Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Editorial | Don’t stifle House committees

Published:Friday | October 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Whatever else may be the achievements of Audley Shaw, he did a great service for Jamaica during the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) long years in Opposition when he was the party's shadow finance minister and chairman of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC). He was particularly effective in the latter role.

He was skilled in leading reviews of the annual reports of the auditor general, or of any documents that fell within the purview of the PAC, to expose inefficiency and corruption in government ministries, departments and agencies. The PAC also provided Mr Shaw a platform from which to discuss matters which, on the strictest interpretation, would not have been considered within the mandate of the committee, but were nonetheless relevant to how the people's business was being managed.

Audley Shaw's critics would complain about his supposed concentration on and affinity for scandal at the PAC and in Parliament itself. But his efforts helped to bring a hitherto unknown transparency to Government and, critically, show people what was possible in parliamentary oversight. The legislature is as yet nowhere near its full potential in this regard.

The other seminal development in the operation of parliamentary committees was the decision of then Prime Minister Bruce Golding, after the JLP's victory in the 2007 election, to allow most parliamentary committees to be chaired by opposition MPs, largely fulfilling a pledge he made on the hustings. The Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) is among those under opposition leadership.

The Golding reforms, although not cemented in law, were thought to have evolved into convention across administrations over the past three election cycles and are thought to have worked well. The PAAC, in particular, has followed the template established by Mr Shaw, echoing the energy and robustness he brought to the PAC.

Indeed, it is via the work of the PAAC, chaired by the shadow tourism minister, Wykeham McNeill, that Jamaicans heard the allegations of corruption and nepotism at government entities such as the Petrojam oil refinery; National Energy Solutions (NESol), which is dedicated to bringing electricity to the small pockets of Jamaica that remain off the grid; and the Universal Service Fund (USF), whose job is to advance Internet connectivity across the island. It is significant that the CEOs of these three entities, as well as the minister within whose portfolio they fell, were forced to resign in the wake of the revelations.

There is good sense in the warning against, without clear supporting evidence, conflating correlation with causation. But it is not far-fetched to assume that the outcomes like those wrought by the PAAC are behind a threat to unravel the Golding convention.

 

CHAIRMANSHIP STAND-OFF

 

There was, for months during the current parliamentary year, a stand-off between the Government and the Opposition over the chairmanship of committees. The Holness administration wanted leadership of critical ones to revert to government members, which would happen by opening the positions to general votes, which the government side would win because of their majorities. There has been something of a truce on this front.

We discern in the antics, particularly of Leslie Campbell, a government member of the PAAC, and a directive of House Speaker Pearnel Charles, an effort to stifle the work of committees led by the Opposition and prevent revelations of the type that have recently rocked the administration. Mr Campbell has held himself out a stickler for the Standing Orders, insisting the PAAC should discuss only matters referred to it by the House, which would have placed the Petrojam, NESol and USF issues off-limits. The former energy minister, Andrew Wheatley, and the other persons who have resigned would probably still be in their jobs.

The rules relating to opposition chairmanship and providing committees greater leeway to probe issues should be formalised. Until then, the convention is serving Jamaica well.