Former Leader of the Opposition Ezzard Miller is returning as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee following an afternoon of political wrangling in the Legislative Assembly on Friday, during which the Opposition accused the government of attempting to stack the PAC with its members.
Miller agreed to resume his role after his proposed replacement as chairman, Opposition member Chris Saunders, refused the post, claiming that the government’s efforts to fill the majority of seats on the PAC with government members, and making him the sole Opposition representative on the five-person body, would make his chairmanship of the committee ineffective.
Premier Alden McLaughlin had proposed a motion to appoint Saunders as chairman, with existing members West Bay North MLA Bernie Bush, George Town South MLA Barbara Conolly and Prospect MLA Austin Harris remaining on the committee, and George Town North MLA David Wight filling the seat made vacant if Saunders took on the role of chairman.
The premier said Leader of the Opposition Arden McLean had written to him last week, suggesting that Saunders be chairman and that Opposition MLA Kenneth Bryan replace him as a PAC member. Under that proposal, the PAC would consist of two members from the Opposition, and three from the Unity government – the same make-up of the committee that had existed under Miller’s chairmanship before he resigned from the position last month.
Instead, the government proposed that Wight, a Progressives member and government councillor, should take the position instead of Bryan.
The government argued that since Bush, a Cayman Democratic Party member who sits on the Unity coalition government side of the house, votes his mind and is not bound by collective responsibility, he is effectively an independent member and therefore would not be sitting on the PAC as a government representative.
Bryan appealed to the government that if the proposal to replace him was personally aimed at him, that it should choose another Opposition member to sit on the PAC.
McLean described the PAC as “by far the most important committee” in the Legislative Assembly because it examines auditor general reports to determine if government is getting value for money when spending public funds, especially in light of a number of major capital projects that are proposed or already are under way, such as the airport expansion, the waste management project and the cruise/cargo port.
The opposition leader pointed out that only members of the PAC, not its chairman, can produce what he called “minority reports”, which offer a dissenting view to the rest of the committee on individual auditor general reports. “What this government is proposing will erase that in one fell swoop,” McLean said.
He added that if all PAC members, other than the chairman, were government representatives, it would mean that the government would be scrutinising its own spending and accounts.
Deputy Leader of the Opposition Alva Suckoo also appealed to the government to reconsider its proposal, pointing out that, as government councillors temporarily act as ministers when the government ministers are unavailable, the government was “stacking the Public Accounts Committee with members of the government who serve as ministers”. Wight, Conolly and Harris all act as councillors in various government ministries.
At the meeting, McLaughlin praised the Miller and the “exemplary way” he had chaired the PAC over the years. Miller resigned as chairman of the PAC last month, about a week after resigning as leader of the Opposition. His resignation as PAC chairman was to have become effective Friday’s meeting.
After Saunders told legislators that he would not be willing to accept the position of chairman, McLaughlin called for a suspension of the House and, following some discussions behind closed doors, he returned to the chamber to announce that Miller had agreed to remain as chairman, and that the membership of the PAC would remain as it currently is.
Arguments on committee membership did not end there, though. The next business before the House dealt with a motion by the Opposition to remove Miller as a member of the Standing Business Committee, which selects the matters that will be placed on the order papers that the Legislative Assembly considers. The motion called for McLean to replace Miller on the committee.
The premier said the government would not support the motion because Miller had not resigned from the committee and he would not be represented on the committee if he were removed.
McLean argued that when he and Miller were independent Opposition members during the last administration, they had not been represented on the Business Committee. He also queried how a single member of the Legislative Assembly, which consists of 19 elected representatives, could be proportionately represented on a committee of five people.
The motion was defeated.