Thu | Feb 25, 2021

Editorial | Fix the accountability lapse

Published:Friday | January 22, 2021 | 12:05 AM

It is a significant oversight by all of us not to have noticed, until Jeanette Calder pointed it out this week, that the Parliament, for a decade and a half, has not debated any of the reports from either its public accounts or public administration and appropriations committees. Ms Calder is head of the transparency of governance campaign organisation, Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP).

The more egregious lapse, however, is by the legislators, probably engineered by, and no doubt to the pleasure of, sitting administrations. For in their failure, legislators forfeit opportunities for deeper oversight of government at a time of clamour for greater accountability. It is a situation that neither the public nor parliamentarians, especially Opposition members, should allow to persist.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) are among the handful of select, or standing committees, of Jamaica’s Parliament which Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ new administration, since last September’s election, continues to allow the Opposition to chair. In the case of the PAC, that is probably because it is in the rules.

HIGH PROFILE AND IMPORTANT

Both committees are high profile and important. The annual reports of the activities of the auditor general, or report of any audit done by that office, having been tabled in Parliament are, under the rules, automatically deemed to have referred to the PAC. This gives it significant powers to probe the activities of the ministries and agencies, often to the discomfort of the Government. That has been the case across political administrations.

While the work of the two committees sometimes overlap, the PAC largely engages in retrospective reviews of how taxpayers’ money has been spent. The PAAC, on the other hand, has greater opportunity for real-time interversions and analyses, given its mandate to “monitor expenditure as it occurs and keeping the Parliament informed of how the Budget is being implemented”. Its job also includes keeping the public bureaucracy under review and making recommendations for improving efficiency.

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that it is from the work of these committees that allegations of misuse of public resources often emerge and mushroom, such as the scandals in recent years over claims of cronyism, nepotism and fiduciary failures at the Petrojam oil refinery, and allegations of corruption at the education ministry and the Caribbean Maritime University. These incidents led to the resignations of two Cabinet members, with one, the education minister, Ruel Reid, and a number of his associates, being charged for fraud.

The committee hearings, from a parliamentary perspective, should not be the end of the matter. Under the House’s Standing Orders – the rules that govern its operations – committees are required, before the end of each session or parliamentary year, “to make a report to the House upon matters referred to it”. Indeed, Standing Order 80 (8) also provides for a report of a committee being “taken into consideration by the House” on the basis of a motion for its adoption by “any member”.

DISCUSSED BY FULL LEGISLATURE

Those reports, we do not expect, were intended to decorate the Speaker’s office, or for disintegration in the library. The obvious intention, as is the case of reports of draft laws referred to committees, is that after the deliberations and hearings, the findings, on the motion for adoption, would be discussed by the full legislature.

We understand why the government side may not want the reports of the PAC and PAAC to be subject to a potentially embarrassing debate. But that, sometimes, is the price of oversight, transparency and good governance. In the event, the Opposition does not have to await for the Government to seek to have a report adopted. They can, in the face of any lapses by the Government, move the motions so to do. Further, if the Opposition is serious about its jobs, it would now, even at this stage, sift through the shelved PAC and PAAC reports for relevance, determine which, if any, could still make it to the order paper, and seek to have them debated by the House.

In the meantime, we again urge Prime Minister Holness to reconsider his decision to upend the practice, started by Bruce Golding, his predecessor as leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, of having opposition members chairing almost all of Parliament’s select committees.