SOEs still unpopular with the Opposition

Inside Parliament

With Balford Henry

Monday, May 13, 2019

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The meeting of minds in the House of Representatives and the Senate last week which resulted in the passage of the Emergency Powers (Continuance) Resolution, 2019, extending the life of the current states of public emergency (SOEs) in western Jamaica was expected.

However, with only 14 of 29 Opposition MPs voting for the extension, and the 15 others either leaving the chamber prior to the vote, voting against the resolution or being absent from the sitting must raise some questions about how much Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips can rely on his authority to ensure a consensus on that side of the House.

The action of Opposition MP Peter Bunting in actually voting against the resolution also raises some questions as to whether this is a challenge to Dr Phillips' leadership, or a situation in which each member had some freedom to speak out against the resolution, or simply not vote for it.

For example, what if Bunting's argument against supporting the continuation of the new SOEs had been convincing enough to encourage a few more members of the Opposition to be absent from the vote, as several of them actually were, how would this have reflected on Phillips' endorsement of the extension?

The actual outcome of the House vote was that of the 45 MPs present, 44, including Speaker Pearnel Charles Snr, voted for the extension, with Bunting being the sole “no” vote. But while that meant that the Government's “yes” tally had passed the magical 42 votes required from the 63-member House for two-thirds approval, there were 18 members who did not take part.

The 18 absentees comprised several Opposition members who were present prior to the vote, including Julian Robinson, general secretary of the Opposition People's National Party (PNP), who had earlier engaged the prime minister in a discussion on the National Identification System (NIDS) Bill; Spokesman on Education Ronald Thwaites, who had earlier tabled questions about the current state of affairs in that ministry; and Michael Stewart (Manchester Southern), who had earlier taken part in the Sectoral Debate.

Only four absentees did the clerk the courtesy of sending in an apology. They were Opposition spokespersons Fitz Jackson (national security), Lisa Hanna (foreign affairs and foreign trade) and Government back-benchers Marisa Dalrymple (Trelawny Southern) and Ann-Marie Vaz (Portland Eastern).

The other non-voters were: Noel Arscott (Clarendon South Western); Richard Azan (Clarendon North Western); Luther Buchanan (Westmoreland Eastern); Dayton Campbell (St Ann North Western); Denise Joyce Daley (St Catherine Eastern); Dr Morais Guy (St Mary Central); Evon Redman (St Elizabeth South Eastern); Victor Wright (Trelawny Northern); Robert Montague (St Mary Western); Colin Fagan (St Catherine South Eastern); and, Ian Hayles (Hanover Western).

A similar situation arose in the Senate on Friday when the Government passed the resolution with the support of only three of the Opposition's eight members — Donna Scott Mottley, the leader of Opposition business; Lambert Brown; and Wensworth Skeffery.

Two Opposition senators — Damion Crawford and Floyd Morris — actually voted against the extension; one declined the vote — Andre Haughton; and two were listed as absent — Sophia Fraser Binns who, incidentally, is pregnant; and KD Knight, who left the chamber after making a contribution to the debate; as well as the sole absent Government member Ransford Braham.

Bunting, the MP for Manchester Central, theorised that the Government had “successfully conflated in the public's mind the idea that the only respite from violence, and from murder and shooting in particular, is to declare a state of emergency”.

He said that the Government's public relations machinery had exploited the public's desperation for relief from crime, in introducing the new SOEs, which became effective on April 30.

He also suggested that, under the Charter of Rights, the Government is subject to constraints that can be exercised by the Parliament or the court, as the governor general and Parliament, respectively, must be satisfied that there is a danger to public safety for the SOE to be declared.

“What this describes is an armed rebellion or a State under siege, or at least a defined group taking or planning some serious concerted action,” Bunting explained as the prerequisites for extending the SOE.

His sentiments were echoed in the Upper House by Senator Scott Mottley, who accused the Government of ignoring the constitutional basis for extending the SOE.

“There was no thought going into the situation, because if thought had been going into the situation they would have looked at section 20 (of the constitution), and the circumstances under which you can declare a state of emergency, and they would see that the argument runs counter their proposal for a state of emergency, because you say you have been reducing the problem, (so) what is the great and immediate danger?” she argued.

In response, Leader of Government Business Senator Kamina Johnson Smith noted that there is no doubt that there has been a significant reduction in the indicators of serious crimes, especially murders and shootings.

“We are getting reductions, but it does not mean that we have eliminated an emergency circumstance, in particular in the areas where the state of emergency has been declared,” she said.

“And the fact is that, without going too deeply into the constitutional point, Section 20 (iii) of the Constitution under paragraph (b) specifically anticipates that there will be extensions. It says that the period that the proclamation may be extended from time to time by resolution cast in like manner as may be prescribed in paragraph (a) for further period not exceeding, in respect of each such extension, a period of three months. It contemplates that more than one may be required.”

However, she cautioned the Senate that the SOE should not be considered “a magic wand”.

Joint Sitting of Parliament

The House of Representatives and the Senate are scheduled to sit tomorrow when architect Evan Williams and his team, which won the design competition for the new Parliament building, will make a presentation to the members.

THIS WEEK'S PARLIAMENT SCHEDULE

Monday, May 13, 10 am: Joint Select Committee, Occupational Safety and Health Bill.

Tuesday, May 14, 9:00 am: Constituency Development Fund Committee.

10:00 am: Public Accounts Committee.

1:00 pm: Ethics Committee (in-camera).

2:00 pm: Sitting of the House of Representatives.

Wednesday, 10:00 am: Public Appropriations and Administration Committee.

2:00 pm: Joint Select Committee Bank of Jamaica Amendment Act, 2018.


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