Editorial | The PM’s quietude and Mr Golding’s recall bill
Given his oft-declared commitment to rectitude in his party and Government, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has been strangely quiet over the George Wright affair. He has acted by proxy, whether in the decision to remove the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) whip from the member of parliament, without expelling him from the party, or in suggesting to Mr Wright that he seek leave of absence from the House, while dealing with accusations that he is a woman beater.
In breaking his silence, and speaking in his own voice on the matter, Mr Holness should also update Jamaicans about his stalled, if not forgotten, governance agenda. He should also offer his views on growing calls for the revival of a bill that would allow for the impeachment of MPs, first tabled a decade ago by former prime minister and Mr Holness’ predecessor as JLP leader, Bruce Golding. We expect that he will do so in Parliament today.
Among the critical matters about which the Government’s current thinking and intentions are due is the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica’s final court, which, although it is not required, Mr Holness had promised to put to a tough-to-pass referendum. There is, too, the question, on which there is political consensus, of removing the British monarch as Jamaica’s head of state and replacing the Queen with a non-executive president. Nothing has been heard in recent times on these and other constitutional and government issues, which the administration promised would be subject to the grand plebiscite.
ACCOUNTABLE FOR CONDUCT
The George Wright matter had reignited and added new urgency to the debate over what, and how, legislators should be held accountable for their conduct.
Mr Golding’s 2011 bill did not contemplate domestic abuse by legislators. Its context was primarily a concern over the abuse and capture of taxpayers’ resources by public officials for private gain. It proposed amending the Constitution so that legislators could be censured or expelled from Parliament, on the recommendation of a standing impeachment tribunal of non-parliamentarians, on the basis of articles forwarded to it by a joint parliamentary impeachment committee. Among the proposed offences for which a legislator could be sanctioned were:
• corruption or misappropriation of public funds or property;
• refusal to exercise, or persistent neglect of the exercise of, the duties or responsibilities of office;
• abuse of official authority; or
• deliberately misleading, or intentionally abusing, the privileges of Parliament, so seriously as to render them unfit for office.
None of these offences would, on the face of it, apply to the person – who Mr Wright has neither confirmed nor denied is him – captured on a video battering a woman, even if the conduct did in fact bring “the office held by the person into disrepute”. It is against this backdrop that there are now suggestions for a revised law with offences sufficiently broad to capture conduct of the type in the viral video.
This newspaper believes that these issues deserve a robust debate so as to ensure a right balance between the maintenance of due process, appropriate and reasonable expectation of the private behaviour of people who hold public office, while ensuring that there is no pass to high position for people with abusive behavioural traits of the kind captured on the video.
Should the Golding proposal be resurrected, the discussion should also centre on a more efficient and arm’s-length arrangement for making complaints, the penalties that should flow from ‘guilty’ verdicts for misconduct, the role the public should have in bringing complaints against legislators, and the mechanisms for a seamless completion of the process.
The Golding proposal was for complaints to be sent to the parliamentary impeachment committee for a preliminary hearing by a slew of public officers, or by three MPs, supported by a petition signed by at least 1,000 people. There is no apparent avenue for direct complaints by individuals.
This newspaper feels that a better approach would be for an initial investigation of complaints by a reconfigured Office of the Political Ombudsman – which would be renamed the parliamentary conduct commissioner – which could hear complaints from private individuals and determine whether they are worthy of further action.
The 2011 bill, if it became law, could have caused legislators to be censured or expelled, or barred from holding some public offices for a time, or indefinitely. This is worthy of significant discussion to ensure that there is a match between punishment and offence, and that voters are not only disenfranchised.
In this regard, the mix of considerations might include the British model of MPs convicted of crimes, or suspended from the Commons for 10 sitting days, being automatically subjected to a recall petition, which, if signed by at least 10 per cent of the registered voters in the affected constituency, leads to a by-election.