Advancing the anti-corruption conversation

Advancing the anti-corruption conversation

Canute Thompson

Sunday, July 12, 2020

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The discussion on corruption, in recent weeks, has devolved, perhaps by design, to being one in which the focus is on which political party is more corrupt rather than what steps are being taken to end corruption.

For disclosure, let me state that in my first advice to the leadership of the People's National Party (PNP) upon assuming the role of chair of its Policy Commission, I discussed seven matters, one of which was corruption. On this issue, I advised the PNP that, in demonstrating its leadership role, it must acknowledge the scope of the historical problem of corruption in Jamaica, and that it has contributed to that problem. It then needed to commit, through taking concrete steps, to addressing the problem with a view to stamping out corruption.

Prior to my assumption of the Policy Commission chair, in an article published in the Jamaica Observer on February 5, 2017, entitled 'Peter Phillips and the future of the PNP', I stated, in part: “The new PNP president must, if he is to earn the respect of disaffected Comrades, refashion the party to be a model of transparency and accountability. Jamaican politicians are perceived by many as being corrupt and untrustworthy, and the consequence of this is seen in the low voter turnout at elections. Phillips is encouraged to place the future of the party over personal friendships, and integrity over individual loyalties.”

Firmness in the fight

The PNP is yet to show a sufficiently firm stance on combating corruption, and has not distinguished itself as a clear alternative to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which has been a corrupt Government. While Peter Phillips's personal track record in his over 40 years in politics is totally clean when it comes to corruption, he has not sold to the country a clear agenda for combating corruption.

In specific terms, the PNP president should have ended the party's defence of Trafigura — an issue I addressed in my 2018 book Reflections on Leadership and Governance in Jamaica in the chapter, 'Nurturing a Culture of Accountability'.

The PNP president ought also to have frontally and publicly addressed the campaign finance allegations as a demonstration of his commitment to provide no cover for questionable or corrupt actions. I examine this issue in chapter 3 of the said book, 'Leadership and Governance'.

Latest Opportunities

Having lost those opportunities — though they can still be redeemed — the PNP president now has fresh opportunities to show his firm stance against even the appearance of corruption. In this regard, as I tweeted recently, keeping the Ian Hayles report secret does not help the cause of building an anti-corrupt party or Government.

I am somewhat confused, however, about the matter regarding Lisa Hanna, as, on the one hand, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, in its report (partially leaked, not by her), said that Hanna followed “established procurement procedures”, but acknowledges what the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) had said that there was a culture of “unethical management”. I am not sure what to make of the Jamaica Constabulary Force's (JCF) disclosure that it is still investigating, but await the outcome of same. But, having regard to the nature of the OCG's findings it is vital that the PNP indicates what steps it will take to prevent recurrence of the nepotism and cronyism, and Hanna should make clear her response to the allegations.

In the meantime, with the JCF having confirmed that it is continuing its investigation in relation to St Ann North Eastern, it would serve the ends of justice and fairness if the JCF makes it clear whether it is investigating Hanna and, if so, what those alleged crimes are.

After such disclosure, the PNP will need to evaluate whether the larger end of promoting good governance and transparency is served by Hanna continuing in her current role.

The role of the prime minister

Greg Christie, in a recent tweet, drawing on global best practice, reminds us that the primary responsibility for leading the fight against corruption rests with the Government of the day. The Opposition party may put forward proposals, and even individual members may advance private members' Bills, but, in the end, it is the ruling party which must provide leadership.

Throughout the life of the Andrew Holness-led Administration, starting with the 2016 de-bushing scandal, and most recently the splurge and reported corrupt acts, viz Ministry of Education, Caribbean Maritime University, Petrojam, and Holywell, the stain of corruption has been on Jamaica.

In response to the OCG's July 2017 report on the de-bushing corruption it was not until December 2017 that Prime Minister Holness responded to the report, late at night in Parliament, and concluded that, while three ministers had lied and millions of dollars of public funds fleeced, there was no major wrongdoing and so no one was held liable. There were no resignations or dismissals.

The matter involving former Minister of Education Senator Ruel Reid, which I addressed in an article entitled 'Was it really a swift resignation?' is one for which the prime minister must answer. It defies common sense that Holness would only have been aware of the conduct of Reid a few days or weeks before he fired him. It is to be recalled that Reid was seemingly Holness's hand-picked candidate to represent the party in St Ann North Western, and he was planting seeds there, though yet to being elected the representative.

In one of his many brilliant assertions as leader of the Opposition, Holness stated that a prime minister is responsible for what takes place in (her) Government. This he said as he railed against scandals — some concocted — under the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration. Those principles remain true. So Holness, as prime minister, is responsible for what occurs in his Government.

Against the foregoing, Holness needs to come clean on what he knew about the matters at the Ministry of Education and Caribbean Maritime University before the information came to full public view. It is not enough that there have been resignations and criminal charges. That it is highly improbable that the prime minister was in the dark until the last minute means he should be required to say what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it.

The Petrojam scandal is mind-boggling on several levels, but there is a simple question which my colleague Damien King has asked on Twitter which the prime minister ought to answer: Given what happened under Andrew Wheatley's watch at Petrojam — and we might add National Energy Solutions Limited (NESol), Universal Service Fund (USF), etc — if Jamaica were a company owned by you, Prime Minister, would you give Wheatley a second chance?

So, while Wheatley may claim that he did no wrong, and that his representation of his relation to Sophia Deer is immaterial — for she could be both his technical assistant and “in-law” — the larger issue is whether the activities which took place under Wheatley's watch, some of which are now the subject of criminal probes, disqualify him for a future role in Government.

In the Daryl Vaz/Holywell matter, the prime minister's actions may, in my view, best be described as insulting to the Jamaican people. As one commentator remarked, the shift of responsibilities may be likened to telling a child to take a piece of the black forest cake without icing since he had been eating so much of the one with icing.

The positions taken by Holness on these matters signal where he stands on corruption, and, as is the case with Peter Phillips, the stance of the prime minister is anything but clear, resolute, and promising. Both leaders must signal to Jamaica a clear commitment to stamping out corruption.

Six necessary steps

There are six steps, among many others, which I submit must be taken to eliminate public corruption. These are:

1) That no legislator can be a majority shareholder or owner of a company overseas;

2) That all legislators must publicly declare their business and family interests in all enterprises and, failing to do so will result is immediate removal from office (This then requires a system of recall);

3) Make it mandatory for the Integrity Commission to publish all annual filings of legislators;

4) Make it automatic for the Integrity Commission to inquire into sources of wealth of legislators whose wealth appears out of line with their known income;

5) Require a member of the executive against whom an ethical or criminal probe has been initiated to step down pending the outcome;

6) Establish an independent Office of Ethics in Cabinet.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as a senior lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of six books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com


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