Tuesday, February 20, 2018

An ideal still worthy of our aspirations

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Mark Fraser

 Opposition Leader Keith Rowley’s call for the Integrity Commission to be abolished seems a case of wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

 Dr Rowley’s criticism, as expressed at a People’s National Movement (PNM) political meeting last Sunday, is that Government ministers could not be “behaving the way they are behaving now” if the Commission was doing its job as defined in the Integrity in Public Life Act. The PNM leader failed to note, however, that PNM officials are also listed among delinquents who have not submitted the financial declarations required of public figures.

Nonetheless, it is true that the Commission does not function efficiently. Despite a plethora of complaints about Government ministers and State board members submitted in the past two decades, only one person has ever been found guilty of wrong-doing. That one exception was former prime minister Basdeo Panday, and even his 2006 conviction by the late chief magistrate Sherman McNicolls was quashed and, when eventually dismissed in 2012, Senior Magistrate Marcia Murray trained her guns directly on the Commission, describing the case as “fruit of a poisoned tree which was the product of the Integrity Commission’s misconduct.”  

Ironically, the Commission’s ineffectuality has caused present chairman Ken Gordon to call for more powers for it. That itself, however, embodies certain problems, not least of which is lack of trust from citizens. Yet revamping may well be a good idea, perhaps starting with the criteria for appointment to the Commission. 

The opening clause of the Act specifies that members of the Commission must be “persons of integrity and high standing”. The first is a given, but what does “high standing” mean? It may imply that Commission members must be persons who possess a certain status in the society so that, even if not familiar to the general public, are held in high esteem by their professional peers. Yet, given the smallness of the population of Trinidad and Tobago, it is these same peers the Commission may have cause to investigate. In that context, appointing persons who may not have “high standing” but who are professionally competent could bolster impartiality. Certainly, the practice thus far of appointing eminent personages has not worked well.

 Even so, this does not mean that the Commission should be abolished in toto to “save some money” nor has Dr Rowley made any concrete suggestions for a superior alternative. The Commission represents an ideal to which the nation aspires; indeed, it is because of that ideal that the Commission’s shortcomings are so vilified. But in the fullness of time, as new boards learn from the many errors of past ones, the Commission may yet come to represent the best aspirations of T&T citizens.