Lambert Brown, Contributor
'Ignorance is no excuse against the law' is a maxim which guides our legal system. One cannot claim as a defence for breaking the law that one did not know that such conduct was unlawful.
Once Parliament passes a law and it gets the assent of the governor general and is gazetted, that is the law. It matters not that you never saw the gazette. The law requires that you must always be aware of the action of your Parliament.
Most Jamaicans alive today have never seen a copy of a gazette or even know what it looks like. It is, therefore, understandable that many Jamaicans may not be aware of most laws passed in our country and how those laws affect them.
We have seen recent cases of the police unlawfully locking up a man for breaching a law that no longer exists because Parliament had repealed such a law several years ago. In recent times, some of our judges have also acted wrongly in allowing certain payments to people with cases in court. The judges believed that they had the power to do so - not knowing that the law giving them that power was repealed.
Our parliamentarians who make the laws should never be able to claim ignorance of the law. They should always know what the laws say. You would not believe it, however, when you listen to some of our current crop of parliamentarians.
Less than two years ago, our Parliament passed a law to allow the Government to withdraw money from any public body to assist the national Budget. That law is titled the Public Bodies Management Accountability (Amendment) Act, 2011 (PBMA).
The current debate over proposed withdrawal of funds from the National Housing Trust (NHT) raises questions as to whether some of our current and former parliamentarians are suffering from Alzheimer's disease or are simply dishonest and hypocritical. The PBMA Act says that "public bodies may be requested by the financial secretary to pay a special distribution into the Consolidated Fund".
That is what is in the law piloted through Parliament by Mr Audley Shaw on behalf of the Bruce Golding-led Cabinet. Under that law, the National Housing Trust is defined as a 'public body'. The NHT can be called upon to make a special distribution to the Government's Budget.
In December 2010, the Ministry of Finance, then headed by Mr Shaw, wrote to the NHT informing it to make provision for this financial distribution to the Budget because the law would be passed in 2011 allowing such exaction. This is a fact that Mr Shaw will find in a letter dated December 6 from his ministry addressed to the then chairman of the NHT, Mr Howard Mitchell. That letter was duly delivered to, and deliberated on, by officials of the NHT.
Clause 23 of the PBMA Act made it abundantly clear that "any other law or enactment to the contrary, where the other law or enactment raises any inconsistency between this act and that provision in relation to the operations of any public body, the provisions of this act shall prevail".
In fact, Mr Shaw, on debating this law in Parliament on June 7, 2011 reaffirmed "the general supremacy" of this law over all other dealings with public bodies. With this new law, there would be no legal obstacle that could now stop Mr Shaw and his Government from using the funds from public bodies like the NHT if it was so minded.
Clearly, the Golding Cabinet did not take this law to Parliament if they had no intention to use it. The general election of December 2011 intervened. Many believe that but for the general election, Mr Shaw and the rest of the then Cabinet would be doing the same thing this Government is now doing.
Let us not forget that bitter medicine was promised by Mr Andrew Holness. As a member of the Cabinet, he no doubt knew how parlous the country's economy was, consequent on the failure of all IMF tests since September 2010.
New taxes and additional revenue from public bodies like the NHT were going to be a critical part of the cocktail of measures described as bitter medicine. The imposition of general consumption taxes on basic foods and other exempt items consumed mostly by the poorest sections of our population were to be part of the mix.
Maybe less would be taken from the NHT, but the poor would be drenched with the unpalatable and bitter medicine. That appears to be the fundamental difference between the Government and Opposition as both were faced with imposing the same IMF conditionalities.
It is in defence of the poor and the middle classes that Portia Simpson Miller earns great credit for skilfully navigating the country away from social unrest that some were eagerly planning. The prospect of a real national social partnership is within grasp and the implementation of a growth strategy is indeed possible. A brighter future is possible for Jamaicans if the Government turns the sacrifices of our people into growing the economy.
The sacrifices being made by the public-sector workers, pensioners, some in financial sector, and others through the NDX has been acknowledged by the prime minister. She understands that there is no painless path in taking Jamaica out of the debt trap in which we are now encaged.
The recent article on the NHT by Bruce Golding, in which he proposed a "another way that would have been painless", is in the same league as those who are hypocritically claiming ignorance of law like the PBMA Act. Golding, in 2009, said, "The adjustments we must make are not all going to be easy or painless." Now like magic, he has found a painless way.
The country deserves some honesty, and opinion makers have a duty to give our people the facts always and stop playing on their ignorance.
Lambert Brown is a government senator and president of the university and Allied Workers Union. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.