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Is Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition still loyal?

Monday, May 13, 2019

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If Parliament is to be preserved as a living institution His Majesty's Loyal Opposition must fearlessly perform its functions... It must be vigilant against oppression and unjust invasions by the Cabinet of the rights of the people. It should supervise all expenditures and prevent over-expenditure by exposing to the light of public opinion wasteful expenditures or worse. It finds fault; it suggests amendments; it asks questions and elicits information; it arouses, educates and moulds public opinion by voice and vote. — John Diefenbaker, 'The Role of the Opposition in Parliament', address to the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, October 27, 1949

My primary concerns are the recent utterances of the leader of the Opposition when he sought to bring into question the decision and/or action of the Integrity Commission in relation to the recent sale of the sale of Rooms on the Beach property in St Ann. The leader of the Opposition, at a media briefing among other things, stated that “...the composition of the board should be reviewed... It is odd, in this instance, that they (the commissioners) have chose to insert themselves in the process”.

He continued that their conclusions were made without any rational basis and went as far as saying the commission took the “wrong approach” and its approach was “peculiar”.

It is understood that the Integrity Commission Act makes the commission ultimately responsible and accountable to Parliament. However, the commission, in the exercise of its powers and performance of its functions, is not to be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority other than the court by way of judicial review, and at all times shall act independently, impartially, fairly, and in the public interest, and shall further have the power to do all such things as it considers necessary or expedient for the purpose of carrying out its functions.

Given the statutory power Parliament, and by extension the Opposition, wields over the Integrity Commission, challenging the decision of the Integrity Commission outside of the prescribed manner (ie through Parliament or the Supreme Court by way of judicial review) may be seen to be interfering with or seeking to improperly influence what should otherwise be an autonomous and impartial commission.

Commissions such as the Integrity Commission are set up to be autonomous and specifically free from political influence and independent of both the executive and the legislature. It is required to exercise its functions in a manner which is compatible with the fundamental rights of all people. The right to equality before the law, like the right to the equal protection of the law, affords every person protection against irrationality, unreasonableness, fundamental unfairness, and the arbitrary exercise of power.

If it is the Opposition is of the view that the Integrity Commission was acting at the behest of the Government, or for some other sinister motive, as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, and in accordance with its duty to Jamaican citizens, the Opposition has a duty to ensure that the decision and or actions of the commission are investigated in a responsible and transparent manner using the appropriate mechanisms available to it.

There is a fine line between playing the role of an effective and loyal Opposition and tearing down the fundamentals of our democratic institutions. By their utterances, and oblique ad hominem attacks, the Opposition can be accused of sowing seeds of distrust of our public institutions, which can have long-lasting effects that far outweigh any personal short-term gain the Opposition may perceive. We only need bear in mind that one of the stated objectives of the commission is to build public confidence that acts of corruption will be investigated.

One is further forced to question the motives of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in suggesting the legislation needs to be reviewed, especially in circumstances where Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips proudly asserts that the Act was drafted under his Administration.

It was reported that:

“Opposition spokesman on finance, Dr Peter Phillips, agreed that the Bill had spent a long time in gestation, noting that consideration began about 2009 and a joint select committee reviewed the recommendations in 2014.

“ 'I think that the drafting of the legislation took place, in the main, in the period prior to 2016,' he stated.

“Phillips also paid tribute to Senator Mark Golding, who chaired the joint select committee, and predicted that the Bill would be a contribution to Jamaica's anti-corruption legislation architecture, which has enabled it to secure commitments from both sides of the House.

“He said that it would have been a blot on the Parliament to have completed the current legislative year (2016/17) without passing the Bill.”

This attack on the Integrity Commission is one of many such attacks by the Opposition. Two such recent oblique attacks include:

* The second-guessing of the determination of the commissioner of police and the chief of staff of the Jamaica Defence Force as it relates to the need for the continuation of the state of public emergency (SOE) in Montego Bay, while failing to challenge the constitutionality of the SOE of which they bitterly complained.

* The shadow minister for security suggesting the need for an independent investigation into the recent alleged fatal police shooting, ignoring the existence of the Independent Commission of Investigations.

One is forced to ask the question: Had the Constitutional Court ruled otherwise would it have become the subject of a similar attack?

The Opposition must be mindful of the important role it plays in preserving our democratic freedoms and avoid the possibility of losing the trust and confidence of the public at large. Making oblique, ad hominem attacks at our commissions over which they wield power, outside of the available mechanisms, does not build trust or confidence of the citizenry in Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. For Jamaica to continue to grow and mature as a free and democratic society we need an Opposition that is truly loyal to the constitution and the Jamaican people, and not be focused solely on obtaining State power at the expense of our hallowed institutions.

Chukwuemeka Cameron is a practising attorney-at-law. Send comments to the Observer or chukwuemeka.cameron@gmail.com.


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