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Neglected foundation

In the Parliament you have what is known as standing committees.

These committees, also referred to as sessional committees, are considered the pillars of the Parliament which help to develop it into a strong and robust institution for the benefit of those it represents.

Standing committees, which are made up of parliamentarians appointed by the speaker of the House on the recommendation of the leaders of government and opposition business, also aid in the smooth functioning of the Parliament and help to enable its efficiency.

In fact, the Parliament is not properly constituted until its standing committees are appointed, which speaks to their fundamental importance.

If they function as they should, standing committees can contribute to an improvement in the quality of parliamentary participation by members of Parliament and can facilitate them becoming more well-rounded and knowledgeable in their system of governance and in parliamentary practice.

Since the start of the new parliamentary session in May 2017, only one of Parliament’s seven standing committees has met to carry out work, and that with its own share of controversy.

While the practice of neglecting these foundations of Parliament is not new on the part of successive governments, it is roundly a disservice to the Bahamian people and limits the people’s Parliament from reaching its full potential as the highest arm of government.

The Public Accounts Committee

Accountability and transparency in parliamentary governance falls within the ambit of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), referred to by parliamentary convention as the queen of committees because of its wide-ranging powers.

Its members are Philip Brave Davis (chairman), Adrian Gibson, Michael Foulkes, Chester Cooper and Picewell Forbes.

The PAC is the most powerful of all committees of Parliament and is charged with investigating government spending and concessions.

It also has the power to summon government ministers, members of Parliament and senior civil servants to appear before it and to put questions to them which they are required to answer.

How an administration behaves in relation to the PAC can be directly correlated with its attitude toward and commitment to openness in its handling of the public’s money.

In our system, the PAC is to be boundless in its scope and ought to have no limits placed upon it, which is why a ruling by former House Speaker Kendal Major during the last session of Parliament, which restricted the PAC’s powers to reviewing only those reports by the auditor general that had been tabled in Parliament, was viewed by observers as representing an unprecedented setback to parliamentary practice and procedure.

To be clear, Major’s ruling does not prevent the present administration from turning over to the PAC any information it requests; the government can do so at any time but has not, citing Major’s ruling as the reason – the same ruling it castigated while in opposition as being an affront to transparency and accountability.

As such the PAC, which is the only standing committee to have met this session, has accomplished precious little, with one of its members, Centreville MP Reece Chipman, having resigned as a result.

PAC Chairman Davis has put to House Speaker Halson Moultrie his view that Major’s ruling should be considered as being limited in scope to the matter before Parliament at that time.

It’s a consideration Moultrie said he would make a final determination on after the House resumed from its summer recess but that ruling has not yet been made.

In refusing the PAC’s requests for information, the government is exacting the same toll on the opposition that was exacted by the opposition when it was in power, but this tit-for-tat style of governance is precisely what the Minnis administration pledged not to engage in and is the kind of behavior that ought to be beneath a government of “transparency and accountability”.

In the end, the Bahamian people remain the losers in a system where their interests and the duties of democratic governance should reign supreme.

The Rules Committee

As previously stated, the remaining six standing committees have carried out no work over the last two and half years inclusive of the Rules Committee.

The chairman of each standing committee is responsible for setting its meetings and its agendas, and when questioned by Perspective prior to the passage of Hurricane Dorian on why their committees had failed to meet, half of the chairmen failed to respond (including Rules Committee Chairman Renward Wells, while the other half indicated an intent to meet at some point when the House returned from summer break.

The other members of the Rules Committee are Brent Symonette, Jeff Lloyd, Davis and Forbes.

The Rules of Procedure of the House of Assembly govern the functions of the Parliament and are in need of review since their last codification back in 2005.

A seminal feature in the Rules of Procedure for mature Parliaments is the protection of the rights of minority members as a function of good governance.

A revision in this regard that is needed is to Rule 57 which governs what has been commonly referred to as Opposition Day.

Rule 57(1) states: “Question time shall be held on the second Wednesday of each month provided the House is sitting during that month.”

It is easy to see how this Rule can be skirted as a government can simply choose not to meet on the second Wednesday of the month.

Rule 57(6) states: “A minister may decline to answer a question and if he does so, shall state his reasons, which shall not be open to further question or debate.”

There should be no circumstance in a democratic Parliament where a minister should be given the unreserved right to refuse to answer a question put to him or her on the people’s business.

In the interest of accountable governance, the Rules Committee should see its way to proposing that this rule mandates question time to be held on the second Wednesday or whenever the next sitting thereafter may be, and that ministers are not only required to answer opposition questions but must do so within a specified time frame.

Additional committees

The Statutory Instruments Committee, with members Donald Saunders (chairman), Frederick McAlpine, James Albury, Davis and Forbes, is charged with examining all subsidiary legislation to ensure they comply with the statute laws that govern them.

This is important because many laws give the minister the authority to make or change rules, impose fees and the like by bringing to Parliament a statutory instrument that does not require parliamentary debate or vote.

There can be many of these tabled within a given session.

The Statutory Instruments Committee’s role is to examine these instruments to guard against overreach on the part of a minister in his or her use of them.

The Public Treasury Committee is responsible for examining the state of the public treasury.

Its members are Shonel Ferguson (chairman), Miriam Emmanuel, Carlton Bowleg, Forbes and Cooper.

Ferguson did not provide a response to our question on the reason for the inactivity of her committee.

The Committee of Privilege meets to give findings on complaints made by MPs on a breach of his or her privilege, and is to examine which privileges should be done away with and which should be strengthened or introduced.

Its members are Lloyd (chairman), Elsworth Johnson, Marvin Dames, Davis and Glenys Hanna-Martin.

An example of a matter of privilege upon which such a committee could choose to decide is the recent furor made by Moultrie on the freedoms of the press within the precincts of Parliament.

This committee could choose to examine whether the nation’s Fourth Estate should be given more freedoms in the House or less, as a matter of parliamentary privilege.

Lloyd did not provide a response to our question on the reason for the inactivity of his committee.

The Library Committee is responsible for the upkeep of Parliament’s library and its facilities, including the purchase of books and journals and other source material.

Its members are Pakesia Parker-Edgecombe (chairman), Brensil Rolle, Adrian Gibson, Cooper and Forbes.

While this might seem like a droll task, the library of mature parliaments is a center of learning and research for MPs, that guides the creation of sound, relevant legislation and deepens the intellectual capacity of the Parliament – all of which augurs well for the country and creates employment opportunities for researchers, librarians and writers.

Since our Parliament does not currently have a library, this committee has a golden opportunity to aid in elevating the Parliament in this regard.

The Broadcast Committee is responsible for monitoring the official broadcast of the sessions of the Parliament and reporting any unacceptable incidents to the House.

Its members are Shanendon Cartwright (chairman), Hank Johnson, Carlton Bowleg, Hanna-Martin and Forbes.

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