It's the citizens who must protect their right to know

It's the citizens who must protect their right to know


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

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The Government has backtracked on its unfortunate resolution to Parliament to extend the time that the public can access Cabinet documents from 20 to 70 years. I do not know what the members of the Cabinet might have been smoking to have deliberated and finally decided that this was the right action to take. Deliberation might be the wrong word here, for if the Cabinet had given careful consideration to this matter, they might have seen the wisdom of not provoking the public with this obvious political malfeasance.

The reaction of the public was understandably swift and poignantly repulsive of what was clearly the Government's retreat to a lack of transparency in governance. What the public saw was a proposition from their leaders to hide important decisions from them. In a country riven with corruption, they saw a further attempt at concealment and obfuscation, two of the methods used by corrupt leaders when they do not want to be accountable to the people. Most importantly, they saw the resolution as an assault on the fragile democratic process that we have nurtured in this country since independence and which needs to be protected.

The Holness Administration should have taken this into consideration. It should have been mindful of the cogent and well-placed criticisms of corruption that have been levelled at his Government and know instinctively that such a resolution could not pass the smell test of public ire.

This instinct was lacking in this decision. It demonstrates a carelessness and nonchalance on the part of our leaders, but more importantly an innate contempt for them. The people do not have to know until 70 years what is contained in documents regarding decisions on their behalf. They are perhaps too dumb to understand these decisions anyway.

It is always the psychology of the professional politician to believe that he or she knows more than the ordinary person. That once elected to office they take on divine properties of omniscience that are not known among the hapless mass they now govern. We see this messianic or divine propensity to lord it over people being played out this very moment in American politics under President Trump. If he had his way, he would debauch the American system in such a way as to make it beholden to his worst dictatorial and autocratic proclivities. Such is the nature of power.

The withholding of information from the public 70 years after its generation can be conceived as a seizure of power that should not be given to political leaders in a democracy. The timely dissemination of information to the public is part of the mother's milk that sustains a fledgling democracy. The public must know that politicians are very secretive and will withhold from them any information which is not in their best interests to disclose. Despite their pretensions for openness and transparency, they will hide from public gaze what they can.

This desire to withhold information is already instinctive to the politician. In most cases it operates on the basis that the least people know, the better it is to carry out their policies without having to be bothered by a questioning public. This notion has been at the centre of every major scandal that has plagued this country. The people only become knowledgeable when a commission of enquiry, or an investigative body such as the Auditor General's Department or the comatose Integrity Commission, unearth matters of public interest which the politician would prefer to keep hidden.

In the end, it is the people, not the politicians, who must defend and uphold their democratic way of life. It is the citizens who must protect and fight for their right to know, not the politicians. The politicians will grant those rights gratuitously, but they have no real interest if the right to know infringes on their own self-interest to maintain power. Left to themselves, the politicians will bend things to their autocratic will, no matter the transparent garb that they pretend to be dressed in.

The awesome test of democratic sustainability under Trump in America is whether the people can keep their democratic way of life intact after the worst predations of the sitting president. That is why I was so proud of the reaction of civil society and others to the Jamaica Labour Party's Trumpian assault on our right to know.

The Government might have rescinded the decision now that the public has rejected it fulsomely, but let us not be lulled into a place of complacency. We must maintain our vigilance and scrutiny so that we can protect our right to know, especially now that the Access to Information Act is being reviewed.

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