Headline — 23 August 2013 — by Adele Ramos
“Political charades” over Public Accounts Committee?

“the Government side of the Committee will insist now that the Chairman calls an urgent meeting of the PAC to agree to a schedule for consideration of all the outstanding Auditor General reports,” says OPM.

“The executive is dictating to the legislature…” PAC chair says. “You’re still asking the police to police themselves and we’re playing games. The system hasn’t worked from 1981.”

The debate over whether the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) should be reformed has turned into a political football, with both sides—the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP)—accusing each other of playing charades with this very important national issue.

The Public Accounts Committee, as the National Assembly documents, “has the duty of examining, considering and reporting on the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by the National Assembly to meet the public expenditure of the country; such other accounts as may be referred to the Committee by the House or under any Law; and the report of the Auditor General on any such accounts.”

The motion proposed by Cayo South area representative Julius Espat for the reform of what he has described as a “moribund” committee fell to the floor when it was presented to Parliament about two weeks ago, but the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) issued a statement today setting out a formula which, it contends, would ensure not only that meetings are resumed in a timely fashion, but also that the accounts before the UDP came into office would be considered as well.

In responding to the release from the OPM, Espat told journalists at a press conference this evening that the Prime Minister is “out of line,” because the Executive cannot tell the Legislature what to do and how to do it.

A statement issued today by the Opposition People’s United Party added that “the release from the Office of the Prime Minister provides a true and clear example of Prime Ministerial Governance and overreach with the executive seeking to dictate to the Public Accounts Committee of the House what its agenda should be and how its business should be conducted.”

Why has the PUP taken this stance? The Office of the Prime Minister issued a statement on Wednesday, August 21, announcing that, “the Government side of the Committee will insist now that the Chairman calls an urgent meeting of the PAC to agree to a schedule for consideration of all the outstanding Auditor General reports. Such a schedule should see the work divided into two: examination of pre-2008 reports; and examination of post-2008 reports.”

It goes on to say that, “In any given week when the Committee meets, it should do so on two days of that particular week. The first day should be given over to the first set of reports, and the second day to the second set of reports.”

“What the Prime Minister has given here is clearly an instruction from Cabinet, telling the Legislature how they should – he’s telling the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, which should be an independent body within the Legislature, what to do and how to do it. I will compare it to this: it’s as if the Prime Minister sits with the Chief Justice and tells him, Chief Justice, you see that man over there who I don’t like, I want you to make sure that he is hanged; I want the judgment to be done tomorrow, and I want the execution to be done the day after. That is exactly a comparative of what we’re seeing here,” Espat responded.

“This is totally against democracy and he is out of line. You can call anybody anywhere in the democratic world – not only in the Commonwealth. There is no way an executive can give a directive to the legislature, and especially somebody that is responsible for oversight,” he asserted.

“This is the worst thing I have seen coming out of the Office of the Prime Minister…” Espat added.

On tabling the motion for the reform of the Public Accounts Committee, Espat said that the need arose because the committee is moribund – unable to do its work properly as an oversight body.

When asked if the formula advanced today by Cabinet would not get him what he wants, Espat strongly disagreed: “No, we are not getting reform, because you’re still asking the police to police themselves and we’re playing games. The system hasn’t worked from 1981 so why are we playing political charades here? Today, the Prime Minister decides that he will do it; tomorrow he will shut it down again.”

“Cabinet’s assertion of confidence in the current structure and functioning of the PAC is deeply troubling given the very broad and deep consensus on the PAC’s failure to function over some 30 plus years. We now have an opportunity to fix it and the UDP Cabinet has rejected, out of hand, this opportunity,” the Opposition added.

The Opposition reiterated the call for a 7-member joint account committee comprised of 2 Government members, 2 Opposition members, 1 Senator for the private sector, 1 Senator for the unions and civil society, and 1 Senator for the churches.

The OPM’s release said—despite the positions taken by the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, in support of the PAC reform—that the Cabinet of Belize “remains convinced, however, that such a proposal is fundamentally inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the Standing Orders of the House, and the radical and serial amendments of the Standing Orders that would be required for the transformation of the current PAC into the creature envisaged by the BCCI and NTUCB, would render the proceedings of the new Committee both expensive and impractical.”

“We strongly reject the view offered by the UDP Cabinet that the proposed restructuring of the PAC is inconsistent with the Standing Orders, too expensive, impractical, and in conflict with democratic principles,” the Opposition countered.

The OPM further argues that such changes would “result in an unwieldy and top heavy Committee and greatly ratchet up the costs associated with Committee hearings.”

It added that “Cabinet cannot, therefore, agree with such a proposal.”

However, the Cabinet indicates that the Standing Orders provide for any two members to requisition and convene a meeting of the PAC, if the Chairman fails to do so.

Cabinet says that if Espat refuses to get things moving in this fashion, the Government will use the provision of the Standing Orders to have its members convene and conduct the meetings. It also said that the hearings will be public.

Espat, who said he will continue to operate as PAC chair for as long as his party wants him to do so, said that he has already begun to dialogue with the social partners who support the concept of PAC’s reform, and he is extending that dialogue to include the churches. He also said that more reform proposals are in the pipeline:

“The Chamber of Commerce, the NTUCB, would never ever put out a press release if they don’t believe in it, and you can ask them. But we have to continue dialogue, because this is only one motion; you know, reregistration might be another. We have so many out there that we have to do reform on,” said Espat.

“Right now I am taking the heat personally, because I am the face and I am the chairman of this, but I am not representing Julius Espat; we are representing the People’s United Party, which represents 47 point odd percent of the population. But I am doing my job, and if doing your job you become target – well, that is fine!”

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