Wed | Dec 1, 2021

Gordon Robinson | Democracy saved in the nick of time

Published:Sunday | November 14, 2021 | 12:08 AM
The good news came Wednesday that the speaker reversed herself and PM Holness decreed ministers must answer questions, regardless of pending investigations...Good on him! Jamaica has been brought back from the brink.
The good news came Wednesday that the speaker reversed herself and PM Holness decreed ministers must answer questions, regardless of pending investigations...Good on him! Jamaica has been brought back from the brink.
On Tuesday last, after intense public pressure, Montague, channeling The Artful Dodger, gave a ‘Statement to Parliament’
On Tuesday last, after intense public pressure, Montague, channeling The Artful Dodger, gave a ‘Statement to Parliament’
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that a speaker has acted politically to muzzle Opposition.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that a speaker has acted politically to muzzle Opposition.
1
2
3

For those wondering what all the fuss was about, here are the 21 questions laid in Parliament by Julian Robinson (on behalf of Mikael Phillips) addressed to Transport Minister Robert Montague:

1. Does the minister retain confidence in the board of the Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) in light of its investment in First Rock?

2. If the answer to part 1 is in the affirmative, can the minister state his reasons?

3. If the answer to part 1 is not in the affirmative, will the minister indicate why the board is still in place?

4. Has the minister met with the board of AAJ since the media reported on its investment in First Rock?

5. If the answer to part 4 is in the affirmative, can the minister indicate what was the outcome of that meeting?

6. Would the minister indicate his reasons for remaining silent on the issue of the AAJ’s investment in First Rock, four months after the matter became public?

7. Can the minister say whether he had asked for any investigation into the investment portfolios of the AAJ and the Norman Manley International Airport Limited?

8. If the answer to part 7 above is in the affirmative, can the minister indicate the following:

a. When was that request made?

b. Has a report been submitted regarding this investigation?

c. What were the results of the investigation?

9. Can the minister indicate whether the AAJ’s shares in First Rock have now been sold?

10. If the answer to part 9 above is in the affirmative, can the minister indicate the following:

a. For how much were the shares sold?

b. Did the AAJ incur any losses in selling the shares?

c. What were the reasons behind the decision to sell?

11. If the answer to part 9 above is not in the affirmative, will the minister indicate the reasons for this decision?

12. Can the minister say whether any AAJ board member was serving as a director of First Rock while serving on the board of the AAJ?

13. If the answer to part 12 above is in the affirmative, can the minister indicate the following:

a. The period of this overlap

b. Whether this overlap was declared.

14. If the answer to part 12 is in the affirmative and it was not so declared, can the minister say whether this was found to be acceptable?

15. Can the minister indicate whether any board member of the AAJ was a shareholder of First Rock at any of the times that the AAJ bought shares in First Rock?

16. If the answer to part 15 above is in the affirmative, can the minister indicate the following:

a. Whether the board member shareholder was also a director of First Rock.

b. Whether this state of affairs was declared.

c. Whether the individual is currently a member of the AAJ board and in what capacity is the individual serving.

d. Whether the minister deems the foregoing state of affairs as acceptable.

17. Can the minister state whether the AAJ board considered a recommendation not to invest in First Rock in 2019?

18. If the answer to part 17 above is in the affirmative, can the minister indicate the following:

a. When the recommendation was considered by the board.

b. Why the recommendation was not heeded.

19. Can the minister state when the decision was made to buy the shares in First Rock?

20. Can the minister indicate how many eligibility criteria AAJ used to assess First Rock prior to the 2019 investment?

21. Can the minister indicate how many of the eligibility criteria First Rock met?

THE CAT AND MOUSE GAME

An extended cat and mouse game started in July when Nigel Clarke disclosed IN PARLIAMENT that Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) and a subsidiary violated government regulations when making a $443 million investment.

It continued in September when Julian Robinson called for the Integrity Commission to “urgently probe” the acquisition AND asked Montague/PM Holness why the AAJ board remained in place. Government offered more silence than a Lutheran monk, so the tempo escalated on October 12 as the questions were tabled IN PARLIAMENT.

Montague refused to answer, saying that the Integrity Commission was investigating. Under a hail of opposition opprobrium, the Speaker offered Montague her ample skirt of authority to hide behind and block the queries.

