Monday, May 08, 2006

Persons, papers and records

Mary King
Trinidad Express
May 8, 2006

The Prime Minister's alleged response to the objections to the construction of aluminium smelters is that he will not back down in the face of the outcry against the smelters and further, he felt that the voices of objection were misinformed. I would like to differ from the PM and suggest that the country in general and the Parliament in particular may be uninformed.

It is unusual for the Executive to bring to Parliament any of their strategic management thinking, though some may say that the Budget debate is just that. Some of us Senators attempt to get the Government to debate its plans for the restructuring of the on-shore economy. Nothing has come to the Parliament and little to the general public which defines and justifies the creation of an aluminium industry with respect to its feasibility, the optimum use of our diminishing natural gas resources, its impact on the environment, the level of earnings from the sale of gas and a comparison with the longer term uses to which this gas can be put in the context of Peak Oil.

A few CPA conferences ago parliamentarians came to the conclusion that governments should not sign trade agreements etc., without reference to a priori to their parliaments. Clearly this includes a decision on how to use our patrimony.

Our Parliament has created the Joint Select Committees (JSCs) to inquire into and report to it in respect of Government Ministries, Municipal Corporations, Statutory Authorities, certain Service Commissions and enterprises/entities owned, established/funded or controlled by the Government. These committees are empowered to study and report on all matters relating to the mandate, management and operations of these Ministry and other Government bodies, which are assigned to it by the Senate. These include reviewing and reporting on the manner in which they exercise their power, their methods of functioning and any criteria so adopted by them.

The Ministry of Energy and the associated agencies are directly responsible for the strategic management of the proposed aluminium industry. Given the dearth of information presented to the Parliament by the Executive it fell to the relevant JSC to inquire into the criteria (economic, social and environmental) used by the Ministry in justifying this project, the studies and approvals that were required to satisfy certain statutes and also allow the objectors a chance to be officially heard and be informed by the stakeholders at the public meetings of the JSC.

Note that the JSC cannot coerce the Ministry et al into changing their plans; its task is simply to inquire into the methods used to come up with them. Finally, all parties would have a clearer view and, as the PM says, if there were any misinformed they would be properly informed, those that were uninformed would be in a better position to make intelligent comment.

The JSCs are a recent creation of Parliament and though their powers and privileges are described in the Constitution and the Standing Orders of both Houses of Parliament many people, and it would seem some parliamentarians, are unaware of the full extent of these. Listen to Derek Lee, MP, in his book The Power of Parliamentary Houses to Send for Persons, Papers and Records:

"One of Parliament's privileges, the power to send for persons, papers and records, is a cornerstone of the functions of every legislative assembly. In practice over the years, this House power has been delegated by the House to its Committees.''

Standing Order 71B(7) of our Senate gives this power to its JSCs.

The JSCs have been accused of being inquisitors that ask embarrassing questions of those called before them. But this is just what they should be, cast in the tradition of Justice Sir Edward Coke's seventeenth century description of the Parliament, the "Generall Inquisitors of the Realme''. A consequence of this general inquest of the nation is that the Parliament has the power to inquire into any matters that it considers necessary and as Prof Campbell states for the English Parliament in his thesis Parliamentary Privilege of Australia: "...the House of Lords and the House of Commons may investigate any matter whatsoever, however embarrassing the enquiry may be either to individuals or the government of the day.''

The Standing Orders that apply to our JSCs restrict their activity as to what they can inquire into but do not restrict them as to whom they can call. Listen to May: " obedience is as much due to the summons of the committee which has papers and records as to the order of the House, a person who fails to obey such a summons is guilty of contempt.''

-To be continued


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