Monday, April 22, 2024

PURELY POLITICAL: Let in the media


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I think the media should be entitled to come into the meeting of any committee of Parliament and listen to the testimony of people, the questions asked, and also to hear what at the committee level parliamentarians are doing and to determine how best people are spending taxpayers’ money. – David Thompson, then MP for St John and former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), June 2004.
Thompson, who would return to the chair of the Public Accounts Committee in 2006 and make good on his firm belief by inviting the media to public hearings, said he could not understand why the media was not allowed to cover PAC deliberations.
“The reason, as I understand it, even though I think it is a very foolish one, is that the committee reports to Parliament and therefore what the media should be interested in is not what some call the witch-hunt process, but the final report,” he noted. “I think that is wrong.”
Initially, I was hesitant about returning this early to the controversy over public hearings of the PAC as convened by Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley.
But having late last week obtained a copy of a Special Report on the June 18 PAC hearing, I think certain observations may help MPs and the public.
I was more than a little alarmed as a journalist that the real catalyst for this current controversy appeared to have been publication in NATION newspapers, on June 6 and 8, of two articles: NHC Probe and $239m Owed, arising out of the June 5 public PAC hearing.
“In the opinion of the Clerks of the Table,” according to the Special Report, “the publications ought not to have been done and since they were, the publications, by extension, amount to a breach of the privileges of the House. The Clerks are of this view because the publications amount to a ‘premature publication’ of evidence taken before the Committee, and before the Committee has presented its report to the House.
“Even if one can point to conflicting provisions in the Public Accounts Committee Act viz Section 13, the collective view of the Clerks at the Table is that the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the land and subject to the provisions of this Constitution, if any other law is inconsistent with this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail and the other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.
“So that even if this can be considered a conflict, then Standing Order 61 prevails because of the supremacy of the Constitution. The publication of the evidence ought not to have been done.
“Publication of the proceedings and evidence taken before a Committee of the House before the Committee’s report is laid in Parliament is viewed so seriously that S.26 of the Parliament (Privileges And Immunities) Act Cap 9 labels it a contempt for members of either House to publish evidence of that committee other than to members.
“In the opinion of the Clerks, the law and Standing Orders of the House prevent the premature publication of evidence before the Public Accounts Committee reports to the House. And, to that extent, the Nation Publishing Company Limited was in breach of the privileges of the House and ought to be warned in preference to referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges.”
I find it passing strange that when I covered the Thompson hearings and reported the evidence in the said NATION newspapers, there was no outcry from the then ruling party (which had passed the PAC law), and the then Opposition had begun to revel in its new-found power to expose wrongdoing but claimed it was hamstrung by Government’s failure to draft and table regulations governing the PAC in the House.
That Opposition now forms the Government and it, too, has failed to bring regulations. Instead, it has started what amounts to a silly filibuster of the Mottley hearings when it is clear that the PAC’s work has been done in the past under Thompson and can continue to be done without the regulations.
The Mottley committee has quite rightly asked the House for a determination as to whether Standing Order 61 can be suspended to allow the PAC to work.
One waits to see whether there will be a negative determination and what justification would be used, given the fact that there is a precedent set whenever the House sits as the Leader of the House moves the motion for suspension of no fewer than seven Standing Orders: 6, 16, 18, 20, 42(5), 43 and 44.
Giving the media access to PAC meetings would afford the House the perfect opportunity to assert itself and reaffirm the primacy of Parliament in helping to make Barbados the free and open democracy we often say it is.
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.


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