Political scrutiny, the OCG and Dr Davies
IN an economy in which we clutch at every straw that offers some way out of its depression, it is not difficult to understand the anxiety to proceed with projects that seem to offer economic growth and prosperity. In this context, Dr Davies's desire to move ahead with three major infrastructural projects, including the controversial North-South link of Highway 2000, is understandable.
In order to maintain accountability on the project, he has appointed a three-man panel to provide oversight and to advise him on their execution. This has been interpreted as a way of bypassing, or worse, undermining the work of the Office of the Contractor General. Mr Greg Christie has stated as much and has asked the panel to provide his office with a report on their activities. The panel has insisted that it will not cooperate with the OCG. This has led to the attorney-general's office taking the matter to court and the country is now left with a classic Mexican stand-off.
When there is such dispute between prominent arms of government or any entity for that matter, the final arbiter has to be the courts. There are two things that I find disturbing in this whole matter. The first is what appears to be Dr Davies's insistence on proceeding with the panel of advisers without any apparent intention of engaging the OCG in the process. It might be that the Independent Oversight Panel (IOP) does not have to answer directly to the OCG, and this is a matter that the courts will determine. But it cannot be in good order for any ministry of government to appoint bodies, whether voluntary or otherwise, to do work that is seen to circumvent the work of legitimately appointed organs of Parliament, as in this instance the OCG.
There is a perception that the minister of transport does not want the scrutiny that the OCG will provide; he himself having been the subject of scathing comments by that office in the matter of the sale of the Heathrow airport slots to Virgin airlines. Could the minister be smarting from the contractor general's deliberations on that subject? If the answer to this is "yes", could this explain a discomfort in the relationship between the minister and Mr Christie in the present matter? One can only ask and sincerely hope that this is not the case, for the conduct of the business of government has to be predicated on solid principles of governance of which probity is prominent and not on personalities, however grandiose and well apportioned.
If there is a minister of government that needs scrutiny in the conduct of governmental affairs, it is Dr Davies. This comment does not have anything to do with any perception of corruption on his part. I will give my small finger in the belief that when it comes to corruption that leads to personal enrichment, Dr Davies is one of the cleanest government officials that you can find in government today. He means well and is motivated by service to the country. But he has made mistakes, especially in his last remit as minister of finance. The mistakes have been costly to this country. My criticism of him is that in his utterances and actions he gives the impression that he has done nothing wrong; that there is nothing in his long service in government for which he ought to apologise.
I have not heard him admit to mistakes and I certainly have not heard or seen any apologetic gesture that suggests any sorrow for any contribution he may have made to the sufferings that people endured under his watch, especially in the collapse of the financial system in the 1990s. The portfolio he now occupies is a big one. Perhaps it is out of a sense of caution and the perceived need to provide some check and balance on himself that he has appointed the IOP to assist him in major projects. This is good in itself, but this and other bodies that may be appointed cannot operate outside of the scrutiny of legitimate parliamentary agencies. If the IOP does not want to deal directly with the OCG, Dr Davies should find some accommodation within his ministry to provide the timely information requested by that office. He should be more than willing to provide that information for his own sake, if not that of the people of Jamaica of whom he is a servant.
The second disturbing aspect has to do with the attorney-general's office being inserted into the imbroglio. As I have said before, it does not hurt to have judicial clarification of the role of the IOP vis-à-vis the OCG. However, what must be viewed as sinister is any suggestion of a gag order being placed on the OCG concerning reports that are sent out for public consumption. Why should any functioning democracy have any reservation about the people being informed about the conduct of their government? Mr Greg Christie, in his insistence on openness and transparency, is well known for his voluminous reports. He rightly believes that the public must have the benefit of the knowledge of the things that government does on its behalf. Sometimes the dissemination of this knowledge irritates the government as there are things that they would rather keep to themselves or otherwise withhold from public gaze.
Politicians instinctively do not like scrutiny and get uncomfortable and sometimes downright rude when they are asked searching questions. This explains my discomfort at the country having an attorney-general who is a functioning member of a political party. I believe it was a retrograde step to have abandoned the principle started by the last administration to de-politicise the office by not appointing prominent functioning party members to that post. There are good reasons for this, given the tribal political configuration of our politics. As a nation we yearn for objectivity or maturity in the way our politicians conduct themselves. Check what happened in Parliament last Tuesday as a reference point. We have seen too much of the partisan political calculation which clouds judgement and leads to bad decisions. The politicisation of the attorney-general's office is just one of many bad decisions in recent times.