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Mendacity? Trickery? Insincerity? — Will PM Holness do the right thing with the OCG Report?

Canute Thompson, PhD

Sunday, July 16, 2017

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The report on the findings and conclusions of the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) into the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government's $800M de-bushing programme, which was implemented 10 days before the November 28, 2016 Local Government Election, was presented to Parliament on June 29, 2017.

The report, among other things, describes three government ministers as being possibly mendacious (that is untruthful) as well as concludes that a leading JLP operative who was a major contractor on the programme was being insincere. The context of these assertions is critical.

According to the report, the contractor claimed that three Members of Parliament (who are also Government ministers), “influenced how workers were hired, paid, and the amounts paid out” (!). The members of Parliament have denied this allegation and in those circumstances the country is left to decide what and whom to believe.

So, one of the most significant issues the report raises is the possibility that three senior government ministers either influenced who received contracts and how much they were paid. If true, it would not be a new thing in politics. Some of us believed that Andrew Holness, the post-independence PM, was up to something new.

Not only possible mendacity, but trickery

A second significant finding of the OCG is that a majority of the de-bushing work (55%) took place in constituencies held by the Opposition People's National Party (PNP). The JLP points to that finding to claim vindication that the programme was not a politically motivated effort and that the timing of the programme, (10 days before the LG elections) was purely coincidental, as Dr Horace Chang had suavely and straight-facedly asserted some time ago.

The PNP has claimed that the decision by Government to spend most of the money in PNP-held constituencies proves what they claimed, namely that the underlying purpose of the massive spend was to influence the outcome of the local elections. The JLP further claims that the report proves that it acted with probity. The PNP insists it was all trickery. As with the question of the timing, which the government claims was purely coincidental – which is highly unlikely, the country must again decide whether to believe that the JLP sought to influence the elections as the PNP has claimed, or that the Government was being above board and even-handed as the JLP has claimed.

For my part, when I heard the assertions of the government, I was taken back to a quote from a famous former attorney who once described a fellow party member as being either nave or needing to have his head examined.

I submit that if anyone believes that: (a) the timing of the de-bushing programme was purely coincidental, or that (b) the fact that most of the work done was in PNP-held constituencies shows even-handedness, those persons need to have their heads examined.

All elements of this situation as outlined, namely: possible interference into the awarding of the contract, possible lying, the timing of the expenditure, and the possible motives for where most of the work was done, are key components of what corruption is.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines corruption as “dishonest and illegal behaviour by powerful people, especially governments”.

Writing in the Asia-Pacific Journal on “Corruption: Causes, Consequences, and Cures”, U Myint (2000) argues that corruption occurs when government officials improperly decide who gets government contracts or subcontracts. Common sense tells us that if a person lies, there is something to hide.

The OCG's report did not use the word corruption, but the behaviour of the officials connected with the programme raises questions. Given the government's concern about corruption and the Prime Minister's promise to lead a government that is free from corruption, he must address the findings of this report head on. This situation requires more than just a nice speech or defence in Parliament.

This is yet another opportunity for the Prime Minister to “do the right thing”. Neither the non-response of the PM as at the time of writing this article, nearly two weeks since the report was published, nor the utterances of senior government spokespersons, gives any confidence that the report is being taken seriously. Minister Chang is reported to have said, with as much seeming indifference (as when he claimed that the timing of the project with the elections was “mere coincidence”) that “the government will 'look' into the recommendations”. One forms the impression from Minister Chang's response that the report at best exonerates the Government and at worst is a non-event.

Doing the right thing – the failures of the NWA

But while the Prime Minister has the ultimate duty to set the tone on “doing the right thing”, the rest of us also have a duty to do the right thing, and when we fail we should be willing to acknowledge and / or be held accountable.

The report of the OCG has pointed the finger at the NWA, and has reinforced concerns about how some public officials conduct their work.

According to the report, the leadership of the NWA appeared to have failed to do the right thing in a number of respects. These failures include:

(a) Not paying keen attention to, and ensuring compliance with, the Public-Sector Procurement Procedures;

(b) Not properly guiding Cabinet about the established policies, guidelines, and regulations which govern public procurement;

(c) Not being sufficiently diligent in its handling of the contract management system, particularly as it concerns the engagement of subcontractors by the main contractor.

In short, it appeared as though the NWA took leave of its vast knowledge of the principles and practices of public procurement and allowed the Government to “run wid it”.

The actions of the NWA may be described as failing to “stand up to the executive”, pointing out what's wrong, and insisting that the government do the right thing.

One of the insights I have gleaned from the teachings of Judaism, which I often share with young people, is that there are three types of people for whom the world will show little mercy: (i) A person who allows himself or herself to be bullied; (ii) A person who does not exercise personal (and professional) accountability; and (iii) A person who allows himself or herself to be used as a ploy in another person's self-serving or destructive agenda.

That the leadership of the NWA appears to have left the Cabinet to its own wishes and not insisting that the established procedures be followed is reasonable grounds to conclude that the NWA's leaders allowed themselves to be bullied, or failed to exercise the appropriate level of accountability, or were easy conscripts in a politically inspired project whose value to the country is clearly suspect.

With the level of flooding that occurred in the months since, there is good reason to suspect that some of the cut bushes – which sat on the roadsides in many communities for months –actually contributed to the flooding.

Convenient morality or cunning moves?

The Prime Minister has a duty to protect the public purse. The PM is on record as saying that corruption robs the country of resources. It is a universal truth that corruption in government is harmful to the public good. The PM may be a victim of a slim majority such that the good he would do is stayed because of the fact that he cannot upset any MP.

But the PM must remember that while in Opposition he zealously condemned the questionable acts of the Government.

The level of credibility the PM loses or earns will be directly proportionate to the frequency with which he keeps his word and the level of consistency on issues of principle that he shows from one situation to another.

Will the PM do, and not just say, the right thing? We wait to see.

Dr Canute Thompson is a management consultant and lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies. He is also co-founder of the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative and author of three books on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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