Mon | Dec 6, 2021

Drop the shield

House Speaker, Montague urged to press ahead with AAJ responses in interest of transparency

Published:Sunday | November 7, 2021 | 12:10 AM
House Speaker Marisa Dalrymple Philibert.
House Speaker Marisa Dalrymple Philibert.

Transport Minister Robert Montague.
Transport Minister Robert Montague.
John Mahfood, president, Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
John Mahfood, president, Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
Bruce Golding, former prime minister.
Bruce Golding, former prime minister.
Jeanette Calder, executive director, Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal.
Jeanette Calder, executive director, Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal.
O’Neil Grant, president, Jamaica Civil Service Association.
O’Neil Grant, president, Jamaica Civil Service Association.
Lloyd Distant, president, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce.
Lloyd Distant, president, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce.
Professor Trevor Munroe, principal director, National Integrity Action.
Professor Trevor Munroe, principal director, National Integrity Action.
Helene Davis-Whyte, president, Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions.
Helene Davis-Whyte, president, Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions.

Calls are mounting for Speaker of the House of Representatives Marisa Dalrymple Philibert to reverse a ruling shielding Transport Minister Robert Montague from answering Opposition questions on the $450-million investment scandal at the Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) Group.

Montague has been flogged by the Integrity Commission for stating last Tuesday that he was unable to answer questions as the anti-corruption agency was probing the questionable investment in First Rock Capital Holdings.

While it did not confirm or deny any probe, the commission raised questions on whether Montague had told the Parliament the truth.

The opposition People’s National Party and several anti-corruption and civil society leaders are calling for the reversal of the decision they argue is not supported by the rules and could chill efforts to hold governments accountable while weakening parliamentary authority.

The Government has been under pressure to address the scandal that Prime Minister Andrew Holness has admitted raises issues of “grave concern” following confirmation that the AAJ Group broke the law in pumping $450 million into the St Lucia-registered private equity start-up company.

Additional Gleaner reporting has also revealed that the AAJ board went against a recommendation not to buy the shares that are now up for sale.

The current boards of the AAJ and NMIAL include persons who were on the boards that made the decisions in 2019 and 2020.

Dalrymple Philibert relented after Opposition Leader Mark Golding warned that her decision was heading down a “dangerous path” and said she would seek legal advice.

“For now, … my ruling on the matter is that we will await the outcome of the findings by the Integrity Commission,” said the Speaker.

John Mahfood, president, Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association:

This is a government entity; it’s owned by the people of Jamaica, and when they spend over $400 million on brand new company that hasn’t been proved, that is highly speculative, and on the face of it, they should not be invested in that. And all of what surrounded the approval process and everything else should be investigated and widely made available to the public. The excuses that were made were very inappropriate and do not put Jamaica in a good light. It (answers) should be made public and they (Government) should not have tried to quash the discussions.

Bruce Golding, former prime minister:

My recollection of the Standing Orders is that it precludes a question being asked of a matter that is before the courts and I think it also restricts relating to a matter that has been referred to a select committee of Parliament.

The minister may consider that it will be more appropriate to await the investigations that he says are being carried out before answering the questions, but that would have to be discussed with the person who tabled the questions and on the basis of which he would seek a deferral of the answers.

Jeanette Calder, executive director, Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal:

A minister who serves the Cabinet by virtue of the prime minister’s appointment and confidence has failed in four months to advise the country of the manner in which he has addressed a board decision that contravened the law. The minister has not discharged his duties as outlined in the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act (PBMA) to hold the board directors to account for breaking the law. The prime minister should hold Minister Montague to account to ensure he provides the information required and, should he fail to respond, the prime minister should move to remove the minister from his Cabinet.

Parliament is the seat of accountability and information is vital. ... That the minister would refuse to answer the questions by forwarding a baseless argument and then have the Speaker of the House and the minister of justice support that argument is deeply troubling. It deepens the trust deficit, and signals that the long-promised accountability is further than perceived.

The job of monitoring Government is not entrusted to an Opposition, but, rather, to all parliamentarians who do not serve the Cabinet. In the nation’s interest, all non-Cabinet MPs should use their time in the next parliamentary session to put questions to Minister Montague to confirm or dispel the troubling media reports. The country need not be detained by Minister Montague reluctance to discharge his duties, as the PBMA empowers the minister of finance to “direct that an investigation of the circumstances of the default be carried out by persons specified by him”.

O’Neil Grant, president, Jamaica Civil Service Association:

It would be premature for the minister to comment on investigations that are under way by a commission of the Parliament as is enshrined in the Integrity Commission’s legal framework. It specifically prohibits the commission from speaking about matters that it is investigating and matters that may become evidential in their investigations as a natural outcome of that should not be spoken of. And even on the basis of parliamentary privilege, … it is always the best thing to allow for the commissions established by the Parliament to provide the answers that are needed arising from investigations when things such as what would have happened at the Airports Authority and NMIAL, that those are done in the proper way so that it doesn’t prejudice the outcome of any investigations. It would be very bad if the minister were able to go to Parliament to speak openly on the issues.

Lloyd Distant, president, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce:

The questions that were asked were appropriate for the minister to answer, for the Government to respond to. Putting of it towards an investigation that may or may not be taking place – these are not questions that any investigation could answer. The only persons who could answer this is the Government and it’s in the highest places of our land where this discourse ought to take place and accountability must occur.

We are making it very clear what our expectations are. The prime minister has spoken about a code of conduct where he requires of his ministers and of his Government to provide information that is in the public’s interest.

The ruling that was made by the Speaker, we believe it was an unfortunate ruling and we expect that upon the opportunity to review, a different decision ought to be coming.

Professor Trevor Munroe, principal director, National Integrity Action:

Minister Montague’s position and Speaker Dalrymple Philibert’s ruling impose secrecy in defiance of Jamaica’s Constitution, which obliges Parliament to hold ministers to account for how taxpayers’ money is spent; violate the 2002 code of conduct for ministers, which requires ministers to be open with Parliament and the public “except where providing information would not be in the public interest”; breach the ‘gag clause’ of Integrity Commission Act.

The ruling defies Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ charge to newly sworn-in ministers on September 7, 2020 “to prevent … actions which weaken public trust and damage the integrity of the Government”.

The public must insist that this ruling be immediately reversed and that Minister Montague promptly answer the questions relating to the AAJ’s investment of almost half billion dollars of public funds, in breach of regulations as acknowledged by the minister of finance.

Were the Speaker’s ruling and Minister Montague’s defiance to stand, a most dangerous precedent further undermining good governance would be set. Such would facilitate this and any future Government reversing democratic principles, practised under successive PNP and Jamaica Labour Party administrations, whereby Parliament holds ministers to account and our people are able to find out how their money is being spent or misspent.

Helene Davis-Whyte, president, Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions:

If this is something that can happen, then it would mean that in terms of perceived acts of corruption and behaviour of parliamentarians, ... the Parliament would have very little teeth in terms of being able to deal with matters of this kind. Because if I am a member of parliament and there can be no discussion of something that is ongoing, it certainly gives the impression that the Parliament is really toothless in terms of its role in keeping members of parliament accountable. It is very worrying that that would be the current direction. It would be wise to get some understanding of the legal position, and if the legal position supports the Speaker’s ruling, we certainly have to go back to the drawing board.