Update | Editorial | Bad idea from the start, PM
There is a maxim that we often reach for in the face of obduracy by governments. It is that what’s worse than formulating bad policy, is implementing them. We would add, for the specific circumstances, persisting with the obvious mistake.
In the event, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has an opportunity to recant, and fix, his bad decision of removing the leadership of several parliamentary committees from the Opposition and handing them to members of his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
He should also move post-haste to amend the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives to place beyond doubt the authority of sessional select committees to convene hearings in their areas of jurisdiction, without matters being remitted to them by a vote of the House.
Additionally, as we recently urged her to do, the Speaker, Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, in her role as chair of the House Standing Orders Committee, should urgently begin a broader overhaul of the rules to make it easier for backbenchers, including those on the Opposition side, to contribute to the work of the legislature.
Additionally, Mr Holness, given his big parliamentary majority – 49, or 78 per cent, of the 63 members of the House – should relax the whip, and the expected rigid adherence to the rites of the tribe, to allow backbenchers greater freedom to pursue issues of particular interest. This may mean collaborating with like-minded members of parliament on the Opposition benches.
Our more immediate issue, however, is the matter of the committees: who leads them, and how, and when, they go about their work. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) – which reviews the Government’s Budget as well as reports produced by the auditor general – has always been chaired by a member of the Opposition. So, too, since 2007, is the case of the newer Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), which provides a more granular oversight of ministries, departments and agencies, especially of how they spend money voted by Parliament and of their operational efficiency.
The Standing Orders is explicit - that “all” accounts from public bodies tabled in Parliament “are deemed to be automatically referred to the Public Accounts Committee for examination and report”. It, therefore, regularly has material with which to occupy itself.
The PAAC does not have the same language, although it is usually interpreted to have the same or similar independence of action as the PAC. This is helped by the fact that its oversight is expected to be ongoing during the financial year. This newspaper, however, has long supported a purposive interpretation of the rules, giving all committees far greater leeway to convene hearings, notwithstanding the wording of Standing Order 77A, which says that “a matter may be referred to a select committee” on the vote of at least 16 members of the House.
Given that their work is mostly about following the money, Opposition chairmanship of the PAC and the PAAC is often discomfiting for governments. But that, as Bruce Golding, Mr Holness’ predecessor as leader of the JLP, said, is a small price to pay for transparency and good government. Mr Golding gave expression to that ideal when, in 2007, as prime minister, he placed all the working committees in the hands of the Opposition. The Golding convention remained until last September’s election, but survived as long because of a pushback – including by Mr Golding himself – against a 2018 attempt by the Holness administration to give the control of the committees back to government members.
NOTHING TO DO
Mr Holness was again persuadable in September, saying he intended to give his plentiful backbenchers work to do and that oversight of the Government was not only “the responsibility of Opposition members”. He also argued that previous Opposition-chaired committees, but for the PAC and the PAAC, had met too infrequently.
Yet, as this newspaper revealed on Sunday, in the first four months of the new administration, three of the four major committees, with their governing party chairman, held no meetings. The fourth had met only once. The argument of their chairmen, as well as House Leader Edmund Bartlett, is that the House had set them nothing to do.
Cynical people might claim that the Government achieved its precise end and that things might have continued largely as they were if the committees’ somnolence was not noticed. Mr Holness has an opportunity to right the mistake, including by, if possible, utilising the rule that members of committees “may be nominated” at the beginning of each session, which seems to imply at the start of the parliamentary year.
Government members of the House need not express themselves as chairmen of committees. They can be effective members of them. They can also form themselves into influential committees and cross-party groups, to champion critical issues, such as the scourge of corruption, crime or Jamaica’s relationship with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
We agree with Mr Holness that Mr Golding’s action in 2007 was a “noble gesture”. Noble and nobility are not four-letter words.
Editor's Note: Opposition chairmanship became the convention on the PAAC since 2007.