Monday 25 March, 2019

Senate approves Petrojam buy-back amid Opposition walkout

Kamina Johnson Smith

Kamina Johnson Smith

The senate on Friday approved the bill that will lead to the government’s buy back of the 49 per cent stake in state-owned oil refinery, Petrojam, that is owned by Venezuela. But the approval came without debate and in dramatic fashion, after opposition senators staged a walkout.

The walkout that came at approximately 1:55 pm followed lengthy opening remarks from Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, the leader of government business in the senate.

It followed statements made by opposition Senator Damion Crawford who rose to make his contribution and appeared to immediately accuse Johnson Smith of lying.

“Mr President, very little truth has been spoken here today,” said Crawford to applause from his opposition colleagues. That would be as far as the debate went as, stung by his words, Johnson Smith rose to her feet almost shouting “on a point of order. On a point of order, Mr President.”

She continued: “Mr President, the senator is imputing motive…he should withdraw that statement.” All the while she was being drowned out by a chorus of “noooo” from opposition senators.

At this point, the usually unflappable Johnson Smith quipped “unless he’s referring to his colleagues.”

That statement was met with shouts of  “a point of order” from opposition senators, led by Lambert Brown and Sophia Fraser Binns.

At this stage, Senate President Tom Tavares Finson intervened and told Senator Brown that there was already a point of order on the floor. He described the statement made by Crawford as unparliamentary but told him to continue “in a more parliamentary way.”

However, opposition senators would have none of it and attempted to speak but was cut off by Tavares Finson who told Brown that “you can’t have your cake and eat it,” a clear reference to the fact that Crawford had in essence accused Johnson Smith of lying.

But Brown told him not to rule on his point of order before hearing what he had to say.

Said Brown: “… the unparliamentary language used by Johnson Smith is unbecoming of her. It doesn’t bode well for cooperation and I’m asking you Mr President to ask her to withdraw that comment. Because, if she does not, then you have to recognise that you are giving licence to all of us in the senate to behave unparliamentary. That’s not what you desire but what she did is disgraceful (and) unbecoming of a leader of government business.” 

Responding, the senate president said: “Senator Brown, I know that, by looking at you, that you’re making that point of order tongue in cheek.”

As he was being shouted down by opposition senators, Tavares Finson repeated that “you can’t have your cake and eat it.”

In a bid at appeasement, he pointed to the earlier statement made by Senator Crawford, noted that Johnson Smith responded and that he had said there was need for senators “to be a bit more parliamentary in our debate.”

At this point he told Crawford to continue, but was again interrupted by shouts of “point of order.”

“She’s going to have to withdraw that statement or she’s going to have to meet without me,” Brown was heard saying on his open microphone. He then shouted: “She called us liars, she called us liars and doesn’t have the courage and the decency to withdraw it.”

When he ruled, Tavares Finson said “I recognise exactly what is happening,” before telling Senator Crawford to continue at which point the opposition senators walked out of the chamber to desk thumping from government senators. The bill was eventually approved as there was no further need for the debate.

Ironically, both Brown and Senator KD Knight had argued strenuously for the debate to be postponed to give them more time to familiarise themselves with the bill. They had argued that there was no urgency involved that could not allow a week’s delay.

The bill was approved in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The bill, titled ‘The Compulsory Acquisition (Shares in Petrojam Limited) Act, 2019’ was piloted by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, and he and other Government members sought to cast the debate in a purely economic light aimed at ensuring Jamaica’s energy security.

It will now go to the governor general for his assent ahead of the final passage into law.

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