension of detention time in custody being one. No rush here, despite the long delays and the urgency of the crime situation.
The matter of legislation for flexible work arrangements, which has been languishing over years, like the Charter of Rights, has not been specifically mentioned as being on the fast track for closure this parliamentary year. A matter of fundamental concern is the right of religious faith and observance.
The announcement of the big legislative push came on the eve of Ash Wednesday and will take place during the period of Lent, running up to Easter. But religious rights are much more than Christian rights, and particular brands of Christianity at that. The Charter of Rights specifically enumerates the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religion, alongside gender, race, place of origin, social class, colour, and political opinions. Flexible work arrangements must protect this fundamental right.
Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Number of annual sittings of the legislature - selected Commonwealth countries.
Australia House of Representatives 68 68
Canada House of Commons 114 115
Ghana 140 140
India LS 74 74
Kenya 86 86
New Zealand House of Representatives 86 91
United Kingdom House of Commons 143 151