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Kudos, Madam Auditor General

Nigel GAYLE

Thursday, January 09, 2014    

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In the wake of the recent alarming, yet commendable report of the auditor general, on the performance of a number of key government agencies —viz, Jamaica Customs Agency, Jamaica Urban Transit Company and the Administrator General's Department — coupled — with the similarly recent investigations, findings and recommendations of other institutions/offices of checks and balances, as highlighted in the reports of the contractor general and Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), concerning extrajudicial killings, power of arrest and procurement breaches or improper interference by State officials in the processes, respectively, the call for Jamaica's promotion of and adherence to the rule of law is no longer optional if she is to continue to pride herself for 21st century democratic governance. Likewise, the need for a strong well co-ordinated Rule of Law, Development and Sustainability Unit (ROLDSU), is undeniable.

The recent admission of the Commissioner of Customs Major Richard Reese, -- in response to the latest report of Auditor General Mrs Pamela Monroe-Ellis, which, inter alia, highlighted the absence of a centralised price-reference data to guide Customs officers in the execution of their duties — is significant, not only for the suggestive blatant inefficiency, but for the rule of law gaps it reveals in the operation of one of the nation's most important agencies. The resulting "arbitrary application of values and duties to imported products", could likewise trouble the minds of State officials, policymakers, development organisations, international development financiers, and well-thinking civilians. It is not hard to see how the perpetual unfettered discretion of Customs officers, in this regard, makes them susceptible to bribes, which results in corruption — an underlying governance problem that this country is working to mitigate, through effecting a strong legislative framework, via reforms and policy implementation.

The absence of centralised price-reference data to guide individual Customs officers, and lapse in their effective oversight and supervision in adhering to set procedures, are also indicative of the need for improved checks and balances -- a germane component of the rule of law. Furthermore, those revelations highlight the need for more consistency, predictability, procedural, and legal transparency and accountability principles of fairness and effective application -- two other elements of the rule of law.

The Jamaica Customs, as an agency, is far too seminal to national economic development, particularly, through revenue collection, to be left to perform any less than efficiently and effectively, especially bearing in mind how inimical the lack of transparency, accountability and predictability is towards attracting local and international investors. This reality was recently felt, as their targets were not met, which no doubt affected the country's budgetary stability.

Among its core duties, a ROLDSU could assist in conducting needs assessment and making pragmatic recommendations to fill overt gaps, such as those being highlighted in the instant case. The unit could also render technical assistance to strengthen rule of law capacities of key cross-sectoral institutions, as necessary, through facilitating, undertaking and/or implementing projects and activities, geared at public education, capacity-building and co-ordination. To this end, the writer deems the offices of the Contractor General, Auditor General, Attorney General, Director of Public Prosecutions, Public Defender, Ombudsman, INDECOM, Legal Aid Council, Jamaica for Justice, National Integrity Action, Corruption Prevention Commission, anti-corruption units, and Jamaica Bar Association as partners of a common agenda, to provide checks and balances in the fight for good governance, justice and adherence to the rule of law. The hope is that, more sooner than later, these crucial institutions will realise that common goal, for the cause of 'Vision 2030 Jamaica', and, if not yet so perceived, will be seen as impartial and non-partisan in the execution of their critical public and/or private functions.

With our commitments to the International Monetary Fund being on track, the demand for impeccable transparency, predictability and accountability in governance and resource management is soaring. If for no other reason, I am assured that the establishment of a ROLDSU is not too utopic in this developing country. True it is also that, with adherence to the rule of law being one of the national priority areas of focus, and in light of the fact that official approval has already been given for the appointment of co-ordinators for all the national priority areas of focus, pursuant to the July 2013 Partnership for Jamaica Agreement, this dream for Jamaica, is not illusory.

It is 2014 already, where are we with the rule of law. There are public outcries for it; so too is the cross-sectoral institutional need. Good governance requires it, but do we have the political will to undertake it?

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