Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Functionless

Centreville MP Reece Chipman appears deeply frustrated on multiple levels with the workings of Parliament.

Chipman — who would probably have been voted least likely to win his seat in the last general election — is appearing more and more at odds with the Free National Movement (FNM).

Last June, he separated himself from the political pack when he voted against the increase in value-added tax (VAT) from 7.5 percent to 12 percent.

In October, he voted against the resolution seeking Parliament’s approval for the government to rent Town Centre Mall, owned by Cabinet minister Brent Symonette, to accommodate the general post office.

Last week, Chipman resigned from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), traditionally the most powerful House committee. The committee is charged with ensuring accountability in the expenditure of public finances.

The committee has reportedly met about four times since the new session of Parliament started in May 2017.

“The Public Accounts Committee is one of the most prestigious committees in the Commonwealth’s parliamentary system,” Chipman noted in a letter to House Speaker Halson Moultrie on January 16.

“As a matter of fact, Westminster acknowledges it as the most important committee of the House of Assembly.”

Interestingly, Chipman’s letter of resignation highlights a number of issues that led to his resignation, although not all of them are related directly to the PAC.

He said, “The bills and resolutions brought before this House are usually unaccompanied by sufficient or clear information to make substantive decisions. Bills are being passed with no follow up regulation, no follow up policies and or follow up guidelines as would have been requested, not only by myself, but by other members as well.

“The Bahamian people are depending on us to make informed decisions on their behalf.”

Chipman also noted that the rules of the House of Assembly are still not formalized or formally adopted by the House.

“Time and time again we have referred to various rule books. A follow up committee was announced to correct this, yet nothing further. This does not set or raise the standards of our House of Assembly, but denigrates it, leading to yet another generation of useless politics and an uninformed electorate. The Bahamian people voted for change.”

The MP added, “The select committees on natural resources and sovereign wealth fund and fake news still on the agenda for almost a year. Once again, the Westminster system allows for democracy and freedom of speech and rights of privilege.

“The Bahamian people and their economy being squeezed due to lack of sharing in their own country’s natural resources and a lack of information and awareness of items of economic importance.”

And Chipman pointed to a “breach” of abuse of rule 39(2) where questions would be allowed.

He said, “Yet again an injustice to the education and awareness of the Bahamian people. Most importantly an abuse of the integrity of a system that demands what the Bahamian people voted for, accountability and transparency.”

That rule provides for question time “unless the House determines otherwise”.

The House has been determining otherwise. Opportunities for members to ask questions have not been allowed.

Chipman also pointed out that the PAC can only review reports laid before the House. He said most of those reports are substantially behind and irrelevant.

“The only relevance is the political ping pong which the next generation of Bahamians can care less about. The Bahamian people want clarity on how much money we have, how much do we need and what are we spending it on,” he said in the letter.

Functionless 

The speaker has heard Chipman’s frustrations.

Moultrie told us that he and the Centreville MP met on Monday to discuss his concerns.

Speaker of the House Halson Moultrie.

“When you called earlier, I was in a lengthy meeting with the MP for Centreville and I’m satisfied as we move forward we would be moving forward in the best interest of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas,” the speaker told National Review.

“I believe that the MP for Centreville is satisfied the Parliament itself should supersede any personal feelings and at all cost all of us who are in Parliament should really be seeking to make the Parliament a better place for all of us.”

Moultrie added, “We have inherited a circumstance and a situation that needs to change. The MP for Centreville and I agreed that the manner we will go about bringing that change should not be to the detriment of the institution that gives us the platform to advocate for those changes. I expect a different approach but with the same goals.”

But for now, the hands of the PAC remain tied.

That’s because a controversial ruling handed down by Dr. Kendal Major when he was speaker remains in force.

In his 2015 ruling, Major said the Office of the Attorney General had advised him that the committee is confined to examining documents tabled in Parliament. The issue that triggered that ruling was the PAC’s examination of the controversial Urban Renewal Programme. Major ruled that the committee could not examine the matter until the auditor general’s report on the program was tabled.

Major said at the time: “The answers to the question [of] whether the Public Accounts Committee is confined to examining only those documents which have been audited, tabled or referred to it…is ‘yes’ although this is not construed conjunctively. What is clear is that the Public Accounts Committee may only examine and report on documents which are before the House.

“The role and function of the Public Accounts Committee, like any other standing or select committee of the House, is confined to the terms of reference which the House has given it, and a select committee which purports to act outside the delimited area would be acting ultra vires.”

Moultrie told National Review the House follows precedent. He said unless an interested party (an MP) makes an application to him for that ruling to be set aside then it would remain in place.

“If the aggrieved party accepts the ruling then that is the end of the matter; there is no appeal,” Moultrie said.

“And so, that is the position we are in right now despite all of the public discourse on the matter.

“The aggrieved party, which appears to be Her Majesty’s official opposition, they are the majority on the PAC, and they would be the party that is seeking to examine the accounts of the existing government to hold the government to account, and so that party should be the party that should be seeking to have that judgment set aside.

“Until they do so, the speaker is bound by that decision and the PAC likewise would be bound by that decision.”

The PAC is chaired by opposition leader Philip Brave Davis, who has complained about the failure of the committee to access certain information that has been requested.

Davis was deputy prime minister and minister of works when the PAC in the last session was conducting its examination of the Urban Renewal Programme. It was severely frustrated in its efforts and faced a roadblock when Major’s ruling was handed down.

The ruling was a win for Davis and his colleagues in government.

To now seek to have Major’s ruling set aside would put him and the opposition in a difficult position.

Last October, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis addressed Davis’ concerns about the difficulty in accessing information.

“When we were in opposition, Philip Brave Davis and those…had a policy that the PAC can only review matters that are brought forth by the auditor general,” Minnis said.

“Our hands were tied. We could not do anything. So if the auditor general brought nothing the PAC was functionless, so tell Philip Brave Davis live by the laws and rules he brought forth.”

With that ruling in place, it appears the PAC will remain functionless for the foreseeable future. That is unfortunate. It does a disservice to the people who sent elected officials to Parliament to properly represent their interests and to use the committees and tools at their disposal to ensure transparency and accountability.

Chipman, meanwhile, has packed up his marbles and moved into his corner. This is unfortunate. He too is well positioned to petition to speaker to reverse the Kendal Major ruling.

While Moultrie concluded that he and Chipman made some headway in their meeting on Monday, he confirmed that the Centreville MP did not rescind his resignation letter.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the managing editor for the Nassau Guardian.

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