KINGSTON, March 27, 2021 - Despite herculean attempts by opposition senators on Friday to delay debate on the Disaster Risk Management (Amendment) Act (DRMA), and to impose parliamentary checks on the prime minister's move to create criminal offences by ministerial order without Parliamentary oversight, the opposition failed when the matter came up for a vote in the Senate.
The opposition senators were representing the position of Opposition Leader Mark Golding, who expressed concern that any fundamental change in the Bill, which allowed the prime minister to create new offences by ministerial order without the approval of Parliament, could open up the law to abuse by the government.
Golding noted that “The Disaster Risk Management (Amendment) Act, which was passed [initially] in 2013, allows the prime minister to make laws under Section 26 where there is a disaster, but did not make breaches of those orders a criminal offence.”
“The effect is that, in a disaster, the prime minister can basically criminalise any conduct that he sees fit, without Parliament having any say in the matter," he lamented.
"I believe that it is fundamentally wrong, bad governance and inconsistent with our democratic traditions and the balance of power between the different arms of the State,” the opposition leader declared.
Having been ignored in the lower house on Tuesday, the matter went to the senate on on Friday, where Leader of opposition business in the Senate, Peter Bunting, suggested an amendment to the principal law but it was defeated along party lines by a government majority vote of nine to seven.
Bunting wanted the existing Section 26 subsection (3) deleted and replaced with a clause that reads: “An order under subsection (2) shall lapse and cease to remain in force 14 days after the day that the order is made, unless the order is approved by affirmative resolution prior to it lapsing, and if so approved, the order shall remain in force until the end of the period specified therein.”
He argued that under the proposed amended law, the prime minister would be given wide powers to make orders for which non-compliance would be a criminal offence.
According to Bunting, the law was first supported on the basis that the breach of the orders was not a criminal offence.
However, his proposal for a delay in voting on the changes, which emanated from the Government's decision to create new ticketing fines ranging from $3,000 to $500,000 for people charged with disobeying the protocols of the country's response to the pandemic, was dismissed by Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
The prime minister said that he would have found common ground with Golding, if the case was that the legislation did not prescribe what the prime minister could do, and when these exceptional powers could be used. He also noted that the powers could only be used in the case of a declaration of a disaster.
The legislative change is being pushed in a bid to crack down on behaviour linked to a spiralling two-month wave of coronavirus infection that has seen cases top 37,450. Almost 560 people have died from the virus.
Even before debate started on the bill Friday, there was extensive deliberations on a motion to suspend the Standing Orders (rules of Parliament) to allow discussion to take place on the amendment to the DRMA Act.
Opposition Senator Lambert Brown argued that the prime minister had initially committed to refer the bill to a joint select committee for discussion before passing the law. He said that Jamaicans should be given the opportunity to participate in deliberations on the bill before lawmakers made a determination on it.
Brown said that while he supported tough measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, he described the process towards accomplishing that end as flawed.
Senator Floyd Morris said that he did not receive the amendments to the bill in a format that would allow him to participate meaningfully in the debate. He urged the government to delay debate on the bill.
Responding to the issues raised by the Opposition, Senator Johnson Smith dismissed what she said was a narrative by the parliamentary Opposition to label the prime minister as a dictator. “This narrative is not true,” she said.
Johnson Smith argued that there was nothing oppressive about the legislation, noting that many had criticised the Government for not enforcing stricter measures to encourage compliance with the coronavirus health protocols.
She described the position being taken by the Opposition as “purely political”.
The Opposition later called for a divide on Section 26 subsection (3), which resulted in a vote in favour of the Government.