U-turn

Gov't pulls resolution to extend waiting time for Cabinet documents after public pressure

BY ARTHUR HALL
Editor-at-large
halla@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, October 04, 2019

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THE Andrew Holness-led Administration has rejected claims that it bowed to public pressure and decided to withdraw a resolution seeking to extend, from 20 to 70 years, the waiting period for public access to some Cabinet documents.

“What I would say is that the Government continues to listen to the opinions of the people because we are a Government that always tries to be conscious of what we are doing, how it impacts, and what are the views of the people,” parliamentary secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) Robert Morgan told the Jamaica Observer yesterday, minutes after the about-face was announced.

“That is what a democratic government does, that is what a transparent and accountable government does,” added Morgan, who was providing additional details after the OPM announced that it would withdraw the resolution, which was designed to amend the Access to Information (ATI) Act.

The resolution was met with loud and strident opposition from media and civil society after it was tabled in Parliament by Leader of Government Business Karl Samuda on Tuesday.

With the critics demanding that it be withdrawn, the OPM, in a mid-morning release, said: “The Government appreciates and understands the sentiment of the Jamaican people and has a duty to thoroughly explore and consider all the issues before it and balance competing rights to achieve equity.

“As planned, at the next sitting of Parliament, the Government will name a joint select committee to review the ATI Act, the Archives Act and the Official Secrets Acts.”

Morgan also dismissed speculation that the joint select committee could be an effort by the Holness Administration to go ahead with its plan to increase the time that Cabinet documents are kept private, with the excuse that the extension was discussed by a parliamentary committee.

“I think that is a very premature conclusion that is not borne out in the facts. The issue that is currently being considered has nothing to do with this Government, in the sense that the period that is under consideration, a request for the minutes of Cabinet meetings in 1975-1976, had to do with another Administration.

“What the Government was seeking to avoid is a situation where it could be accused of playing politics by releasing information about such a sensitive period, which could impact persons who are still alive,” declared Morgan, as he argued that the Government had not come up with the 70 years willy-nilly.

But immediate past president of the Press Association of Jamaica Dionne Jackson Miller, one of the most vocal critics of the resolution, argued that the comments by Morgan left her concerned that the Government has not fully understood the folly of its proposal.

“I am only cautiously relieved,” Jackson Miller told the Observer.

“I say that because I am relieved that the immediate danger of what I regarded as a very dangerous proposal is behind us. But I stress immediate danger, because I am not convinced that the Government truly understands the significance of what it was trying to do and the concerns that have been raised,” added Jackson Miller, as she pointed to Morgan's attempts to justify the Government's decision to introduce the resolution in the first place.

“But let's just accept that the immediate danger is over. [However], we must remain vigilant. That is a critical issue because this could so easily have passed and then we would have had to try to get it repealed, which is so difficult in Jamaica.

“So I think we have to remain vigilant, see what other plans and proposals there are to the ATI Act, and if it is sent to a joint select committee, ensure that we follow it closely and participate in the deliberations,” said Jackson Miller.

In the meantime, the Opposition People's National Party (PNP), which had also called on the Government to withdraw the resolution, was similarly cautious in its response to the about-turn.

“It was an ill-conceived idea from the beginning, and I think the Government has bowed to the pressure from civil society and many well-thinking Jamaicans who felt it was a bad idea to go to 70 years to exempt documents,” said PNP General Secretary Julian Robinson.

“I think we need to understand what is behind their proposal to send it to a joint select committee because I don't know if this is just another route to achieve the same objective. I think we have to see what are the proposals and the terms of reference of the committee.

“But we are opposed to the 70 years, which we don't believe is consistent with transparency and openness and how a good democracy should operate,” added Robinson.

The PNP general secretary confirmed reports that Prime Minister Holness had given Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips a heads-up on the proposal, but Phillips had indicated that he would not support the 70 years because the time frame was much too long.

“He (Phillips) had not given him (Holness) any commitment as to the support from the Opposition,” said Robinson.


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