Senators clash over all-woman caucus

SENATORS were at a stalemate for hours at Friday’s meeting of the Upper House over the constitutionality of establishing a parliamentary women’s caucus as a permanent committee of Parliament.

Opposition Senator Floyd Morris, who raised the question of a possible constitutional breach in regards to gender discrimination, abstained from a vote to amend the standing orders to reflect the setting up of the caucus. Morris, who dismissed the notion that he was against the establishment of the Bicameral Caucus of Women Parliamentarians to be established as a sessional select committee of both Houses, said he would only be satisfied with written opinions from the attorney general and solicitor general.

This, despite an intervention by Attorney General Dr Derrick McKoy, by way of a note to Leader of Government Business in the Senate Kamina Johnson Smith during the sitting, indicating that the motion did not offend the constitution, and was no more discriminatory than establishing similar sessions for persons with disabilities, the elderly, or religious groups. The standing orders were eventually amended — with a new Section 66 (1) e to include the women’s caucus.

Senate President Tom Tavares-Finson had rejected Morris’s bid to amend the motion, to ensure that male parliamentarians are not excluded.

“We have a duty to review what is done elsewhere and to make sure that it is consistent with the constitution that we swear to uphold and protect,” Morris said, noting that the resolution raised a red flag for him in regard to the Charter of Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which stipulates that everyone reserves the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of being a male or female.

“What is being proposed here is another sessional select committee that is going to be established straight throughout the Parliament and [which] is [to be] exclusively females. The constitution frowns upon that approach, and I do adopt a similar view. I believe that if you’re going to set up a committee that is not within the formal structures of the Parliament, fine. [But] once you’re moving into the realm of amending the standing orders to make it a part of the formal structures of the parliament you’re treading on very shaky constitutional grounds,” the Opposition senator said.

Colleague Senator Damion Crawford defended Morris’s position, stressing that the veteran senator was not seeking to block the motion but rather to ensure that parliamentary rules were being followed.

“There are rules to Government [and], regardless of how good the intent is, those rules apply. He [Morris] suggested that this may be in contravention of a current rule — why would you do something outside of the rule when there is no danger in the delay of a week or two to get full understanding? Gender equality is going to come from cooperation and collaboration between male and female [being] willing to give and take, not a position that a male shouldn’t even have a constitutional opinion because it is a female conversation,” Crawford argued.

Government Senator Natalie Campbell Rodriques, meanwhile, described Morris’s objection as a “red flag”. “This was not a decision taken lightly. Our decision to pursue this route of establishing a sessional select committee came from the agreement when the caucus met. This is something that matters for the people of Jamaica, not just the women in Parliament…that space where female parliamentarians can gather and discuss issues through a gender lens, there is nothing wrong with it. What is a red flag is when a man objects to women gathering and having discussions as we see necessary,” she said.

Opposition Senator Donna Scott Mottley stressed that there was no gender conflict on the issue, that both sides were agreed on the need for and importance of it, but that Morris’s point could not be overlooked.

Johnson Smith explained that Jamaica is honouring its obligations under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and has been a leading voice in the gender space, but that there is still more that can be done through the work of the caucus.

The motion was carried in the House of Representatives in December.

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