PUP Senators Push For Immigration Probe, GOB Outmaneuvers, Defeats Them On Friday the House of Representatives descended into chaos - and while the dramatic footage of a member being ejected has dominated the news - the bottom line is that not much was accomplished in that House Meeting. And so today the heavy lifting was left to the senate with debates on the expenditure for the BTL settlement, and on the audit reports.
We focus first on the audit reports. The PUP Senators pushed a motion for a Senate Inquiry into irregularities at the Immigration Department as laid out in the 700 pages of three audit reports. The government-appointed President Li Mark Chang surprisingly agreed to table the motion - and have it debated. PUP Senator Michel Chebat, sitting in for Eamon Courtney introduced the motion:...
Hon. Michel Chebat, PUP Senator
"Be it resolved that the senate shall approve of the appointment concerning to standing order 69 of a special committee of the senate with the following terms of reference and compositions. terms of reference: to investigate and inquire into all policies, processes, procedures in the issuance of nationality, visas and passports in the ministry of immigration and nationality and to investigate any and all the regularities and improprieties as well as any and all wrong doing, mismanagement or corruption in issuance of Belizean nationality, passports and visas. to require the attendance of any of those ministers named by the auditor general in her special audit of immigration and nationality department on nationality visas and passports for the period of 2011 - 2013 - to require the attendance before the committee of the director of immigration and all such public officers in the ministry of immigration and nationality pursuant standing order 723 of the senate standing orders."
Hon. Elena Smith, Senator
"The blatant disregard for procedures as sighted in the auditor general's report cannot be condoned. The time and effort placed into investigating and preparing the reports as well as the struggles and even demining punishments alleged to have happened to some of the team members, cannot be left to just lay on the table."
Hon. Ashley Rocke, Senator
"I also rise to give support to the inquiry. The church feels that in observing the style of the prime minister over the years, whenever there was a concern he would put an inquiry in place. so in looking at that and appreciating that, we feel that because there has been disquiet, even in the public, among the government officials, that it is only right that some kind of inquiry be brought to bear."
Hon. Stephen Duncan, Senator
"Why the need to go backward? And would it be better or more appropriate for us to now, in 2016, be testing those changes that we had put in place to see if in fact those changes are now effective. We already know that, but would it make us any more comfortable that what is happening today, that we are better off? Because the report stops at 2013. We're in 2016 already, so we're already 3 years late, and I am suggesting that probably the better approach, Mr. President, is for us to put our money, resources and time into making sure that those changes we have already spent money to do and put in place are actually working."
Speaking next for the government were two senator/ministers - Dr. Carla Barnett, who is the newly Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance and Vanessa Retreage the Attorney General and Minister of Natural Resources. PUP Senators Paul Thompson and Valerie Woods also spoke:
Hon. Carla Barnett, Senator
"There is a substantial amount of information in these reports. They suggest everything from foolish mistakes to poor management, to weak record keeping, to wrong-doing and even criminal behavior. Mr. President, I feel that reports such as these are so important that the reports themselves need to adhere to the highest standards of performance. Completion of the audit report normally would include both the audit, the management letter and the response to management. I understand that this report was not shared with the management before its completion and therefore there wasn't an opportunity to respond. This is unfortunate because in reading the report myself, we find instances where innocent people's names are called in a context where people are assuming it's because they did something wrong and that's not necessarily the case. There's also a few instances where information appears to be incomplete or incorrect suggesting that there is not a sufficient understanding of how the system really works."
Hon. Paul Thompson, PUP Senator
"Mr. President, we are living in very serious times. An Opposition parliamentarian is kicked out of the House of Representatives, air lifted, man handled by the police for all the world to see. Our government is broke, so broke it has reneged on a contractual agreement to pay teachers and public officers their third and final salary increase. And the auditor general has revealed in three audits what we have always suspected, that this government is absolutely corrupt! The people who now have our passports come from all over the world Mr. President, they come from Russia, china, Greece, the Middle East and the list goes on. We have no idea who these people are and what they do, that's not just a threat to the United States, that's also a threat for us as Belizeans. We fly a plane too, we have been concerned about Guatemala and their instability, but we are a lot less safe today because of this skullduggery that's been taking place at the immigration department. Mr. President, there are instances where 3 Chinese nationals fly into Belize on a United Airlines flight on April 10th 2013 and within a few weeks, they get fraudulent nationality certificates. Days after they received their nationality certificates, they head over to the vital statistics unit and all 3 change their names by dipole on august 13th, and they receive Belize passports in their names. Kock Vin Chung became Simon Chung, Yu Pan Cheng became Peta Pang, Jack Jui Quin became Mark Ching."
Hon. Vanessa Retreage, Senator
"I'm thinking in relations to these things, is to be more forward looking on solution oriented. The object of these exercises is to determine where processes have failed and where persons in charge of those processes are to be made to be held accountable. The senate select committee and the appointment of that select committee will not achieve that purpose. For that reason, I concur with Senator Duncan when he says that the results should be aid with the appropriate authorities."
Hon. Valerie Woods, PUP Senator
"Just because this report is based on a period in the past and a finite one in 2011-2013, does not give the senate the authority or the luxury to dispense away with its authority. I was much younger then, but I remember words, uttered by quite a few in this chamber: transparency and accountability."
And from the way that debate was going it became apparent that the social partners were with the opposition, meaning that the vote would go with 6 in favour of an inquiry - that's 3 from the PUP and 3 from the social partners, with 6 government senators against - a 6 - 6 deadlock - which could only be broken by the President with a casting vote.
But, it ain't over till it's over - and leader of Government Business Godwin Hulse threw a major wrench in the works when he wound up the debate. First he urged the PUP to withdraw their motion and proposed something completely new. Hulse proposed a joint public accounts committee - with membership of the social partners. It would be a bi-cameral committee - meaning it would comprise members of the Senate and the House and it would investigate the reports.
It's an important tactical maneuver by the Barrow administration to take the wind out of the PUP's sails and sap their support from the social partners. We understand the Prime Minister had called or met with the churches and the business sector to gain support for his model.
And, the strategy worked. The PUP insisted to push their motion through and when a vote was taken, Senator for the Churches Ashley Rocke withdrew his previously stated support, and voted against the motion - so it was defeated 7 to 5 - and cannot be brought back.
For that decision Rocke earned the instant ire of the Evaneglical Churches - and Pastor Luis Wade sent out a scathing release today saying, quote,
"Senator Ashley Rocke, by his singular action in the Senate today, has brought the Church into severe disrepute…Instead of voting for truth, Transparency and accountability, he chose to place his tent on the side of visible, rampant corruption and cover up. We are ashamed but we have been saying for some time that the current administration has penetrated the leadership structure of various Church institutions. Today that has been revealed to the nation in a most disgusting way. It is clear from his original speech that the Senator was to support the motion AS HE HAD COMMITTED. We condemn in the strongest language the change of heart by the Church senator." End quote.
And while Wade is hopping mad the Government secured a political coup and the Prime Minister is expected to elaborate on the proposal for a reconfigured public accounts committee at a press conference tomorrow to speak about immigration matters. Reports tell us government will criticize inconsistencies in the audit - and may also introduce a proposal to change the constitution to reflect that marriage is between a man and a woman - which would also be an olive branch to the churches. Again, these are preliminary reports and we'll know the agenda for sure when the press conference is held at 2:00 pm tomorrow.