Editorial | Heading for governance mistake
Perhaps the most welcoming aspect of Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ behaviour after his party’s lopsided win in last month’s election was the lack of triumphalism in his victory speeches and his admonition to his side that theirs was a mandate for “integrity and probity in the government”.
This newspaper appreciated Mr Holness’ posture, for as we noted, parliamentary majorities (49-14), such as is enjoyed by this administration, often provide an “impulse to hubris or imperiousness”. That is to be avoided at all costs.
“... It is not difficult for governments, even those with super margins, to have their mandates evaporate when their actions lead to a loss of public trust,” we said at the time. It is an observation we again commend to Mr Holness.
Like many Jamaicans, including a number of influential national institutions, we are concerned by a move that is potentially undermining the pursuit of “integrity and probity” in government and the building of public trust, namely, the removal of the chairmanship of several important parliamentary committees from the Opposition and placing them in the hands of government members. The Opposition will continue to chair the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC). The former would be difficult to change, given the age-old convention of its chairmanship, now cemented in the rules of Parliament; and the crassness of any move against the latter would be too obvious.
Legally, the Government is in a seemingly unassailable position with the appropriation of the chairmanships in question. The leadership by the Opposition, instituted by Mr Holness’ predecessor as leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), is not legislated in Parliament’s Standing Orders. Although it was practised across three administrations, that,perhaps, is not long enough to declare it an irrevocable convention. Further, it is to be recalled that Mr Holness’ previous administration twice attempted what has now been done. Additionally, those with solely a majoritarian construct of democracy will insist that elections have consequences, including Mr Holness’ right to proceed.
We, however, aver to Mr Golding’s argument of 2018 when the administration conspired to a similar event at a time when the PAC and the PAAC were beginning to unearth damaging revelations against the Government. “There is, of course, the possibility that the opposition chairman will use his or her position to embarrass the Government, but such is the thrust and interplay of a parliamentary democracy,” he said. “It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that there is nothing about which it can be embarrassed. That’s what checks and balances are all about.”
The Government frames its position on the committees against which it moved not explicitly on their ability to embarrass the administration, but rather on their failure to highlight its achievements. The Opposition, that proposition goes, focused its attention on the committees - the PAC and the PAAC - that unearthed scandals while being lethargic about the others, which held relatively few meetings to review worthy government policies and projects. We accept the Government’s complaints.
FAR FROM PERSUADED
However, like the governance watchdog group National Integrity Action (NIA), the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, and the Jamaica Council of Churches, we are far from persuaded of either the efficacy or the moral or good-governance value of the proposed fix in a society where trust in political institutions is low, and 70 per cent of the population believes corruption is rife. Only half of Jamaicans (51.2 per cent based on Vanderbilt University’s survey on political attitudes in Latin America) believe wholeheartedly that democracy is the superior form of government, and approximately two-thirds (65 per cent) would tolerate a military coup. Against that backdrop, there is a deep danger of cementing a perception of an effort to hide, whitewash, and cover up.
If the Government so wishes, it can use the provisions of the existing Standing Orders, 77 (7), sometimes invoked in attempts at filibuster, which says: “The deliberations of a select committee shall be confined to the matter referred to it by the House, and in the case of a select committee on a bill, to the bill committed to it and relevant amendments.” In other words, the House, as often as it wishes, can send matters to committees for review and establish timelines for the committees to report.
There are other suggestions for having transparent committees that work without doing violence to Bruce Golding’s worthy legacy for enhancing the oversight of the Government and building trust. Mr Holness should think again.