Insists Membership Must Represent Political Majority
It's official, the Barrow Administration has officially thrown its support behind a Senate Inquiry. A press release issued after Cabinet today says, quote,
"Cabinet is prepared to support a Senate Select Committee rather than a bi-cameral Joint Select Committee inquiry into the Auditor-General's Immigration Special Report."
It continues, quote, "Cabinet has taken this position in view of the reconsideration by the Belize Chamber of Commerce and by the Belize Council of Churches, both of whom were originally in favour of going the bi-cameral route. Cabinet is also persuaded by the fact that a...substantial portion of the public apparently prefers the Senate to conduct the hearings...There is thus no need for Cabinet to insist on…the bi-cameral method."
Now that's progress, and "Cabinet also agrees that one of the Social Partner Senators should chair the Senate Select Committee." But here's where it gets tricky, because Cabinet wants the Select Committee to, quote, "reflect the balance of power in the Chamber" - that means a UDP majority, or in this case, three UDP's, three social partners and one opposition representative - with the chair to come from the social partners.
Cabinet says this formula comes from the Council of Churches and the Belize Association of Evangelical Christians who suggested the 3, 3, 1 composition.
That release went out a short while after today's Cabinet meeting adjourned and when he was leaving the meeting, UDP Party Whip Michael Finnegan told us that he doesn't know what all the fuss is about a Senate Probe because nothing will come out of it:...
Hon. Michael Finnegan, UDP Area Rep., - Mesopotamia
"A select committee from the House or the Senate or it's just from the Senate alone? TO me it doesn't matter, because nothing will become of it as far as I am concern and these matters they have got to be thawed out properly before you proceed and if you proceed out of spite and out of vindictiveness and political expediency, nothing will become of it like the last one with the Social Security thing with the months and months there. What came out of that? Nada."
"Was there a decision amongst the parliamentarians in cabinet that they will now go back to a Senate Select Committee as opposed to a Joint Special Select?"
Hon. Michael Finnegan, UDP Area Rep., - Mesopotamia
"The cabinet has just made a decision on it. But I think it would be right for the matter to be given to the press directly from the cabinet. I think it would be improper for me to just walk out of cabinet and give you a cabinet decision without the matter come from cabinet itself. That's just my view."
PUP Rejects Cabinet Proposal For Senate Inquiry
And while the government is using the model endorsed by the Churches - the opposition doesn't want to hear it. They say that a Senate Select Committee with three members of the government will not be independent because the Government will have too much influence over the investigation, which could cause for the Senate probe to be misdirected.
This evening, they released a statement which says, quote, "... The PUP is seriously concerned that the Cabinet would take the opportunity to dictate to the Senate what the composition of its Senate Select Committee should be. That is a matter for the Senate to decide. Not the Cabinet." End quote.
The Opposition goes even further to scold the Barrow Government by quoting from the Senate Standing Order.
Their statement says, quote, "...Standing Order #69 specifically states that "the Special Select Committee shall be appointed by order of the Senate which shall specify the terms of reference of the Committee and shall consist of such and so many Senators as may be directed by order of the Senate". No other Standing Order speaks to the Special Select Committee. There are other Standing Orders that speak to the Sessional Select Committees of the Senate but ONLY Standing Order #69 governs the Senate Special Select Committee." End Quote.
The Opposition is demanding the UDP follow the model that the Musa Government used back in 2004 to look into the misuse of SSB funds at that time under the PUP. They say that the best configuration is a 3,1,1: three from the social partners, one from the Government, and one from the Opposition, which, in their opinion, will make it the most transparent, and the most fair since none of the political parties will be able to exert influence.
This evening, Opposition Leader John Briceño spoke to us from abroad us via phone, and he told us why he personally believes that the Government is insisting that they have 3 members on the committee:
Hon. John Briceno, Leader of the Opposition
"It is obvious Daniel that the UDP government has no intention in having an open and a transparent investigation. Too much is at stake for the UDP government. More than 13 present and previous UDP ministers have been named. The Prime Minister and the UDP they are going to do any and every thing to try to prevent an open and a transparent and full investigation as to what has transpired in that department."
"They are finally giving in to the senate inquiry, not because they want to get down to the bottom of what actually happened in that department, but simply because they have no other option. There have been tremendous pressure on the government from the public sector, the private sector, from the social partners, from the opposition - from everybody. So they had no choice and the best they can do is to try to find a way where they are saying well the social partners have 3 and they have 3 and the opposition 1. With that they believe that they think that they could find ways how to stop, how to delay and maybe even find a way how not to get into the bottom of what happened into the department of immigration."
"In 2004, it was same Dean Barrow and same Godwin Hulse who were screaming out and asking for a senate investigation and they wanted a senate investigation where the government could not and should not have an outright majority in that composition - those two. Go back and look at your files and you will see that they were against it. The PUP government felt that in the name of transparency and openness and accountability, we decided for us to have opposition made of up of 3 social partners, 1 opposition and 1 government. We are the majority and we did not insist on having a majority. We give in and conceded for there to be a majority from the social partners."
The PUP release adds that if there is any counter proposal on the composition, that should be tabled and debated at the Senate. They are also demanding that the President of the Senate call special Senate meeting immediately so that this issue can be addressed.
Barrow Once Endorsed Independent Senate Inquiry
As you heard in our interview, John Briceño asserted the Prime Minister, and Godwin Hulse are behaving in a hypocritical manner to want that much representation on the Senate Committee. Back when the Prime Minister was in Opposition, he was asserting that the Government should not investigate itself.
Indeed, that back in the bad-old days of SSB scandals, and Prime Minister Barrow was leader of the opposition, he was pressuring the Musa Government, demanding that any investigation of corruption needed to be independent.
Our archives show that back on September 1, 2004, the Then Opposition Leader Dean Barrow and his party released a statement questioning the Musa's handling of the Social Security Scandal. They were recommending a Commission of Inquiry, which is totally different from a senate probe. They wanted to put the investigation completely outside of the influence of the Government being scrutinized.
On the issue of Senate Inquiries then, their party sat out that investigation even though they were given an opportunity to have one representative. They were of the opinion that even a 3,1,1 configuration wouldn't be enough to firewall against influence.
We also found this interview with Barrow, who was the Opposition Leader at that time, in which he was making demands of the PUP government. Here's a flash back to August 27, 2004:
FILE: August 27, 2004
Hon. Dean Barrow
"Remember that the UDP and SPEAR and the Chamber of Commerce and I believe the unions and the Business Bureau have all said that the government must give to the people an independent inquiry into what has happened, full disclosure of all that's taken place at Social Security and must appropriately punish those that have been responsible. The government has not yet conceded even 1 of those demands and that is why in particular - there are all sorts of other reasons, but in particular, that is why people are marching tomorrow. That is why the turnout will be so huge."