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PAAC split by Goat Islands issue

Sunday, March 02, 2014    

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THE row over the proposed Chinese investment in the Goat Islands has become the major issue in Parliament, and has now seeped into at least one committee of the House of Representatives -- the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC).

For the past two weeks the question of whether or not the PAAC should invite the Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET), and other stakeholders in the proposed project, to its meeting has dominated issues before the committee.

The members spent more than an hour deliberating on the matter last Thursday, before dealing with the First Supplementary Estimates 2013/14, while public servants invited to the meeting waited in the lobby.

Two weeks ago, members of committee agreed that there was no problem in accepting a request from JET to make a presentation on the environmental issues surrounding the proposed Goat Islands project. In addition, former Minister of Transport and Works, Opposition MP Mike Henry wants the committee to invite other stakeholders, as well, including the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ), to answer questions similar to those being sought by JET from the Government.

Government members had no problem with JET being invited to make a presentation, but felt that the issue was not important enough to be included in the current agenda.

Chairman of the committee Edmund Bartlett, on the other hand, thinks that it is important enough to warrant urgent attention from the committee.

On Thursday, as the committee went over the minutes of the previous meeting, the issue arose again, after Henry sought clarification on whether the PAJ would be asked to provide the answers to his questions. The Opposition MP is insisting that there is information which the Port Authority has, based on its discussions with China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) on the project, which should be disclosed to the committee.

In the letter to the PAAC chairman seeking the committee's intervention, JET had pointed out that it sought information from the government in November last year, under the Access to Information Act (ATI), but has denied access, hence its decision to seek the assistance of the parliamentarians.

JET sought information from the Government on the proposals submitted by CHEC on the development of the Goat Islands as a transshipment port. However, the agency was told that the documents were exempt from the ATI Act, on grounds that: disclosure would constitute an actionable breach of confidence; premature disclosure would, or could reasonably, be expected to have a substantial effect on the Jamaican economy; and the documents contain information concerning the commercial interests of an organisation, and disclosure of that information would prejudice those interests.

"Jamaica's economy would be affected by the disclosure, if such disclosure breaches the obligations of CHEC and causes them to withdraw from the project," the authorities said.

JET filed an appeal with the Access to Information (ATI) Appeal Tribunal on January 3, but is concerned about the length of that process.

In the meantime, Opposition MP Gregory Mair has tabled a motion in the House of Representatives to have the matter urgently referred to the Infrastructure and Physical Development Committee of the House. But that motion has not yet be addressed by the House Leader.

Minister of Transport, Works and Housing Dr Omar Davies told the House of Representatives on Tuesday that there is a timeline of six weeks to complete the process and sign an agreement with CHEC.

JET has suggested that the PAAC invite representatives of the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing, the PAJ, NEPA, the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation and the fisherfolk and other stakeholders in Old Harbour, to make presentations and answer questions on the issues.

Government MPs Mikhael Phillips and Denise Daley believe that there is a political agenda behind the PAAC chairman's insistence on going ahead with the proposals from JET to have them appear before the committee, urgently.

Bartlett said that the committee should not be blocking legitimate requests from local organisations, seeking to raise issue pertaining to the economy. But, Government MP, Fitz Jakckson, claimed that JET's request raised a procedural issue, as it was outside the remit of the PAAC, which should be focusing on the budget and the government's medium term economic programme.

Opposition MP Audley Shaw informed the committee that the Opposition has not said that it opposes the proposed Goats Islands project.

"This has nothing to do with politics," Shaw insisted. "It has to do with the economic development of the country, and we have a duty to take into consideration the concerns of the public."

Bartlett said that having decided that it would invite JET at some stage, there are two issues now before the committee: (1) when the request made by Henry will be dealt with; and, (2) when will JET be invited to make a presentation.

He said that if it is the view of the committee that the two matters should be separated, he has no problem with that but, "the matter has to be taken because it was raised by a member".

Jackson, however, insisted that the request from JET was outside the remit of the PAAC, and breaches the Standing Orders of the House.

Bartlett said he would seek the advice of the Clerk to the Parliament, before the matter is taken any further.

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