Monday, May 20, 2019

Pointless

The official opposition has decided to stay away from Parliament, it says, “until the point is made”.

The decision — designed no doubt to grab headlines and show the Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP) base that it is doing something — seems pointless.

The opposition has given two reasons why it says it is boycotting the House and the Senate: opposition leader Philip Brave Davis has railed against the recent arrests of former Urban Renewal Deputy Director Michelle Reckley and five others on fraud-related charges.

Davis says they are PLP supporters and their arrests and arraignment represent abuses of power on the part of the executive.

“I announce with no pleasure that the PLP parliamentary caucus will boycott the House of Assembly for a period in protest, to mark the seriousness of where we find ourselves as a nation,” said Davis at a press conference on February 13.

“We will not rest until tyrannical attitudes and practices are forever vanquished from this society.”

PLP Senator Fred Mitchell, who led his colleagues in the walkout, indicated there should be no confusion about what the boycott is about.

“There is one simple matter to consider,” he said. “Two ministers of the government, the minister of health, Dr. Duane Sands, and the minister of national security, [Marvin Dames], are judicially condemned for their conduct [in the Frank Smith corruption trial] while in office.

“The appeal, no matter its outcome, will not change the judicial judgment upon them. They ought to, in the face of this finding of abuse of the administration of justice, resign or be dismissed.”

Smith was acquitted on February 1.

The case and its outcome have been widely reported in the press.

Chief Magistrate Joyann Ferguson-Pratt said the prosecution failed to prove that Smith received $60,000 in bribes from Barbara Hanna, the owner of Magic Touch Cleaning Company, from 2016 to 2017.

The magistrate scorched Hanna as a witness and also questioned the

behavior of Sands and Dames with regard to their involvement with Hanna prior to the matter being reported to the police.

She called their conduct “egregious”.

Ferguson-Pratt said that the award of a second contract of $1.8 million to Hanna by Sands, after she had made her corruption claims, raised a “specter of impropriety”.

Regarding Dames’ meeting Hanna before she made an official complaint, Ferguson-Pratt said that his meeting with the complainant was “unorthodox, to say the least”.

In an extensive and well-articulated piece in this space after the acquittal, our colleague Juan McCartney opined that Sands and Dames should have known better.

“Why he would entrench himself so deeply in this matter, when he has finally realized his goal of making nationwide change through Cabinet, is unclear,” McCartney observed, referring to Sands.

“He must have known that Smith’s attorneys would have learned of his interactions with Barbara Hanna prior to Smith’s trial.

“He could not have somehow imagined that a capable legal defense attorney wouldn’t question why he would approve a contract for Hanna’s company for over $1.8 million, without the approval of the PHA board, while the last contract she was awarded was at the heart of an ongoing criminal court case.”

Referring to Dames, McCartney wrote: “It was unfortunate for Dames, a former career policeman who is likely the most effective and qualified national security minister The Bahamas has ever had, to involve himself so deeply in the pre-police interaction with Hanna, but it does not seem to rise to the level of conduct that would require leaving office.

“… But it is hoped he’ll act more prudently if contacted by his Cabinet colleagues to get involved with anything with a hint of such sordid spectacle moving forward.”

It is not surprising that the official opposition has seized on the magistrate’s findings and is calling for the ministers’ resignations.

Had the tables been turned and such a decision handed down involving PLP ministers, there is no doubt that the Free National Movement (FNM) would have been making similar calls.

In 2015, the then opposition leader, Dr. Hubert Minnis, led his FNM parliamentary colleagues in disruptive protests of Parliament after Prime Minister Perry Christie refused to fire MICAL MP V. Alfred Gray from his Cabinet for allegedly interfering in a judicial matter.

Gray was accused of ordering an island administrator in his constituency to release a man he had sentenced to three months in prison for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

Then Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson said that no one would face criminal charges over the matter, due to what she called the “conflicting nature of the evidence”.

Minnis insisted at the time, “The message that was sent out to the world is that a politician can interfere with the judiciary and nothing happens.