It’s time we acknowledge the political coup d’état that has overthrown Jamaica’s Parliament and turned it into a farcical JLP vs PNP cock fight where constituents’ interests are irrelevant. Every single question asks for the minister’s account of HIS actions and those of a statutory authority under his portfolio created BY PARLIAMENT. They’re asked for the ultimate parliamentary purpose of ensuring order and good government.

They. Must. Be. Answered. Without. Delay!

On Tuesday last, after intense public pressure, Montague, channelling The Artful Dodger, gave a “Statement to Parliament” to the effect that the boards weren’t aware of the breached regulations; the AAJ earned two per cent return on investment; and the term of the board that made the investment expired in November 2020. Yet he said that the boards would be dissolved immediately and “some” resignations were offered.

Why? His statement suggested nothing but innocence. Why now? Why not in July? Investigation, Schminvestigation! In JULY, the finance minister had already concluded that there was breach.

ERROR OF HAND

When Gene Autry and I were bridge partners, we each knew immediately when we made an error in any hand. The culprit would quickly shuffle the cards and move on to the next hand, hoping nobody would notice and comment.

On Tuesday, Bobby Montague, looking like a bridge player, shuffled the cards and moved on, hoping nobody would notice that he still hadn’t answered the specific detailed questions or remember the savage slap in Democracy’s face delivered by his bizarre refusal to answer and by the Speaker’s ridiculous ruling.

In the United Kingdom, whose governance we’ve ingested and regurgitated, Parliament’s main functions (source: UK Parliament website) are:

• Check and challenge Government’s work (scrutiny)

• Make and change laws (legislation)

• Debate important issues of the day (debating)

• Check and approve Government spending (budget/taxes)

Jamaica’s Constitution empowers Parliament to “make laws for the peace, order and good government of Jamaica” which obviously encapsulates all the above. If lawmakers can’t scrutinise Government’s implementation of laws to ensure purpose, why bother making laws? Standing orders regulate oversight by creating Parliamentary committees and providing:

“Questions may be put to a Minister relating to any subject or Department with the responsibility for which [a minister] has been charged” if questions fit criteria of parliamentary decorum (e.g., naming no names; using no epithets) and seek “information on a question of fact”.

Montague said that his refusal was because the Integrity Commission was investigating. But by law, NOBODY should know that. Never mind how Montague knows. Critical thinking reveals that if nobody should know, then clearly, everybody must perform their public duties blissfully unaware of what may be happening at the Integrity Commission. So claims of possible prejudice are absurd.

The Integrity Commission, a statutory body created by Parliament, can’t fetter/obstruct Parliament. Parliament oversees the Integrity Commission NOT the other way around. How come Tuesday’s statement to Parliament couldn’t prejudice the Integrity Commission’s investigation but answering questions can?

THE REAL QUESTIONS

The real questions:

• Are WE going to permit our Parliament to be abused in this way?

• Are WE going to allow a minister to evade one of democracy’s most fundamental tools (question time) by simply calling the Integrity Commission’s name?

• Are WE going to allow a Speaker to so demean this spark of democracy in a transparently anti-democratic Westminster system?

• What will the Opposition do about this reprehensible humiliation of Jamaica’s Parliament?

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that a Speaker has acted politically to muzzle Opposition.

In 2017, Lisa Hanna tried to table 43 questions addressed to Culture Minister Olivia Grange relating to Independence celebrations expenditure. Speaker Charles refused to accept the questions for tabling.

In January 2020, Speaker Charles again tried to muzzle Hanna as she was on her feet debating the auditor general’s CMU report. Charles ordered the feisty South-East St Ann MP to sit down. She refused. The Speaker ordered the marshal to evict her. As the marshal approached Hanna, former cricketer Julian Robinson moved between the two. His body language forced the marshal into a hasty retreat.

Once could be accident. Twice is purpose. Three times is habit. This was as violent a psychological assault on democracy as was January 6’s physical assault on the USA’s Congress.

So the good news came on Wednesday that the Speaker had reversed herself, and PM Holness decreed that ministers must answer questions regardless of pending investigations.

Good on him! Jamaica has been brought back from the brink.

Peace and Love!

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.