Trevor Munroe | Urgent need for the passage of Impeachment Law
The continued membership in the House of Representatives by Member of Parliament (MP) George Wright reminds us that there is one job in Jamaica where the employer and paymaster have no power whatsoever to fire the employee in under five years, even when the latter commits a “gross misconduct” while in the position. Moreover, even if the employee is charged, arrested, tried and convicted of a crime, he/she need not lose the job if the sentence is under six months. And even if the sentence is more than six months, neither the boss nor the paymaster has any direct say in the employee vacating the job. That job – with near permanent security of tenure under normal circumstances – is the position of member of Parliament of Jamaica. In other words, we the people employ the MP directly or indirectly as well as pay the MP from our taxes, but we have no power to terminate the MP however much he/she may misbehave, underperform, or bring the position into disrepute.
To be fair, our members of parliament and civil society representatives have long recognised that this permanency under all conditions is unacceptable. Going back as far as the 1992 Constitutional Commission, the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Reform of 1995, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) election Manifesto of 2007, and the Impeachment Bill laid by then Prime Minister Bruce Golding in 2011 all recognised the need for provisions to impeach, and through that process, remove a member of Parliament. However, nothing has been done to bring this measure into law. Why? Insufficient, sustained advocacy through the media, through civil society, through bodies like the Church and the private sector, and through MPs who are aware and agree with the need for impeachment.
This is the more unacceptable because impeachment legislation already exists in Jamaica, passed by the very Parliament that is neglecting to apply impeachment to its own members. Let us be clear. If a directly elected mayor of a municipality was to be caught on video or credibly accused of the disgraceful and alleged unacceptable conduct of MP George Wright, the people of the municipality could institute impeachment provisions against the mayor. How come? The Local Government Act 2016, Section 18, passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, grants the people of a municipality with a directly elected mayor the right to impeach the mayor for “gross misconduct” or “dereliction of duty”. Once that impeachment petition is signed by 25 per cent of the electors in the municipality, the petition goes to the minister of local government, and if the minister considers the allegations “substantial and proven”, then he shall submit the petition to the Parliament, where if a majority approves, the mayor is dismissed.
My impression is that this provision giving people the power to impeach an elected official is among Jamaica’s best-kept secrets. That power, however, did not come overnight. The process leading to that 2016 law began in 1993 with the Ministry Paper on Local Government Reform. That Ministry Paper stated its objective to “deepen the democratic process and facilitate the empowerment of citizens … to participate more fully and directly in the process of government and in the management of their own affairs”. This objective was restated in another Ministry Paper in 2003. The journey to the 2016 law included widespread consultations, sustained advocacy, and ultimately, successful representation to put local government in Jamaica’s Constitution. We should also note that the “gross misconduct” for which the people can impeach a municipality’s mayor need not reach the standard of a criminal offence. How can it be logical for our parliamentarians to pass a law empowering a section of Jamaican people to impeach an elected councillor but not empower their constituents to have the same authority to impeach an MP?
RECTIFY ILLOGICAL OMISSION
The opportunity is now to rectify this illogical omission. This opportunity arises from the current epidemic of gender-based violence. While a long-standing stigma on Jamaican society, gender-based violence – most dramatically brought to public attention by the video of the outrageous beating of a female in which MP Wright has not denied being the author – has understandably stirred public outrage. This widespread public concern should not be allowed to dissipate without concrete measures on a wide front to more effectively tackle gender-based violence, particularly by men in power, who, like parliamentarians, should be setting an example of good conduct. The range of measures for which the public should sustain pressure should include:
• parenting guidelines, particularly in the upbringing of young boys.
• more effective social support for women who are victims of this atrocity.
• strengthening of mechanisms to enhance greater gender equality in all spheres of life.
• the passage of the Sexual Harassment Bill.
• the reintroduction, review, and substantial revision of the 2011 “Golding” bill.
Of course, good law will have no positive impact without effective law enforcement. Effective law enforcement is enhanced by appropriate training and professionalism of officers in our justice system as well as by vigilance from an active citizenry.
Impeachment provisions of the kind long-acknowledged as necessary in Jamaica exist in other parliamentary democracies, but much more needs to be done to have those provisions effectively applied in those states. For example, in November 2004, a motion was tabled by a number of British MPs, including then Opposition MP now Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to impeach PM Tony Blair for “gross misconduct” in his advocacy of the war against Iraq in the context of “the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that he was wrong when … he asserted that Iraq was then in possession of chemical or biological weapons”. The impeachment motion was repeatedly retabled, but no parliamentary time was found to debate it before the resignation of Blair as prime minister and member of Parliament in 2007. In South Africa, the country’s highest Constitutional Court had to order the National Assembly to make rules to allow President Zuma to be impeached for the use of state funds to upgrade his private home.
A complementary approach to empowering the people who employ legislators in democracies such as ours is to institute the “right of recall”. This law was passed in Belize, a CARICOM state, in 2010. It empowers the electors to cause an election to remove the elected representative once 30% of the electors in a constituency sign such a recall petition. This does not require the majority of the Legislature to approve. In 2015, the British Parliament passed a law providing for 10 per cent of electors in a constituency to recall their MP under certain conditions.
The justifiable outrage of our people at being totally helpless in removing a parliamentarian – whom we employ and pay – demands that 30 years of talk be converted into an effective provision to impeach parliamentarians who commit acts of “gross misconduct” even when it does not lead to a charge or conviction of a criminal offence. We the people – leaders of the Church, private sector, civil society, student and youth groups, musicians and entertainers, women’s organisations, well-thinking parliamentarians, “the man in the street” – should not allow this crisis to pass without petitioning the Government to act with urgency to bring back to the Parliament impeachment legislation for debate and passage.
Professor Trevor Munroe is principal director, National Integrity Action. Send feedback to info.niajamaica.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.