Gov't, Opposition spar over PAC meeting

Senior staff reporter

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

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Opposition People's National Party (PNP) members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) are calling yesterday's shutdown of a meeting with officials of Petrojam, the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ), and the Office of the Prime Minister a dark day in the country's history, but their Government counterparts say the meeting was illegal and a breach of the Standing Orders.

The committee was over an hour-and-a-half into its deliberations on the damning Auditor General report on Petrojam and PCJ when Chairman Mark Golding paused the proceedings to read a memorandum handed to him by the Clerk to the Houses, which read: “Due to the fact that there was no majority decision of the committee to convene a meeting of the PAC, I have been instructed by Minister Karl Samuda, Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives, to withdraw the services of the staff of the Houses of Parliament, from these proceedings, with immediate effect.”

But Golding and other committee members dismissed the memo, arguing that Samuda had no such authority, and that this instruction would have to come from the House Speaker.

The proceedings ended abruptly, minutes later, as members realised that the Hansard recorders and other staff were absent from the chamber.

“This is the kind of anti-democratic, undermining of the oversight function of an important parliamentary committee that is a danger to democracy in this country,” Golding said. “It is disrespectful to the permanent secretary and her staff who are here, it is disrespectful to the auditor general and her staff, and it is disrespectful to the members of the committee who have made it their business to come and want to continue with the work before us. They have effectively undermined the ability of the committee to continue its proceedings today.”

Both sides hastily convened press conferences after the aborted meeting.

Golding explained to journalists that given the intense public interest in the Petrojam report and the depth of the irregularities uncovered, he felt it was urgent for the committee to begin its review.

According to the PAC chairman, he made the request for the meeting a week ago. “The position of the Government members on the committee was that they did not wish to sit. The Parliamentary staff took the position that the committee should make that decision and essentially they conducted a somewhat informal poll by e-mail of those members who were in favour of the meeting and those who were not,” Golding said.

He said Parliament communicated via e-mail that five members indicated that they wished to sit, and five did not, and that his vote had tipped the poll in favour of the meeting. The committee comprises seven Opposition members and eight Government members.

Government Members of Parliament Juliet Holness, Juliet Cuthbert Flynn, and Leslie Campbell sent apologies for absence.

“This was an improper attempt by the Government to stop our committee from probing, and carry on our duty to provide oversight and in-depth review of the matters raised by the auditor general in her report,” Golding said.

“It is an abuse of power by the Government. As far as I'm concerned, the necessary majority decision was taken and that seemed to have persuaded Parliament, as well, because they made all the arrangements to have these various stakeholders present so that the meeting could proceed,” Golding argued.

Opposition PAC member Peter Bunting said it was his impression that the Speaker of the House, Pearnel Charles, was unaware of the developments. “In fact the sense I got from the Speaker was that he was washing his hands of it, because he wasn't a part of this operation,” he said.

Bunting added that controversial minister without portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister Everald Warmington was behind the débâcle. The Opposition members argued that Warmington himself was not a “proper” member of the committee and that his presence on the committee, as a minister, was a violation of the Standing Orders.

Opposition member Lisa Hanna charged that the parliamentary staff had been bullied. “I feel sorry for the clerk. I almost feel like she is being victimised and abused, and it is unfair to her. The entire Parliament is being held hostage by the Government,” she said.

However, Samuda insisted that he had not attempted to instruct the clerk, but had in fact advised her of her authority, based on her advice to him that “the meeting was not properly convened, and that the meeting cannot be properly convened merely because there is a quorum”. He insisted that the meeting, including a date and agenda, had to be agreed on by both sides.

“That constitutes a regular meeting that would have the authority of Parliament. This meeting was convened despite the advice by the clerk of the House that it ought not to be held and she wrote to the chairman of the committee advising of exactly what I just told you… this issue is an attempt by the Opposition to politicise a very important national issue,” Samuda charged.

He stressed that the Government had nothing to hide in the Petrojam/PCJ matter. “We wish full and proper disclosure, and that is coming from the prime minister himself. There is a proper way to conduct the affairs of Parliament, it's not a fry fish shop we are running, this is a cherished institution that abides by rules and regulations that govern our behaviour,” Samuda said.

According to the House leader, the Government had indicated that it was willing to facilitate the PAC meeting on December 18.

“So what is this big fuss about us not wanting to facilitate a meeting to review the findings of the committee? Absolute, abject nonsense… it was the prime minister himself who only yesterday insisted that we facilitate the convening of a meeting at the earliest possible time so that the matter could be addressed at the PAC. This was communicated to the Leader of Opposition Business personally, last night,” Samuda said.

Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte said the chairman had arrogated powers to himself to make decisions on behalf of the entire committee, and convene the meeting contrary to the rules.

“It appears that the chairman of the PAC is of the view that the committee can delegate its powers to the chair. That is not what is provided by the Standing Order,” she stated.

She said members of the Opposition have given the impression in the media that there were attempts by the Government to stop the PAC meeting from happening, but that this was not the case.

“My enquiry revealed that there is no such thing, that the members simply indicated that they needed time to read the report and reminded that there was a convention in respect of the period for persons to be invited to attend a committee,” she stated.

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