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EDITORIAL - Opportunism in the Senate

Published:Tuesday | February 10, 2015 | 12:00 AM

It would be unfortunate if the legal issues currently consuming the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) were to deprive the Senate and the legislative process, more broadly, of the services of Nigel Clarke.

In the year he has served in the Upper House, he has added intellectual depth and maturity to the chamber, as well as a capacity to stand above the vulgar partisan fray that is too often a feature of Jamaica's Parliament.

Indeed, Dr Clarke's obligation to reason and doing what is agreed to be in the national interest, rather than grasping at every offer of opportunism, was displayed last week when he broke ranks with his opposition colleagues and voted with the Government on a bill to amend the law that provides tax incentives to people who invest in urban-renewal projects.

Under this 1995 law, an area suffering from urban blight can be designated for redevelopment and the approved developer can receive tax credits on his investments; institutions and individuals who buy bonds to finance the project and approved organisations that lend the money are freed of tax on the income. In addition to other incentives to support such projects, people who lease or rent redeveloped buildings are also entitled to tax credits.

Clearly, this law is good for Jamaica. The amendment allowing the responsible government minister to vary approved special development orders and, if required, to give retroactive effect to arrangements, will add flexibility to the system, which the Opposition apparently believed should be the case. The amendment was passed in the House of Representatives without Opposition dissent. It had Opposition support in the Senate until opportunism trumped reason. This was about no fundamental issue of policy or matter of conscience.

With the vote about to be taken, it seemed to dawn on the Opposition benches that they had more members in the chamber than the government side. But for the timely arrival of a government member and the decision by Dr Clarke, the bill would have been temporarily scuttled, having to make its way back to the Senate from the House. That would have been a waste of time for no obvious reason but political expedience and the embarrassment of the Government.

Fundamental Questions

As the Opposition, Dr Clarke excluded, fiddled with the trivia, it missed the more fundamental questions on why, in two decades, the Urban Renewal (Tax Relief) Act has had so little obvious impact on investment in inner-city renewal when so many Jamaican communities, including the downtown business district, are badly rundown and in need of redevelopment. Indeed, it would be a worthy debate if the Opposition had raised questions about how, specifically, the amendments would enhance the scheme, demanded arrangements to prevent abuse by the minister in varying development orders, and asked about specific projects awaiting these changes.

Dr Clarke's tenure in the Senate, unfortunately, may be in jeopardy given the court ruling that the process by which room was created for his appointment - the use by Opposition Leader Andrew Holness of signed but undated letters of resignation of two JLP members - was unconstitutional. We expect there will be other rounds of legal challenges before this matter is settled, so perhaps we can look forward to more thoughtful interventions in Senate debates from Dr Clarke.