There were some sharp, stinging exchanges between Opposition Leader Mark Golding and Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Marlene Malahoo Forte, during Tuesday’s sitting of the House of Representatives after Golding accused the Government of routinely trampling on the constitutional rights of Jamaicans.
Golding, who was speaking during the debate on the resolution to extend the seven Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs), aimed at Malahoo Forte, who has been at the centre of a firestorm since June 7 when she told the Parliament that pending amendments to the Bail Act would see persons charged with murder and gun crimes denied bail.
Defence attorneys and constitutional scholars have warned that the move is unconstitutional and will likely be struck down if challenged in the courts.
On Tuesday, while backing the extension of the ZOSOs, Golding noted that the general crime situation is “very much out of control”.
“The ZOSO is an important aspect of the solution but it is insufficient. We look forward to hearing, as time goes by, in the near future, further strategies that are being employed [by the government],” Golding added.He told the House that the Opposition was pleased to see the increase in the number of illegal firearms being seized by the security forces.
“We applaud that and we hope that that continues, and we would like to see that reflected in a reduction in the number of shootings and murders, in particular, involving firearms which we haven’t yet seen but we’re hoping to see,” said Golding.
He then took a swipe at Malahoo Forte, the former Attorney General, who has made controversial statements in the past.
In her contribution to the Sectoral Debate in July 2016 in which she lamented the alarmingly high murder rate, the then-Attorney General said “fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to Jamaicans may have to be abrogated, abridged or infringed”.
Golding seized on those words Tuesday when he said: “In short, we support all constitutional measures of dealing with the crime problem. We have concerns about attempts to abrogate, restrict or otherwise diminish constitutional rights. We will always have a problem with those [attempts] and you will not find our support easy to come by when it comes to anything that reduces the scope of the rights of our people as protected by our Constitution.”
Initially, Malahoo Forte said she would not be drawn to respond but did so anyway.
She told Golding that he should not be so presumptuous as to think the Government would act outside of the constitutional framework. Her statement, having been met with laughter from Opposition MPs, Malahoo Forte said: “It is not true. It is simply not true to say that.
“You keep saying it, but it is not borne out by the facts so don’t speak about a track record that is not true. Accuracy matters, and it is important that when you speak in the Parliament that you speak accurately,” she told Golding.
“At least you owe it to the people of Jamaica who are listening. It is not true, it is not true. Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it,” Malahoo Forte protested.
She said Jamaica has serious problems, which require serious people “with serious solutions to solve them.
“And it doesn’t help us to play to the gallery in any of these matters when lives are being lost in the most brutal way. It doesn’t assist at all,” she said.
Malahoo Forte argued: “It is a responsibility that guarantees rights and we are aware of the constitutional framework, and we have the guidance of the court so do not, for one moment, think that this Government is not taking special care in the measures to address the grave problems that this country faces.”
She told the Opposition leader that the “tendency to speak inaccurately” is “not a good one”.
Stung by the accusation, Golding rose on a point of order and reeled off what he said are instances when the Jamaica Labour Party Government breached or attempted to breach the constitutional rights of Jamaicans.
“Whether it be, the letters of resignation of the senators; whether it be the states of emergency (SOEs) used as a routine policing tool; whether it be the NIDS Bill (sections of the previous version were deemed unconstitutional, so, too, aspects of the SOEs); whether it be putting the Chief Justice on probation when he’s appointed. These are all examples of the approach that that member (Malahoo Forte) has towards our Constitution. It is not something that commends itself to us and we will resist it robustly in defending the rights of the people,” Golding shot back.
In 2012, while he was Opposition Leader, Prime Minister Andrew Holness asked the eight Opposition senators to sign undated letters of resignation.
The JLP prefers a referendum on the matter of the Caribbean Court of Justice replacing the UK-based Privy Council as Jamaica’s final appellate court. At the time, this could have been impacted if an Opposition senator defected and gave the governing People’s National Party the one vote it needed on the matter.
When Holness appointed Chief Justice Bryan Sykes, he initially placed him on probation but backtracked in the face of an avalanche of criticism.