Sun | Jun 20, 2021

Editorial | Get going on impeachment bill

Published:Wednesday | May 5, 2021 | 12:20 AM

USUALLY, THEY are not directly voted down. Private members’ bills, especially those by the Opposition, tend to languish, in perpetuity, in legislative purgatory. Which, in the normal scheme of things, is what you would expect to happen to the bill for the impeachment of legislators tabled last week by Mark Golding, the opposition leader.

A confluence of circumstances, however, could save Mr Golding’s bill from a long fate of suspended animation, neither rejected nor debated. First, the George Wright affair – the case of the governing party MP who has been granted two months leave from Parliament to attend supposed “urgent matters”, but suspected of being one of the characters in a viral video of a man severely battering a woman – has reignited public calls for laws for the impeachment or recall of legislators whose conduct bring the House and the Senate into disrepute.

Public outrage over the video and Mr Golding’s ability to get his bill debated might not have counted for much. Except that the draft law, but in one very important respect, is almost identical to the one that was on the table of the House a dozen years ago, at the instigation of a government headed by Mr Golding’s namesake, Bruce Golding, whose party is now again in office. Moreover, the current prime minister, Andrew Holness, was a minister in Bruce Golding’s administration and who succeeded him as leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

In the circumstances, it could well be interpreted as a slap in the face of the JLP’s former leader should Mr Holness not allow the revised bill to proceed to the floor of the House for review and debate. It would raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to accountability, given his frequent declarations about holding ministers and JLP officials to high standards of public trust.

Indeed, this ideal of public accountability formed the theme of Bruce Golding’s politics when he walked out of the JLP in the mid-1990s, and the backdrop against which he returned in 2002 before leading the party to an electoral victory five years before. The impeachment bill was among his signature bits of legislation aimed at giving expression to enhanced accountability. Ironically, Bruce Golding imploded under the weight of the Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke scandal. That was the case of the Jamaican Government and the ruling party lobbying the United States not to extradite Mr Coke, a strongman in Mr Golding’s then West Kingston parliamentary constituency, for running guns and narcotics.

Ostensibly, Jamaica was concerned that Mr Coke’s constitutional rights were violated in how the Americans acquired their evidence.

In the event, Bruce Golding’s bill was primarily concerned with legislators who engaged in the theft of public resources, persistently neglected their duties as MPs and senators, or abused their privileges so seriously as to render them “unfit to continue to hold that or any office, of which the holder performs a public function; or bring the office held by the person into disrepute”.

That bill went into hibernation after the JLP lost office in late 2011 and was not revived when the party returned to power in 2016. On the face of it, however, the bill in its original form would not readily address the issues that now command public attention: the intersection of, or demarcation between, a legislator’s private/domestic conduct and her/his public responsibility.

Mark Golding’s amended version contains a wide, seemingly sufficient all-encompassing clause to deal with that perceived shortcoming. Under his bill, legislators could be held to account for “egregious conduct or other misbehaviour unbefitting of the holder of the office of senator or member of parliament, which is so serious in nature as to render the holder of the office unfit to hold that office; or bring the office held by the person into disrepute”.

A member of parliament caught, or accused of, significant domestic violence, including severely pummelling his or her partner, could conceivably, on the basis of that clause, be taken before the legislature’s ethics committee and the proposed impeachment tribunal.

HIGHER LEVEL OF ACCOUNTABILITY

As we have noted before, this newspaper believes that legislators, given the unique positions they hold and their power to control people’s lives, owe a higher level of accountability, including in personal conduct, than ordinary citizens. But setting the appropriate bar should be a product of robust debate. That is why Mr Holness should, as a matter of urgency, ensure that the revived and revised bill is sent to a joint select committee of Parliament.

We expect that committee hearings will highlight several other issues that should be addressed in the law, some of which might be difficult because of constraints to amending the deeply entrenched clauses of Jamaica’s Constitution. One matter which would not face such an obstacle is our previously proffered suggestion that a restructured Office of the Political Ombudsman, to be called the parliamentary conduct Commissioner, should be made a standing, independent investigator of complaints against legislators, including matters raised by private citizens. The remodelled office would broadly mirror the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the UK Commons.