The lamentations of the Integrity Commission
The Integrity Commission (IC) has presented its latest annual report to Parliament. To a significant degree it characterised a jeremiad against parliamentarians which ought to be taken seriously by the people of this country.
One aspect of this is the role of the Integrity Commission Oversight Committee whose responsibility is to monitor and review the performance of the IC. Regrettably, the committee reports that it has only met with this oversight body three times in two years, with at least one of these meetings being hastily arranged and, based on my deduction, not bearing good fruit.
The IC is understandably concerned, and so should citizens, that the absence of regular meetings of this “vital committee” could lead to the work of the commission not being “showcased for transparency, public scrutiny, or public education”. One is then left to wonder: To what extent did the absence of this scrutiny and lack of meetings contribute to the IC’s cock-up in the Andrew Holness matter? Incidentally, and again regrettably, despite the public outcry about this matter, there is nowhere in the report that indicates any regret on the part of the IC that it did anything wrong or brought any reputational damage to the prime minister and to the country in the way in which it handled the matter. Even in Greg Christie’s executive summary, there was not even the suggestion that an event as such had occurred. This deafening silence on such a matter of great import to the country leaves a lot to be desired. Many still believe that it has sullied the good name of the commission and left more than a dent of suspicion as to its reliability.
But there is another aspect to this dearth of meetings by the oversight committee. The Government has just given a humongous salary increase to parliamentarians and other elected officials. One would expect that they would be robustly engaged in working for the people who elected them, who gave them their jobs. But every so often you hear of parliamentary committees not meeting, or if they do, are poorly attended even to the point of not meeting a quorum.
Part of the constitutional reform for which we strive should address this matter. We should not have to wait four or five years for judgement to be rendered for or against these so-called “servants of the people”. Remedy or redress for their inattention to duty must be swift and unequivocal. If you fail to attend Parliament for a number of committee meetings for a specified period, without good excuse, you ought to be removed and eventually recalled from the Parliament.
This is why it would have helped if we had seen a prior justification for the massive salary increases given to politicians. Just saying that they had been underpaid for years or that a big increase will lead to greater productivity is not sufficient reason to increase their salaries, or any salary for that matter. There ought to be proven or demonstrable activity to justify this raise. Most of those who sit on the benches are just that â€” benchwarmers. When they are put on committees, it is like doing a root canal to get them to be seriously attentive to the people’s business. Ask the IC oversight committee.
As an adjunct to this, the IC report laments that Members of Parliament are not conversant with the law governing the creation and functions of the commission. In other words, those who make and vote the law into being do not seem to know what the law requires or the gravity of its importance to the country. In the words of the commission, this has led to uninformed, abusive, disrespectful, misguided, and even libellous statements from some parliamentarians in the public domain about the IC. Furthermore, these statements have sown seeds of discord and encouraged adverse public statements against the body.
These are serious charges against a Parliament in which people ought to repose trust. It is true that there have been adverse comments against the IC by some Members of Parliament. Some of this is a result of the behaviour of members of the commission as is evidenced in that body’s treatment of the Holness matter. But the unwarranted, bellicose attack by politicians must be condemned by all well-thinking Jamaicans who are concerned about corruption in the country.
The truth is that Jamaica needs a body like the IC. Right now the Mexican stand-off between that body and some parliamentarians is troubling. I will admit that there has never been a cordial relationship between politicians and any organisation that acts as a watchdog over their activities. Like I said in a previous piece, politicians often live in a bubble in their exercise of power. The last thing they want is to have anyone looking over their shoulders. It is irritating to the bones when they have to reveal aspects of their personal and financial lives to these “political voyeurists”. But this is necessary.
What we should strive for is respect between the two contending forces. The IC has work to do to improve its image. When you make a mistake, you acknowledge it and seek to correct it. It is a poor show to try to defend the indefensible.
Politicians reveal their true intent when they do not want to be investigated in a society prone to corruption. Thirteen Members of Parliament are now under investigation for illegal or unethical activities unearthed by the IC, which it cannot reveal to the public because of a gag clause created by the politicians to ostensibly protect themselves. This privilege is not extended to the general citizenry. If you are a person of interest to the police, you are called out and told to report to the police. To whom do Members of Parliament report? Some who should know better seem bent on destroying the only body, however flawed, that has been instituted to check their activity.
The people of Jamaica must be very vigilant here. We must insist that the members of the IC do their work with integrity, fairness, and fearlessness. They must be crusaders for justice. If there is any image or credential to burnish, it must be the extent to which they impartially and fairly deal with the subjects of the unethical and illegal matters they unearth. We would not expect less.
I know that in the present iteration of the Westminster model parliamentarians often believe that the power they have is by divine right. But there ought to be even a modicum of hope that they understand that they are not on a frivolous journey of their own making. Accountability to the people as servants of the people is of the essence, and ultimately, it is the people who have to insist on this accountability.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life’s Storms; The Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.