Wed | Sep 22, 2021

Editorial | What’s the basis for Wright’s leave of absence?

Published:Thursday | April 22, 2021 | 12:05 AM

THE SPEAKER of the House, Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) owe Jamaicans something more, and better, than their rude and cynical contortions in the George Wright affair. While what has been done may be nominally on the right side of the law, it hardly accords with accountability and transparency.

In the House on Tuesday, Speaker Dalrymple-Philibert announced that Mr Wright, the member of parliament (MP) for Westmoreland Central, would proceed on “leave of absence from this Parliament”, and that she had been advised that he would no longer sit in the caucus of government members. “...As such, (Mr Wright) will not be under the Government’s whip,” she said.

Additionally, the Speaker relented and allowed the Opposition to table a motion calling for Mr Wright’s formal suspension from the House. For that motion to move forward, it will first have to be debated by the House, which, if it agrees, might then send the matter to its committee on ethics for hearings and recommendations.

A number of issues, however, require further and better particulars. Not least of these are the Speaker’s reasons for granting Mr Wright leave of absence, although she might rightly argue that she is under no obligation to offer an explanation. Another obvious question is the basis of the decision to reverse her previous ruling by allowing the suspension motion, if, from a legal standpoint, nothing fundamentally has changed.

INTENSE SCRUTINY

Mr Wright, who was sworn into Parliament last year after the JLP’s landslide election victory, has faced intense scrutiny after a video of a man severely beating a woman went viral. The MP has neither confirmed nor denied that he, as it has been claimed, is the man in the video.

Last week, when the Opposition first attempted to table the motion to suspend Mr Wright, they intended to rely on circumstantial evidence and the JLP’s call for the MP to make himself available for a police interview. Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert rejected the effort, branding the motion premature. The Standing Orders, the rules by which Parliament governs itself, she argued, only allowed the ethics committee to investigate civil or criminal proceedings “being instituted” against a member. Not only were the people in the video not identified, she said, no charges had been brought against anyone.

Subsequently, the police announced that they had closed their investigation without advancing the case. Earlier this month, both Mr Wright and a woman had separately made complaints of assault against each other to the police. But in the wake of the video’s emergence and the public debate of its content, neither would answer questions on whether they are the people in it.

On that basis, if the Speaker’s initial ruling were correct, it would appear that nothing legally has changed, although she has now allowed the Opposition to table the motion. This may be an implicit concession of a procedural error in the initial short-circuiting of the motion. It might have been tabled, but not allowed to go forward by the vote of the majority, if it had no legs to stand on.

What, however, has changed is the JLP’s internal manoeuvres. It announced that Mr Wright would take leave of absence from the party and his duties therein. It also said that Mr Wright would not be sitting with the Government’s caucus in the House, but as an independent member. He was also advised to take leave from the House.

CORDON SANITAIRE

By removing the Government’s whip, the Westmoreland Central MP, effectively placing a cordon sanitaire around him, the JLP, a legal entity, is, on the face of it, for now spared the challenge of acquiescing to public demands for tough action against Mr Wright – and any potential legal backlash therefrom. It is not clear to what extent these were mutually agreed terms and what are the implications for Mr Wright’s future in the party, given that the JLP’s constitution requires that anyone elected on the party’s ticket who crosses the floor or sits as an independent be subject to expulsion.

In any event, the JLP’s, or any party’s internal strategising, ought not to influence the Speaker’s decision-making or rulings. Once a member sits in the Speaker’s chair, he or she is expected to be above the partisan fray. Which is why we believe that Mrs Dalrymple-Philibert should disclose the reasons that Mr Wright gave in his request for leave, assuming that he indeed applied, and the judgement she brought to bear in granting the request. She should say, too, how much time off he was given.

The George Wright affair, as we have argued before, is an opportunity for Parliament to review its governance arrangements, including at what threshold the behaviour of its members in their private lives should impact their worthiness for public duty. Bruce Golding’s stalled 2011 impeachment bill, with the suggestions that have been canvassed in recent days, is a good platform from which to renew this debate.

In the meantime, moral equivalency, tit-for-tat action, or remember-that-you-too-are-vulnerable reminders should not be the basis for holding misbehaving MPs to account, which, unfortunately, was implicit in some of Speaker Dalrymple-Philibert’s remarks on Tuesday.

Complaints and sanctions against parliamentarians should be subject to a transparent process. Once the rules are followed, it should not matter which MP is complained against, or on what side of the House he or she sits.