Sun | Dec 5, 2021

Stop dissing Parliament

Published:Sunday | June 22, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Finance Minister Peter Phillips is animated as he closes the Budget Debate on Wednesday, April 30 at Gordon House. Columnist Martin Henry has criticised Phillips for regarding Jamaica's Parliament as too immature to vet nominated senior technical officials in the public service.-Gladstone Taylor/Photographer
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Martin Henry

The people's representatives have been dissed by one of their own who has been called up to be Big Minister. And no self-respecting parliamentarian should take this lying down, sitting up, standing up, or bending over.

A serious, and shall I add, mature, discussion was proceeding some time earlier this month in the House about the role of the Parliament in the appointment of senior technical officers in the public service when Big Minister of Finance Dr Peter Phillips stomped on it. Parliament, he interjected, was too immature to be entrusted with any such responsibility. The trigger for the debate was the Banking Services Bill and the appointing of governors of the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ). The minister of finance now does the appointing of the BOJ governor.

A nice across-the-floor bipartisan discussion had been gathering momentum. Opposition spokesman on finance and a former finance minister, Audley Shaw, in contributing to the debate on the Banking Services Bill, welcomed the clause in the legislation that shifted the appointment of the governor from the minister to the governor general on advice of the Cabinet. Shaw feels it's a step in the right direction.

To borrow CVM's Garfield Burford's famously recurring question: "What do you make of this?" Are we to understand, as many have long concluded, that the governor of the BOJ, like the director general of the Planning Institute of Jamaica and several other senior technical officers and heads of 'independent' units, are not intended to be independent at all but are appointed to be the lackeys of government policy and beholden to ministers?

There is a case for ministers to appoint senior technical advisers to assist them in their work. In which case these advisers should be dis-appointed and replaced with a change of government. Something we need to seriously address in Public Administration.

In any case, ex-Minister Shaw went on to propose, with concurrence of serving minister Phillips, "Further down the road, as we build greater maturity, we must not exclude Parliament from the process where a governor is nominated, named, proposed by the minister, and the nominee is called upon to appear before a parliamentary committee so that you can ask questions."

Another ex-minister of finance, Dr Omar Davies, complained that important appointments are being made without the input of the people's representatives. He wanted fellow reps to work towards ensuring that all MPs have a say in such appointments. But why not now, since we have already missed yesterday?

The Blue Mountains-size obstacle which the three finance men see obstructing movement in this desired direction is political immaturity and partisanship. Davies noted that driven by public distrust, they were well on the way to institutionalising the view that "certain decisions should be taken out of the hands of politicians". And placed in whose hands?

PARLIAMENT'S BEHAVIOUR

And Father Phillips, who giveth and taketh away, rolls in: "There is a role for Parliament not only in relation to critical appointments, but to provide critical oversight of certain offices of state," he grants. "But if I am to be frank, if we are to exercise these responsibilities, we have to behave better," he takes back.

So when and how is the better behaviour of Parliament going to be accomplished? And who is to sign off on mission accomplished?

And why should we trust the Cabinet for better behaviour? Under our Westminster system, the Cabinet is drawn from the Parliament and predominantly from the House of Representa-tives. Constitutionally, only four ministers can be drawn from the Senate, and the minister of finance must be an elected representative. When you add together members of the serving Cabinet who are MPs, not senators, and their counterparts in the Opposition Cabinet-in-waiting, fully a half of the House of 63 is accounted for. If these can't lead good behaviour among parliamentarians and behave in more mature and less tribalistic partisan ways, what qualifies them to lead, and to aspire to lead, executive Government? And why should we trust them and their decisions and their appointees any more than we can trust their non-ministerial colleagues on the backbench with their mouths taped shut?

But more to the point I want to drive home: Our Parliament is what it is, whatever it is, and must forthwith be allowed to do its work, and, in doing its work, grow in capacity and maturity.

Jamaicans tend to have naive, perfectionist views about the 'behaviour' of parliamentarians, and Parliament and of partisan political competition. Legislatures and politics can be pretty rough and nasty around the world. We have invented constitutions and armed them with checks and balances to counteract the worse. The Jamaican Parliament and Jamaican partisan politics within Parliament are far from the worst. And whatever it is, it is what we've got.

CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS

There is a strong case to be made for examination of key appointees in public administration by the people's representatives, either all together or through joint select committees. By the demands of their own widely admired constitution, the Americans have long practised congressional hearings for key public appointments, including the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court, chairman of the Federal Reserve, ambassadors, and heads of agencies. The process can be as partisan as ever, slow and messy. But it helps to engender the kind of public confidence that Davies is seeking.

And contrary to the dismissive public view of the incapacity and ineptness of the people they have voted into Parliament, our Parliament, in any given cycle, collectively has higher levels of intelligence, more education, higher achievement, and, yes, greater levels of integrity, than the general population. And this profile has been progressively getting better. These are, in fact, the good old days for parliamentary capacity in Jamaica.

We have just had a good example in the dis-appointment of a commissioner for the Tivoli Gardens enquiry, and the fresh appointment of another, of how bitter partisan differences can be directed to a good end. The Opposition, Jamaica Labour Party, was adamant that it did not want Velma Hylton on account of comments she had made in an earlier enquiry. Under sustained opposition, she finally packed her bags and went. An alternative in Professor Anthony Harriott was quietly negotiated and agreed.

'Only', as I teach my critical-thinking students, is a very dangerous word for sound reasoning. The Electoral Commission, established by Manley and Seaga in 1979 during the bitterest and bloodiest years of political tribalism, has distinguished itself served us well, but I certainly don't agree with Dr Phillips' 'only' when he argued that "when we had to deal with electoral reform, the only way we could have got a modicum of stability in those arrangements was to take critical decisions out of the ambit of the Parliament [emphasis mine]". Parliament could have been made to work better.

LITTLE BRATS

Fellow parliamentarians outside of Cabinet are not Dr Phillips', or anybody else's, little brats who must be spanked into good behaviour before they can be entrusted with greater responsibilities. They are the people's representatives of exactly equal standing, as legislators, with other legislators who double as ministers and they have weighty constitutional responsibility for "the peace, order and good government of Jamaica."[Section 48 (1)]

Any need "for the Parliament to recognise that the survival of the State and its good governance requires the suspension of the quest for partisan advantage in relation to critical issues that must be discussed", as Dr Phillips is calling for, is not a peculiar burden upon immature backbenchers, nor, indeed, is it a call from which members who are ministers can be exempt. The way to improve the Parliament is to set it to more purposive, meaningful work, not to diss and sideline it.

Martin Henry is a UTech administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com andmedhen@gmail.com.