Gov't retakes chairmanship of key parliamentary committees
File photo of Prime Minister Andrew Holness addressing Parliament.
The Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government, with its super majority in the House of Representatives, flexed its political muscles on Tuesday when it overturned nearly 13 years of practice which saw Opposition members chair crucial oversight parliamentary committees.
The practice was instituted in 2007 by then Prime Minister Bruce Golding who had led the JLP to a general election victory that year after nearly 20 years in the political wilderness. In a bold move, Golding had insisted that all key sessional committees be chaired by Opposition members to ensure transparency.
When Portia Simpson Miller led the People’s National Party (PNP) to victory in December, 2011, the practice continued with the sessional committees being chaired by Opposition members. The Holness administration of 2016 to 2020 continued the practice but, having won 49 seats in the September 3 general election to the 14 secured by the People’s National Party (PNP), it has now determined that it is time to shelve it.
On Tuesday, Leader of Government Business in the House, Edmund Bartlett, told the Parliament that chairmanship of four key oversight committees will revert to Government members. These are the Economy and Production, Internal and External Affairs, Human Resource and Social Development, and Infrastructure and Physical Development committees.
However, the crucial Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which has traditionally been chaired by an Opposition member long before the Golding directive and which is provided for in the law will still be chaired by Opposition Member of Parliament Mark Golding, who was chairman in the last Parliament. The equally crucial Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), which along with the PAC unearthed several scandals which rocked the Holness administration during its last term, has escaped the chairmanship grab by the JLP and will also, still be chaired by an Opposition member. It will be chaired by North West Manchester MP, Mikhail Phillips, who replaces Dr Wykeham McNeill who lost his Western Westmoreland seat during the JLP rout on election day.
Pleas on Tuesday by Leader of Opposition Business in the House Phillip Paulwell and Golding fell on deaf ears.
“I fear that in moving away from this (practice), some of the objectives that the prime minister announced last week … about the dignity of the Parliament, about accountability …especially in this lopsided Parliament …perhaps rather than changing that policy you might want to reinforce it,” Paulwell pleaded. He also made the case for more Opposition members to be included on the committees.
“We are today departing from an established policy and practice by a JLP administration which was a good practice,” Paulwell added.
Golding argued that it was especially important for the Holness administration to maintain the practice given its 35-seat majority in the House.
Their requests were brushed aside by the Government.
Bartlett said the Opposition's way of doing business could not be accommodated “Because of the rigour with which this Parliament intends to conduct its business and the extent to which it must involve the non-executive members of the governing party in all of this, and the spirit of the Standing Orders (sub-section 75)…and the right that it gives to enable a chairmanship”.
“Where the past has indicated a practice, that past anticipated a practice that would work, a practice that would be efficient and would be enabling the Parliament to function in a more vigourous and rigourous way,” Bartlett continued.
The Tourism Minister provided statistics that showed that sessional committees, except for the PAAC, met on average just three times per year over the last five years. He noted that the PAAC met 84 times or nearly 17 times each year during the five-year period and suggested that this was so because it was used for “you know…” That was a clear suggestion that it was used to unearth or televise scandals on the government.
Bartlett told the House that the PAC met only 15 times during the five-year period, the Internal and External Affairs Committee 14 times, Economy and Production a mere nine times, the Human Resource and Social Development Committee met 23 times while the Infrastructure and Physical Development Committee met on just nine occasions.
“Tell me now Madam Speaker, is that efficiency, is that an effective way of utilising the resources of this wonderful House,” Bartlett asked to repeated ‘no’s’ from his government colleagues.
“Well we need to change that,” Bartlett stated as he explained the reason for the change.
Government MPs laughed at Paulwell when he tried to explain that a lack of space at Gordon House and scheduling problems resulted in the low levels of committee meetings during the last Parliament.
And Holness, while acknowledging the pleas of the Opposition and the “noble gesture” of the Golding practice, was unmoved.
Like Bartlett he noted that the Opposition members mostly showed interest in the PAAC while they ignored the other committees where deliberations would likely be more favourable to the Government.
“They, Madam Speaker, have defeated oversight. They are being hypocritical and trying to mislead the public because oversight is not merely, or only, or singularly on the fiduciary matters,” Holness argued.