“That is not right in this country and we felt that in any first world country he should have resigned. The prime minister had him resign one of his ministerial posts… We felt that the prime minister should have forced Alfred Gray to resign from [all of] his ministerial posts.

“[Christie] did not. So as long as he (Gray) gets up to speak, we will walk out so that the Bahamian people will know that the FNM stands for law and order.”

Minnis said Gray did not have the right to speak in Parliament.

The FNM eventually returned to Parliament, moving its focus to other issues.

Perhaps it saw a victory in keeping the matter in the news due to its disruptive behavior.

That appears to be the approach now being taken by Davis and the current opposition.

But what really can they achieve?

Critical role

Under a Tribune Facebook post on February 14 about the House boycott, readers made some interesting observations.

Veteran journalist Gladstone Thurston observed: “Boycott the House and leave the government with free rein to do whatever they please? Sounds dumb to me.”

Another reader, Dale Charlow, posted: “Davis is by far the worst leader of the opposition of all time. The Public Accounts Committee is dormant and he shrugs it off. The government member resigns because of the inaction of the PAC.

“Now he leads his tiny contingent out in protest for PLP friends charged with multiple stealing charges… trying to ride the Smith case. A sad day in opposition politics in this country.”

We think the readers had good points, not necessarily about Davis being the worst leader of the opposition, but the point about the need to use Parliament to be more effective.

Davis heads the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is currently inactive, due in part to the decision taken by Dr. Kendal Major, while he was speaker, tying the hands of the PAC. Major ruled that only documents tabled in the House could be examined by the PAC.

Davis has expressed frustration that the government has not been forthcoming with certain information requested by the committee.

Current speaker Halson Moultrie said the House operates on precedent so Major’s ruling will stand until a member makes a compelling case to him to have it set aside.

The opposition, which has the majority of members on that committee, has not pressed the issue, perhaps because it would be an acknowledgement that they agree that Major’s ruling was hogwash in the first place. That would be condemning one of their own, as Major was elected a PLP MP in 2012.

It would also expose PLP hypocrisy, as the PLP in power supported the ruling and benefited from it.

The opposition — no matter how small — has a critical role in a democracy.

It is important that opposition members be present to keep the government accountable.

Their absence means that the government’s agenda can sail through, unchecked and unchallenged. The government will always have its way by virtue of its super majority, but the opposition’s say is also vital.

While the opposition members seem to be appealing to their base, they should be reminded that they represent their entire constituencies. If they are absent, then their constituents have no voice in Parliament.

The Parliament is indeed a high profile forum for politicians’ voices to be heard. It’s why Davis used that forum to attempt to castigate the Minnis administration following the arrests of Reckley and the others.

The opposition has sought to tie the Frank Smith ruling in with those recent arrests in an effort to muddy the latest case in the court of public opinion.

What the opposition should be pushing for is a fair hearing and fair treatment of the group it claims are PLP supporters, and for all people brought before the courts.

While it has condemned what it calls the persecution of its members, the outcome of the Smith case demonstrates that the judiciary is indeed an independent branch of government, and judges and magistrates are quite capable of weighing evidence and determining a bad case when they see one.

If the PLP believes in the administration of justice and believes in the capacity of the court to look at evidence and make sound rulings, then it should also accept that Reckley and the other defendants would be subjected to the same treatment at trial.

They have been charged before the same magistrate who handled the Smith case and delivered the ruling the PLP so openly accepted.

We have not seen the evidence in the Reckley case and make no judgment on that matter. We will wait to hear the evidence and to see the determination of the court.

What we do say is that the opposition is wasting time. It is being foolish and ineffective.

Whatever it thinks of the executive and its role in judicial matters has nothing to do with the functioning of Parliament and the obligation of PLP MPs to represent their constituents.

Their absence from Parliament achieves nothing.

It is time for the curtains to fall on this tiresome and pointless political theater.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the managing editor for the Nassau Guardian.

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