Tuesday 15 October, 2019

PAC war: Government, Opposition clash in Parliament

Karl Samuda (file photo)

Karl Samuda (file photo)

There was a major uproar at the beginning of Tuesday’s sitting of the House of Representatives as Government and Opposition members sparred over an abandoned meeting of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee earlier in the day.

The tensions that had spilled over into the House sitting were sparked by parliamentarians on both sides of the House accusing each other of trying to score political points. Government Members of Parliament (MPs) accused Opposition MPs of improperly convening the meeting of the PAC in an effort to embarrass the Government over the findings of the auditor general into the operations of the state-run oil refinery, Petrojam.

For its part, the Opposition accused the Government of shutting down a properly convened meeting.

The PAC meeting, which was reportedly under way for about an hour with only Opposition members present, came to an abrupt end when parliamentary staff, including Hansard writers, walked out of the proceedings. This meant no recording of the meeting would take place beyond that point, and so technocrats from the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica, Petrojam and the Office of the Prime Minister, who had turned up on request for the meeting, were asked to leave.

The meeting ended after a memorandum from the Clerk to the Houses of Parliament, Heather Cooke, was read, with a declaration that the meeting had been improperly convened. Upset MPs from both sides of the political divide later held impromptu press conferences at Gordon House, where they both accused the other side of mischief-making.

Mark Golding (file photo)

For his part, PAC Chairman Mark Golding accused Leader of Government Business in the House, Karl Samuda of instructing the clerk to end the meeting. To bear out his point, Golding quoted from the memo from the clerk, which indicated that she was “instructed by Minister Karl Samuda… to withdraw the staff of the Houses of Parliament from these proceedings with immediate effect.”

Samuda, however, later said he had merely advised the clerk that the committee was meeting.

Separately, Attorney General Marlene Malahoo-Forte accused Golding of trying to “cheaply embarrass the Government”. She also charged that he had embarrassed the public servants who had turned up for the meeting.

The attorney general said the committee clerk had advised that the majority of members were not in favour of having the meeting, and the Government members were unable to attend because they were attending another meeting.

Malahoo-Forte insisted that the standing orders dictate that a majority of members must agree to a meeting, for it to be held.

But Golding countered that with five Government members saying ‘no’ and five Opposition members saying ‘yes’ to the meeting, he, as chairman, had the deciding vote.

Marlene Malahoo-Forte (file photo)

However, Malahoo-Forte again said this was contrary to the standing orders.

There was a brief clash of MPs when the House convened about 2:30 in the afternoon, with Samuda opening with a statement in which he accused the PNP of seeking to embarrass the Government by politicising the auditor general’s report.

Before the dust settled, Samuda referred to Leader of Opposition Business in the House, Phillip Paulwell, as a liar, and refused to withdraw the statement even on the intervention of Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips. Samuda later described Paulwell as having been mendacious.

Samuda also charged that there was a split in the ranks of the People’s National Party (PNP) over the decision to proceed with the PAC meeting.

“It is a shameful display of politicising an important issue. It is also very instructive to us that there is an enormous split in the People’s National Party. A rational leader (Dr Phillips) suggested a rational time (for the meeting, but) was overruled by a renegade chairman and a bunch of renegade members of a committee,” Samuda charged while being shouted down by Opposition members.

Dr Phillips had said the PAC must be allowed to examine the auditor general’s findings into Petrojam by no later than mid-January. Samuda noted that the PAC had in fact committed to meet by next Tuesday, December 18, on the matter. He accused Paulwell of lying after agreeing with him in a phone call on Monday night, that the PAC meeting would have been set for next week.

Paulwell admitted that there was a conversation between the two, but said Tuesday’s meeting was to address “preliminary matters”.

That comment prompted an angry intervention from Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who said the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister was asked to send staff members to the PAC meeting on the dictates of the parliamentary opposition.

“Can there be a preliminary meeting where officers of the Government are summoned by the Opposition?” Holness asked, adding that “the PNP used the House of Parliament to summon (public servants) to a meeting”

Golding would also have a further say on the matter, insisting that up until the point the meeting ended, “it was an enlightening meeting where a number of key, important issues were addressed”.

He then again read from the memo he had quoted from earlier, insisting that Samuda instructed the clerk to withdraw the services of the staff.

“It’s a disgraceful act,” Golding charged.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has tasked the Speaker of the House, Pearnel Charles, to investigate the matter.

West Rural St Andrew MP, Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, also said she wanted to know who apologised on her behalf for her absence at Tuesday’s PAC meeting.

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